Safe Agua: Using Design to Improve Life


Through the collaboration between Designmatters at Art Center College of Design and Latin American NGO, Un Techo para mi País, The Safe Agua Project addresses the quotidian challenges of safe water access for Chile’s poorest families living in slum developments (or campamentos) on the outskirts of Santiago.

“Rosita, the community leader of Campamento San Jose, shared with us the impressions that our team had made with each one of the families in the campamento. What she shared was extraordinary – how the students visits with the families were therapeutic and milagroso… Perhaps the impact partly came from our students taking the time to really listen and care about what each family had to say.”

- Penny Herscovitch, Faculty, Environmental Design

Design Brief

Develop new tools, products, systems and methods of storing, utilizing, transporting and conserving water in order to help break the cycle of poverty in “campamentos” (as slums are known in Chile) and transitional housing communities built by Un Techo Para Mi Pais (UTPM).

About Un Techo Para Mi Pais

A non-profit organization founded in Chile in 1997, run by university students and young professionals that are establishing social inclusion processes through housing solutions to eradicate slums and develop sustainable communities throughout Chile-and a total of 15 countries in Latin America.

The collaboration with Art Center’s team was coordinated with the Social Innovation Center at Techo led by the Chilean Industrial Designer Julian Ugarte, Director, and his colleagues: Askan Straume and Andres Iriondo, also with key support of Rafael Achondo, Director of Development for UTPM.

“We are designing real, actionable solutions to help improve the daily lives of the people living in the campamentos. This is a serious challenge to create real social change.”

- Jacqueline Black, Student, Product Design

Research and Project Development

This TDS class started two weeks prior of the term with an immersion and co-participatory design research coordinated by Techo with the families affected by the challenges of daily life in Santiago’s campamentos.

After returning from Chile, students formed six teams to design and fabricating low-cost, innovative prototypes and systems intended to solve specific water-related needs identified through the field research. After initial organization of the research and analysis of the field findings, the conceptual and design development phase of the project was a participatory endeavor that included key feedback and sessions with the Techo team in California, and review sessions via Skype remotely to include the feedback of the stakeholders of the project, the twenty families from the campamento San Jose.


In developing projects that complemented one another, the entire class worked toward the larger holistic goal of improving the quality of life for families living in the campamentos. The teams’ solutions include:

Ducha Halo

Ducha Halo brings the dignity and well-being of a hot shower to people living with no running water and inconsistent electricity.

Student team: Narbeh Dereghishian (PROD) & Jessica Yeh (ENV)

Living in California, we have the privilege of enjoying a hot shower. At the turn of a knob we are instantly more relaxed, and for those few minutes, our worries are washed away. Yet over a billion people go each day without convenient access to a proper shower. In Chile’s campamentos, most families resort to bathing by parts: they fill up a bucket with a mixture of boiling and cold water, and use a small container to rinse themselves part-by-part. This process is time-consuming, cumbersome, requires several steps, and can cause physical strain and illness.

Ducha Halo brings the dignity and well-being of a hot shower to people living with no running water and inconsistent electricity. Ducha Halo’s 6-liter metal container (with an analog temperature sensor) is easy to heat on the stove, reducing preparation time and physical strain. Two minutes of hand pumping yields a fifteen-minute hot shower, which flows in a refreshing generous stream from a cheerful plastic showerhead.


Una Lavandería Comunitaria is a community laundry facility that aims to save time and effort, reduce task-related injuries, build social relationships and create income opportunities for women. Mila is more than just a space to do laundry; it’s a gathering space for the entire community.

Student: Stephanie Stalker (ENV)

It became apparent early in our research that laundry is the household task that requires the most effort, time and energy. Women in the campamentos spend six to twelve hours washing clothes on laundry day, and laundry day is repeated 2-3 times a week. The twenty families living in campamento San José collectively spend over 500 hours a week on laundry. Without running water, doing laundry by hand or repeatedly scooping water into often-broken machines, not only takes time, but also causes task-related injuries such as swollen joints, carpal tunnel, and back problems. During winter, washing clothes outside in the cold and hanging clothes to dry in the home can lead to pneumonia in both women and kids.

By providing access to efficient, functioning washers and dryers, a community laundry facility saves time and effort, and reduces task-related injuries and illness. Moreover, a shared laundry facility affords the opportunity to build community relationships and provides income-generating opportunities for women. The shared facility has the potential to become an important collaborative space for the community, housing a space for children, classes, computers, gatherings, and community boards.

This proposal includes a tool for community groups to collaboratively plan the space and a manual for running the facility. The proposed business model incorporates two tiers: micro-loans for individuals in social housing (casa definitiva) to finance, own and operate the lavandería in their home; and a corporate sponsorship to establish a community lavandería facility in the campamento. Mila is more than just a space to do laundry, it’s a gathering space for the entire community.

Índex de Innovación

A strategy for sharing and inspiring social innovation by people in the campamentos, via a monthly publication, competition, and online information hub.

Student team: Ramon Coronado (GPX) & William Tang (PROD)

People living in the campamentos come up with extraordinarily innovative solutions to everyday problems, using and re-using minimal resources in ingenious ways. Ideas range from decorative table and wall coverings made from re-purposed posters, to functional taps made from coke bottles, to efficient storage systems made from scrap wood. Some of these DIY solutions are shared, but most people are not aware of the useful inventions created by their neighbors or campamento dwellers in other parts of the country.

