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With some plywood, some plastic, and a lot of H2O, William Katavolos is building the future.

By David Berreby
Oct 1, 1994 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:36 AM


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Scritch, scritch, scritch. The faint sound of William Katavolos etching his imaginings onto paper is audible over the whoosh and thump of pumps moving thousands of gallons of water through his lair at Brooklyn's Pratt Institute--a concrete-block subbasement where steam pipes hiss overhead and the air has the faint chlorine whiff of swimming pools. Katavolos's felt-tip marker is scratching a handy piece of notebook paper, shaping pipes and arches, pools and columns, in broad pen strokes.

Katavolos can't explain anything important without a pen and a piece of paper. Any kind of paper will do: yellow, white, or lined, notebook or scrap. As he draws, he talks: of social movements, vast planned communities, surprises and revolutions. His ambitions are big, like his circle of acquaintances, which has extended from physicists J. Robert Oppenheimer and Richard Feynman to abstract expressionist painters Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell. His conversation shifts easily from Einstein's theories to Einstein himself ("a big man; people seem to think he was small, for some reason").

Architecture, he says, is on the verge of an epochal change in materials, engineering techniques, and fundamental concepts that will make the buildings of the next century as different from our own as skyscrapers are from Greek temples. The new buildings, he says, will be "organic"--made of soft gels and fibers genetically engineered to be as yielding and flexible as flesh. He imagines floating cities that collapse in a hurricane and then spring back up when the wind dies down; he envisions floors that sprout chairs perfectly shaped to the bodies of the people who need them. "There have been only two eras in architecture," he declares. "The Greco- Roman was one; Gothic was the other; organicism is the next." It will be an era, he says, of buildings that swell and shrink like lungs, where wastewater is forced through filters like blood through kidneys, where the mass of a house is a warm fluid pushed by a heartlike pump.

Katavolos is one of architecture's visionaries, men and women who are sketching a more ecologically sound and aesthetically appealing future- -sometimes on the backs of phone bills and napkins, sometimes in wood and cement and plastic. They are individuals like the late Buckminster Fuller, creator and apostle of the geodesic dome; they are groups like the New Alchemy Institute, which brought together environmentally compatible buildings, machinery, and agriculture on a 12-acre experimental site on Cape Cod. Their efforts have even spawned a new field--biomimetics--whose premise is that humanity can create better materials and structures by understanding and imitating the way spiders make their silk, or oysters their shells.

Katavolos's approach goes one step further. He says the best way to learn from nature is to use its favorite building material: water. That's why his 15-by-40-foot basement research lab is filled with domes and arches and columns made of a little plastic, a little wood, and a lot of H2O. The structures are pieces of the kind of full-size home he hopes to construct soon according to his "hydronic" principles. "What I'm trying to do is develop a system that is, first of all, an organic machine, with parts that are like a heart, a lung, a liver, a kidney. Then I'm trying to make it work using only a really good pump to do everything--pump water through the walls, get it heated, transfer the hot water where it's needed, force used water through filters, and so on." Katavolos says we already know enough to make large, useful buildings out of little more than fresh water, and to design entire communities around reservoirs that, in addition to supplying the building material, will grow fish and water vegetable gardens.

As an industrial designer and professor at Pratt's school of architecture, Katavolos has been sketching these visions for at least 45 of his 70 years and pursuing them by building structures out of scraps and a few things purchased from the hardware store. A 10-foot-wide experimental dome filled with water, for instance, is actually an upended satellite dish that he and his students found on the roof of the now defunct engineering school at Pratt, a 107-year-old institution lodged in turn-of-the-century brick buildings in Brooklyn. Indeed, the lab itself is housed in space salvaged from the breakup of that school. "This isn't low-budget research," Katavolos says. "It's no-budget research."

Still, he has managed to cobble together a number of working prototypes. Sitting on the concrete basement floor is an octagonal two-and- a-half-foot-deep pool, 16 feet across, holding some 250 gallons of water and lined with polyethylene, the transparent plastic stuff that painters use for drop cloths. Within the pool are eight six-foot-high vertical posts, linked by cross braces and beams to form a second, skeletal octagon ten feet in diameter. Draped over this skeleton is another huge clear sheet--this time it's vinyl, which is more flexible--that is stapled to the bottoms of the posts, beneath the water's surface. A thick blue hose snakes under the water and into the middle of the inner octagon, where one end pops back up above the water's surface. Katavolos hooks the hose's other end to a one-half-horsepower pump he found in the basement room when he took it over. "They were going to throw it away!" he exclaims. "It's perfect for this work." He turns a lever. The pump begins to roar.

