PRIVY2 | Human Waste as Renewable Resource

A lesson in environmental stewardship and sustainability is rooted in a field of corn located in the southwest courtyard outside the 18th Avenue Library on the Ohio State campus. Deeply rooted, in fact. 

Com-Til, a nutrient-rich compost made from residual bio-solids from City of Columbus wastewater treatment plants, was amended to the soil at the site to provide slow-release fertilization. As ears of corn golden and mature, the demonstration garden is bringing awareness to campus of the cycle of waste transformation.

“This project is basically about how we can take something that is typically deemed waste - in this case bodily waste - and show how it can be transformed into something we consider a resource,” commented Nick Kawa, assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. This locally-sourced fertilizer is already used in liquid form by large-scale farmers for crop production around Columbus, as well as in landscaping projects around the Ohio State campus.

Kawa partnered with Knowlton School faculty Forbes Lipschitz, assistant professor of landscape architecture, and Justin Diles, assistant professor of architecture, to create the installation Privy 2: Biosolids and You that includes rows of corn surrounding a pavilion. The project was funded by a 2018 Initiative for Food and AgriCultural Transformation (InFACT) grant.

“Agriculture is the largest anthropogenic footprint in the world. It occupies over 40% of the earth’s surface. This includes the fields, pastures and farms that feed us,” stated Lipschitz. She indicates, however, that many people do not really understand this footprint and how its impact on the environment can be improved. “What I think is interesting about bio-solids is that you have an urban infrastructural system in Columbus supporting large-scale conventional agriculture in the periphery of the city. This public installation is a new way to represent this relationship,” Lipschitz added.

Nestled among the corn stalks is a pavilion designed and fabricated by Diles. Consisting of a tower, a canopy and a lounger, the pavilion references the garden’s message of repurposed material, using recycled PET foam from recycled water bottles in its structural panels. The foam sheets were heat formed and shaped, and made structural with a composite of resin and fabric reinforcement. 

The consolidated girder-like structure allows a range of interpretations, especially the yellow trusses in the tower and canopy. In the context of a garden that utilizes bio-solids, these rib-like elements have suggested plumbing infrastructure and even intestines to observers.

“I tried to keep the form ambiguous so people can read into it what they see while also keeping the structure responsive to the site and the garden. The scale and height of the pavilion relate to the height of mature corn, the tower announces the project from a distance and the lounger creates an area to enjoy the garden,” explained Diles.

Providing a foundation for the pavilion are concrete pavers with an embedded top layer of Com-Til, suggesting a conceptual link between this agricultural resource and common urban construction material. Fabrication of the pavers and the architectural pavilion, along with the planting of the garden, involved faculty and students across the disciplines of anthropology, landscape architecture and architecture.

The installation Privy 2: Biosolids and You will have an opening reception on Friday, September 6 at 5:00 p.m. at the southwest courtyard outside the 18th Avenue Library. Look for the stalks of corn!