Waterworld Revisited

Yesterday I visited the NYC Waterpod, docked in the Hudson River just off of Brooklyn Bridge Park. Waterpod has been enjoying a fair amount of press since its launch in June, but its essence is difficult to pin down in words. Waterpod founders themselves come closest, describing the project as a "sustainable, sculptural art and technology habitat," a "public-access barge," and a "floating sculptural living structure designed as a new habitat for the global warming epoch." Although accurate, even those descriptions don't do the Waterpod justice. It's best to jump aboard yourself and experience the project. Click here for a schedule for docking and public hours.

The Waterpod is an exercise in sustainable and efficient living, with all the residents' food, water and electricity needs generated on board. Walking on to the Pod from shore, visitors enter a metal jungle-gym-like shelter covered with reused billboard segments, sewn together in an artful yet utilitarian collage. The Pod's chickens, which provide eggs for the residents, cluck happily in a spacious coop at the back of the dome. The 100 percent compost-fueled Pod garden lives just outside the dome, across from the tiny but private cubbies where residents sleep.

Signs posted around the Pod teach visitors about its sustainable systems, such as the gray-water collected and used for gardening. The Waterpod's collection drums can store up to 1550 gallons of rainwater a day, which is then fed through 46 feet of gutters and drainpipes. Waterpod residents (let's call them "Pod people") use an average of 5-10 gallons of water per person per day, compared with 65 gallons for the average residential New Yorker. Showers on the Pod are limited to five minutes. Gray-water collected from hand-washing, showers and dish-washing goes through an on-board purification system made up of seven repurposed maple syrup containers, now filled with gravel, sand and wetland plants to replicate the ecosystem and filtration abilities of a natural marshland.

As if the water conservation systems weren't cool enough, all electricity used on the Waterpod is generated completely by solar panels and human power. When I visited the Pod, a sign tacked to the frame of a stationary bike at the back of the dome bore the message "Power My Drill." A power drill connected to the bike lay on the ground, waiting for eager peddlers. Unfortunately there weren't many takers, most likely a result of the 90 degree heat!

Artist Mary Mattingly is the Pod's founder and mastermind, but a rotating crew of artists, engineers, environmentalists and others interested in getting off the grid have helped keep it sustainable and afloat since June. The Pod crew plans to live on board through October, but needs outside funding for weatherization if the project continues through the winter.

The Pod was originally envisioned as a self-sustaining artists' colony, but the crew soon found the daily tasks of keeping it functioning took all of their time and energy. A New York Times article quotes one artist, who has since left the Pod community, as lamenting the fact that "it takes a lot of work to do sustainability."

But when I visited yesterday, the Pod seemed idyllic -- a healthy respite from the muggy city looming across the river. As I stepped back ashore and made my way to the subway, a few Pod people prepared to take a refreshing dip in the river. Kevin Costner eat your heart out!