The pump isn't forcing anything into the plastic-enshrouded space; it's sucking the air out, creating a vacuum. What this does is draw water from the pool up into the space within the inner octagon. As the vacuum becomes more powerful, the difference in pressure within and outside the plastic becomes more pronounced. The sheet begins to stretch as the atmospheric pressure outside presses on it; the walls begin to bow inward; the top begins to resemble an eight-sided round-bottomed bowl.

Even as the "roof" of the structure is being pushed down, its "floor"--the polyethylene sheet on which the pool of water rests--is rising, forming a mirror-image curve. The vacuum hasn't just created a bowl at the top of the octagon; it's also created a dome at the bottom. "Atmospheric pressure forces water up into that evacuated cavity and fills it completely," Katavolos says, "while the entire membrane is being sucked in between and around the skeleton." As the plastic stretches between the gaps in the wood, it forms curiously perfect curves that are visible through the rising water. "We're getting those shapes for free," Katavolos says. "It'd cost you a fortune to get a cone that perfect if you had to engineer it. But we're just letting it happen."

Once the water has filled the vacuum, what keeps it up there? Katavolos turns over a legal-size manila envelope from the morning's mail and begins to draw. Scritch, scritch. Strong, furry pen strokes show a glass held upside down with its rim in a pan of water. Then he draws a thin hose coming out of the glass. "You suck out the air through here," he says, "making a vacuum. Atmospheric pressure pushes water into the glass." He draws a thin transparent square under the glass. "If you insert this membrane here, it will also be pushed up by atmospheric pressure, and that arch is going to stay put. You're not going to lose it ever, as long as the vacuum holds."

The effect can be demonstrated in any kitchen, he says, with a nearly full glass of water and a piece of plastic wrap. You don't even need to create a vacuum; once you've filled the glass, you've done the vacuum's job. Just seal the plastic wrap tightly over the lip of the glass, turn the glass upside down, and push the plastic upward into a little dome. Common sense tells you that when you remove your hand the water in the glass will push the arch down, and the plastic will bulge out below the lip of the glass. But that's not what happens. The arch holds because the pressure of the air holding the plastic up is actually mightier than the water pushing down on it. "We've got 60 miles of atmosphere over our heads pushing down," Katavolos explains. "That gives us 15 pounds per square inch of free energy. We're not paying for the force that holds the dome in place. That's what makes it so easy for us to use a vacuum cleaner to raise water. The first few feet are almost for nothing."

Indeed, it takes some 33 feet of water to equal the pressure exerted by those 60 miles of atmosphere. In theory, Katavolos says, that means atmospheric pressure could hold up a water-filled dome 33 feet high; but it would take too much energy to raise the water that high in the first place. "About 15 feet is the practical limit for raising water," he says. "I like that limit. It's like the limitation on brownstone houses here in New York. They couldn't be more than five stories high because no one wanted to walk up more than four flights of stairs." (Interestingly, the practical limit on raising water in a New York City building is just six stories--the water descends from reservoirs in upstate New York and accumulates enough energy during its trip to make it up that far without getting a boost from a pump.)

Of course, once atmospheric pressure has forced the water up into Katavolos's structures, something still has to bear its weight. "If you're carrying that weight, you have to support it," Katavolos says. "There is a dead load that has to be distributed. This is not antigravity." And at 62.4 pounds per cubic foot--"It's heavy stuff," Katavolos says--water needs a lot of support.

The plastic is able to handle the job, he explains, because the load is distributed evenly over a large area. "We are pulling on every centimeter of fiber equally," he says. "If we were pulling at only one point, you would exceed the material's limit almost immediately--it would stretch and give like chewing gum." The water-filled sheath in Katavolos's experimental tank is like a balloon in reverse. Air pressure is pushing and stretching it taut, but from the outside rather than the inside. The tautness, the tension of the plastic, the water pushing back with the same strength everywhere are what make it possible for Katavolos to hang thousands of pounds of water from a few two-by-fours. The plastic is bearing the weight of the water much as the taut cables of a suspension bridge bear the weight of a roadway. Indeed, just as those same cables transmit the weight of the roadway to the bridge's towers--and thence to the ground--the stretched-tight plastic transmits the load of the thousands of gallons of water to the wooden frame.

Atmospheric pressure and weight-bearing tension are all well and good, but how can you use these principles to build a house? Katavolos grabs a piece of notepaper. Scritch, scritch, scritch. He sketches the octagonal tank sitting nearby. "Once we create the vacuum, then the plastic sucks in, and this plastic underneath is automatically pulled up," he begins. He draws a stick figure under the tank, and the tank becomes a roof. "So this is my dome. It can be any width, though because of the practical limit, it can't be more than 14 or 15 feet high."

In practice, the house wouldn't be supplied with its water by a pool but by eight-foot-tall pillars filled with water, on which the roof- tank would rest. Katavolos sketches them in. A few extra lines, and he's added foot-thick walls of water stretching between the pillars.