Índex de Innovación enables people in the campamentos to share and learn from each other’s innovative solutions. To kick off the Índex, an innovation contest will inspire people, build community, and gather ideas from campamentos across Chile and Latin America. The winners’ ideas will be showcased in media such as exhibitions, publications and posters. The ideas generated by the contest, along with tips and instruction manuals will be distributed in a monthly newspaper, and cataloged in a complete online information hub. Índex de Innovación empowers people in the campamentos to become innovators and to improve quality of life for people in their own communities and beyond.


An inexpensive and efficient kitchen workstation for washing dishes indoors and facilitating the re-use of water.

Student team: Jacqueline Black (PROD) & Kyung Cho (PROD)

“I don’t like to do the dishes in front of the house because I don’t want people to see me.” – Maria

Washing dishes in the campamentos is an arduous task. Maria uses two plastic buckets on top of a surface outdoors to soap and rinse dishes. Without access to running water and drainage, the simple act of washing dishes requires numerous steps, carrying and moving water by hand to complete the task. Without a fixed workstation, women often wash dishes on the floor, in unsanitary conditions, or outdoors subject to the weather.

reLAVA is a sink workstation that makes washing dishes more efficient, sanitary and dignified. reLAVA combines soaking, rinsing, cleaning and drying stations to into one inexpensive product. A wire frame folds down to pack flat, and is easy to install without any tools. The wire frame holds plastic wash and rinse basins, which drain through a hose to facilitate the reuse of gray water. This solution exemplifies Techo’s ‘Minimo’ ethos – to create maximal impact with minimum resources.

Watch the reLAVA video

Agua Segura

A family-sized kit for water chlorination and filtration, to ensure safe, easy, pure water for drinking and cooking.

Student team: Elizabeth Bayne (GRAD FILM) & Erica Li (ENV)

Our team’s challenge is to address the issue of safe drinking and cooking water to prevent disease. Water treatment has been tackled in many different ways, by many different groups, but the challenge was in solving it in the context of the campamentos in Santiago, Chile. We found that existing solutions for subsistence conditions weren’t quite appropriate, as residents had access to municipal water. But high-end solutions used in developed urban areas also didn’t fit due to a lack of infrastructure and running water. We had to design a water treatment product for people in the middle: people who have infrequent access to water and store it for several days at a time.

How do campamento residents currently treat water that may have been contaminated en route to the mediagua home or during storage? Either by boiling or adding chlorine; however, these treatment methods are used infrequently, if at all. Boiling takes time and energy. Measuring chlorine accurately is difficult and inconvenient.

Agua Segura is an easy-to-use purification and filtration kit that fits onto any standard bucket. Chlorine is already part of the families’ daily cleaning routine, and Agua Segura’s built-in measuring device makes it easy and fast to accurately chlorinate water at the point-of-use. A filter pack of activated carbon (produced through local sustainable business models) removes potentially harmful chlorine byproducts, and improves the odor and taste. Agua Segura’s design inspires confidence, and promotes safe and accurate water treatment.

Gota a Gota

A system that harnesses gravity to afford families the ease, convenience, and dignity of turning on a tap to get running water.

Student team: Stella Hernandez-Salazar (ENV), Nubia Mercado Ramirez (TRANS), Diane Jie Wei (PROD)

“If I had the money I’d buy a tap to simulate running water”

- Maria

Many of us take it for granted that water flows from the tap at the turn of a handle; but for people living in the campamentos, running water remains a dream. Without access to running water in their homes, people must carry large quantities of water from outdoor storage containers for daily tasks, such as laundry, washing dishes, cooking and cleaning. Carrying water from bucket to bucket to bucket throughout the home requires tremendous effort, energy and time. This burden impacts health and well-being, especially for women, who often the ones responsible for managing water to care for their families.

Through our research into pressurized water systems, we found that harnessing gravity is the most efficient and affordable way to bring running water to different parts of the home, to alleviate the burden of moving large quantities of water by hand. While a few families in the campamento have built gravity fed systems, but technical and financial barriers to installing these systems remain.

Gota a Gota (‘Drop by Drop’) affords families the ease, convenience, and dignity of turning on a tap to get running water. This easy-to-install gravity-fed system combines three components:

  1. a foot pump designed for ease of use by women, kids and the elderly elevates water to an exterior storage tank, which sits atop a self-constructed wooden platform;
  2. water then flows through a hose to an ergonomic faucet with a convenient clip for tasks performed outdoors, such as laundry;
  3. another hose leads into an indoor faucet with a flexible nozzle and easy on-off handle. Gota a Gota’s design helps make the dream of running water a reality.

Implementation Phase

Safe Agua demonstrates the immense potential for responsible design to generate social, cultural and economic change.

Prototypes of Ducha Halo and reLAVA have been successfully field-tested with the families of the Campamentos that Techo serves. The Innovation team of Techo is currently working with government and corporate partners to scale these solutions. After an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck Chile in February 2010, the need for emergency relief products like the Safe Agua projects became all the more acute, as the quake severely damaged more than 500,000 homes, affecting 1.5 million people. Immediately after the earthquake hit, Techo was named the official NGO for reconstruction and has pushed forward to manufacture and test refined prototypes, in order to bring them to families who had lost their homes in the earthquake. In addition, Ten Mila Laundry Community Center’s were built in Partnership with Unilever.