The Warmth of Nature project gives new life to Water Hyacint
—an invasive plant identified as “the world’s worst water weed” by the United Nations
Environment Program—to bring warmth into urban life with a family of natural
architectural surfaces, lighting and modular partitions.
This highly invasive plant poses a significant ecological, economic, and biological threat to Thailand
and tropical regions around the world because of its rapid growth. It can form a floating mat dense enough
to block waterways, robbing fish and native aquatic plants of sunlight and oxygen.
THE ECOLOGICAL PROBLEM:
This highly invasive plant poses a significant ecological, economic, and biological threat to Thailand and tropical regions around the world because of its rapid growth. It can form a floating mat dense enough to block waterways, robbing fish and native aquatic plants of sunlight and oxygen.
In just eight days, a hectare of water hyacinth can double in size to two hectares. Even though the Thai government has spent large sums of money over the past decades, with the goal of removing 6 million tons of this plant across Thailand in the past six months alone, this problem has remained unchanged for over a century.
Not only Thailand, but also many countries around the world have been facing the same ecological threat. According to the United Nations, “water hyacinth now plagues 50 countries in Africa, Asia, North America and Europe.”
DESIGN RESEARCH & CO-CREATION PROCESS:
The Warmth of Nature project grew out of our team’s intensive field research into new opportunities for design to create social impact with artisan communities in Northern Thailand. We worked in partnership with the Lanna Culture & Crafts Association and the Thai Ministry of Industry.
We spent two weeks in September 2016 of field research in local craft villages in four provinces across Northern Thailand—Chiang Mai, Lamphun, Lampang, and Phayao. Through mind-mapping exercises, our team then focused our insights from the field research around the opportunity to bring the Warmth of Nature that we experienced in Northern Thailand to global urban environments. We further focused our research with specific craft villages, learning techniques hands-on; understanding the community’s natural resources, aspirations and challenges; and ideating and co-creating with artisans.
We further honed our opportunity area with feedback on our research insights and initial design directions from subject matter experts, including: craftspeople and village leaders, Phayao University faculty with expertise in natural materials and resource management, as well as representatives from LCCA and the Thai Ministry of Industry. One of our team members, a native of Thailand, additionally has extensive experience prior to ArtCenter, working in furniture design studio in Bangkok and spending time in Thai craft villages.
Our team’s philosophy embraces:
Innovative ways of using materials;
Quality of materials that are friendly to the environment; and
Light-hearted feeling from the warmth of natural materials.
We decided to focus our materials exploration on enhancing Water Hyacinth’s natural properties. We began to experiment with dried pieces of Water Hyacinth from our research trip in Northern Thailand. We found out that Water Hyacinth has potential to be a new type of useful material that embraces design for sustainability.
Our product line emerged from extensive materials research, iteration and development, exploring biodegradable glues, testing techniques for forming and connecting the material, and studying its natural sound and insulation properties. We adapted the tools and processes from Tama Art University’s cutting edge Textile and Product Design facilities, to produce a range of materials including: Flattened sheets, Flattened end grain sheets, End grain blocks and Shaped sheets. These have various outstanding properties that provide us an opportunity to generate a range of products from decorations to industrial products.
We found out that Water Hyacinth has potential to be a new type of architectural material by using it in innovative way to create an impact on people’s feelings.
Urban interiors and work spaces are a perfect place for us to introduce these new materials because they can be stressful places. This new natural material can offer a break from artificial materials and ubiquitous technology, to help people feel more relieved and refreshed.
Therefore, we designed products that can take full advantage of Water Hyacinth’s material properties, such foldable modular partitions, acoustic panels, wall lighting, decorative wall panel, and tactile floor mats.
SUSTAINABLE, SOCIAL & ECONOMIC VALUE:
The over-abundant, renewable resource of Water Hyacinth is a sustainable alternative to
hardwood veneers often used for architectural surfaces, and fiberglass or foam used for insulation.
Warmth of Nature supports the Thai economy by bringing value to this invasive species,
which is currently burned or discarded, while providing income to Thai villages who can harvest and create products with this weed. Through this comprehensive approach, Warmth of Nature’s innovation seeks to sustain the ecosystem, economy and communities not only of Thailand, but also the entire world.