Next he turns his attention to the bowl created in the plastic at the top of the tank. "This can become a reservoir for rainwater up here," he says, "though we'd fill it with fresh water--that makes a solar pond." He draws a series of concentric, connected rings over the bowl. "This would be coils of black hose resting on polystyrene. The black hose would absorb heat from the sun. It would have holes at its bottom so that the hot water would slowly leak into the reservoir below."

Building with water would save huge amounts of money, Katavolos claims. "Most of the cost of architecture is moving the mass to the site," he says. "You've got to cut it and quarry it, or cast it, or timber it, and then lug it." Water, though, is widely available at most sites; even in deserts, Katavolos claims, morning condensation can be collected in sufficient amounts to replenish what evaporates from the reservoirs.

In addition to being cheap and readily available, notes Katavolos, water is so heavy that in severe weather, as in a hurricane, his buildings would behave more like stone than wood. And water insulates well against sound. "Two to three inches of water is acoustically like stone," he says. As for prying eyes, a few dyes in the water walls will take care of them.

All this would make his water structures "excellent temporary housing," he says--especially for flood victims, who'd have a lot of material to work with. But the structures could also provide the basis for more permanent buildings--for communities, even. Imagine, he says, houses made mostly of water, clustered around a reservoir. Each would have its impressive dome, fed by water raised up though the walls and pillars by electric pumps, or even by windmills mounted on the roof. Water would be heated by the coils of black hose absorbing sunlight on the roof and conveyed by channels beneath the house from the bathrooms and the kitchen to filters for purification and recycling. In the central reservoir you could even have fish farming.

Katavolos's vision includes not only filters in the walls to take salts and acids out of urine, but a mulch pile beneath the house for kitchen scraps and excrement; he's already tested a small scale model with dog droppings in his basement lab. There's also a set of crude electric cells made of salt water, lemon juice, and strips of metal: they're prototypes for water batteries, to go in the water walls. "We got about a volt and a half out of them," Katavolos says. "We could have got much more, but we simply haven't spent enough time on them."

There's more. How about air pockets in the walls instead of shelves? "Instead of adding things to the wall, you put things in the wall! You could have rooms that grow and shrink--bedrooms that blow up at night and shrink up during the day," Katavolos continues. "You could add a room for grandma and then collapse it when she leaves!" And, he insists, this home would be just as comfortable as a conventional house in Scarsdale-- though it might take a while to get used to the idea of urine coursing through the walls, to be filtered and recycled. ("It's a lovely color, though," says Katavolos. "Like Chablis.") It soon becomes clear that this simple sketch doesn't represent a new type of building so much as it does a new type of civilization.

Not a totally new aesthetic, though. Beside the octagonal tank loom two eight-foot-high, two-foot-wide pillars made of maple struts encased in polyethylene. The vacuum that's drawn the water up into the pillars has sucked in the plastic between the struts, giving them the look of the columns in a Greek temple. The ancient Greeks, Katavolos says, carved those indentations, or flutes, "to create shape and shadow. In this instance, we come up with the flute in a new way--because we're sucking in water. So the flutes of classicism reappear in this architecture, but now as function, not ornament."

"I've lived in these experiments for so damn long that I just know they're beautiful," he continues. "People are stunned by the fact that it's so beautiful. It's not the science in back of it that interests these people, it's the feeling they have that--'My God, I would love to live in this kind of environment.' This architecture is total entertainment."

Katavolos grew up on Long Island; his father ran the Ram's Head Inn on nearby Ram Island, where, in 1947, Feynman, Oppenheimer, and other physicists met to hammer out quantum electrodynamics. As a young architecture student at Pratt, Katavolos was drafted after Pearl Harbor and ended up in a MASH unit in the Pacific.

His architectural training, an Army course for medical technicians, and an inclination to play with shapes soon led Katavolos to the kind of thinking on paper that he still does today: sketches of hearts slowly morphing into pumps, skulls into domes. It also led him, after he returned to Pratt and graduated, to become a painter. He joined the world of abstract expressionism then thriving in Greenwich Village; by 1953 he'd also begun creating chairs and other forms for a number of American designers. "I was making $22.50 a week," he recalls, "and that seemed like a lot of money." Several of Katavolos's pieces can be found in the design collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

But he remained haunted by an idea that had first struck him as an Army medic: that the shapes and forms he was seeing in X-rays and operating rooms could be the basis for a new way of building. He and some friends began experimenting with soft, yielding shapes--weather balloons and industrial foams. Eventually he found himself drawn to the most common and cheap natural material around: water. "We studied human bodies, insects, sea structures, the hydroids. We got a lot of ideas from jellyfish."

By the 1960s he was showing those ideas around the world. "A kind of science fiction of architecture," one French curator called Katavolos's vigorous sketches for an exhibit in 1960. They showed apartment buildings that looked like mushrooms growing on the side of a tree, and towers that looked like saguaro cacti or Venus flytraps. And just as the cactus has been shaped by eons of evolutionary pressure to curve and bend in accord with the environmental forces acting on it, so organic buildings too would have their shapes drawn by nature.

Nature, though, say Katavolos's critics, the more practical- minded engineers, has had hundreds of millions of years to perfect its designs. The problem with Katavolos's ideas, they say, is that a structure that's so heavily dependent on maintaining a precise tension is hard to get right. There are practical questions of safety that make engineers doubt whether his buildings--and his vision--can really hold water. "It's pretty idealized," says Ben Yen, an engineer from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Everything has to run perfectly. Any failure would be a big problem. If you are an engineer, you learn that just as in economics, things often don't go according to the textbook situation."

Katavolos tolerates such doubts with an expression of dismayed patience, like a Moses who's been told his people don't have the right shoes for the trip to the Promised Land. Take, for instance, the question of the vacuum. What if the pump stopped working? What if the vacuum disappeared? Wouldn't the entire structure collapse?

In answer, Katavolos dunks a foot-long piece of clear plastic aquarium tubing into a tank, fills it with water, and then stops up the ends with his thumbs. He shapes the tube into an W, with its two ends curling slightly up, then takes his thumbs away. The water doesn't dribble out. "It's stable because atmospheric pressure holds it in," Katavolos says. However, when he makes one side both longer and lower than the other, gravity pulls the larger amount of water in that end downward. And because water molecules are electrically attracted to one another, they tend to stick together, so that the water traveling down the long side pulls the water in the short side up over the hump. As long as no air gets in the tube to break up the watery bonds, the flow will continue. This paradoxical-looking affair--in which water on the shorter side is actually pulled upward before flowing back down the other side--is a siphon. Its principle is used for everything from stealing gasoline to moving water over walls and hills in huge aqueduct systems.

Katavolos and his students have taken the siphon and stretched and pulled it into an architectural form: a wood-and-polyethylene arch wide enough for four people to stand under. One leg sits in a pool of water. The other leg--the longer, lower leg--reaches the floor of the lab. Once the air is sucked out of the structure (bowing the plastic overhead into a shape that strongly recalls the ribs and vaults of Gothic architecture), the water is drawn up the short leg, over the arch, and down the longer leg into a small reservoir. Now, the moment of truth. Katavolos reaches down to the portable half-horsepower pump and shuts it off. The vacuum is gone but, as promised, the water keeps moving. "Water is still moving at an inch or two a second, constantly," Katavolos says. "It's like peristalsis--the wavelike contractions in the intestine that move food."

Of course, not all engineers are skeptics. "I, for one, am intrigued by the idea," says Michael Cetera, chief of the architectural section of the Bureau of Environmental Engineering in New York City's Department of Environmental Protection. "After all, our bodies are 65 percent water, and we stand erect." The department is considering building decorative wind machines based on Katavolos's designs that would draw water up and use its energy to power light fixtures in a piece of "environmental art."

Meanwhile, an architectural-experimentation organization called the Millennium Group, whose goal is to develop self-sustaining ocean communities and, ultimately, self-sustaining structures for space--and for which Katavolos is a consulting architect--is looking at a site on the island of Hawaii on which to build a prototype house using Katavolos's hydronic principles. Another project, to build temporary shelters for an Israeli settlement in the Golan Heights, is on hold only because of the possibility that Israel will hand back the Golan Heights to Syria. (A few years ago, though, the government was interested enough to show Katavolos around the area, where he learned just what the settlers were farming. "I was looking at the site, kind of oblivious to everything, and I felt something around my legs rustling around," he recalls. "It was a bunch of baby alligators.")

According to Katavolos, these projects simply underscore his point that while the new age of organicism may indeed still be awaiting future technology, much of his vision can be built, today, with off-the- shelf technology. But according to his skeptics, there's still a big difference between the scritch, scritch, scritch of a pen and an actual building with people's lives riding on its underlying concepts.

"The idea might be good," says Gerald Maffei, an architect at Texas A&M;, "but its application might not be possible until the technology is developed." Still, he's not saying Katavolos is all wet. "I think there have been many times when an idea has encouraged a certain kind of technology to be developed, and it has been developed quite successfully. It's important to have work that's driven by ideas instead of work that's driven by available technology. I think it's valuable in that respect."

Nonsense, says Katavolos. The predawn glimmer of this future way of life is already here, in his concrete-block subbasement, burbling and thumping all around him. His 45 years of trial and error are coming to fruition, he says. "I've got the same feeling that they must have had out at Alamogordo right before the first A-bomb blast--that moment of knowing in your gut that it's going to work. We're ready now. We're ready for launch."

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