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Jellyfish House
Geoff Manaugh, 12 Apr 07

The Jellyfish House, a recent project by San Francisco's IwamotoScott Architecture, has been "modeled on the idea that, like the sea creature, it coexists with its environment."

As such, the entirety of the Jellyfish House is designed to operate "as a mutable layered skin, or 'deep surface', that mediates internal and external environments."

What this means is the external surface of the building – the combined expanse of its outer walls and roof – is actually a complicated "water filtration system," operating across and throughout the very structure of the house.

The outer surface, then, is partially porous; it forms what the architects call a "water jacket," featuring "quilted baffles," into which water can flow and where that water can be treated and cleansed.

Rainfall, for instance, enters into the outer layers of the "water jacket" where it is treated with UV light; domestic greywater can be drained into similar mechanisms, built directly into the home's interior, architecturally incorporated into the design.

In the architects' own words, the Jellyfish House "captures, stores and filters rain and gray water for use in the home. For the water filtration system, the exterior surface geometry directs rainwater from the roof, and stores it below grade for future use. The water is filtered through cavities in the skin coated with titanium dioxide and exposed to ultraviolet light."

Wonderfully, that same UV treatment, occurring inside the walls of the house, has an aesthetic effect: as a jellyfish can be bioluminescent, so can the Jellyfish House become "a softly glowing structure," its outer walls shining with the blue light of near-continuous water filtration.

The "external environment" of the house, meanwhile, is particularly interesting.

The proposed site for IwamotoScott's Jellyfish House is actually an artificial island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. That island once served as a military base – which means there is a deep legacy of "toxic soil" to clean-up or remediate:

Specifically, it is sited on Treasure Island, a flat, artificial island built off the naturally occurring island of Yerba Buena in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Treasure Island is at once local and distant, isolated and connected. It has recently been decommissioned by the military, and is being redeveloped largely for new residences. Like many former military bases, Treasure Island suffers from a range of environmental hazards. The most geographically desirable parts of the island have toxic soil that requires remediation. In these areas, the particular hazardous materials necessitate that up to five feet of topsoil be removed for cleansing. In other areas, the contaminated soil can be treated on site using plant based phyto-remediation techniques.

Of course, that island is also very close to sea level, and, in this era of climate change and coastal landscape transformation, Treasure Island could very well see itself at least partially underwater.

In a way that could perhaps use a bit more explanation from the architects, the landscaping of the site itself – using "sinuous fields of wetlands" – combined with the mechanics of water filtration built directly into the house, could help mitigate the encroaching seas... but I'm a tad unclear about how that would actually happen. There's even a chance that I might simply be projecting my own wishes onto the design.

Could the Jellyfish House possibly float, for instance...? If so, could a whole fleet of Jellyfish Houses – after all, the real idea here is to build several dozen of the structures, each with a unique plan and footprint – leave Treasure Island altogether to prowl the waters of San Francisco Bay, leaving currents of fresh water behind...? A whole new model opens up here: the mobile, sea-borne, inhabitable water filtration plant.

In any case, the Jellyfish House is a very well thought-out and exciting project, and these relatively minor instances of conceptual inexactitude hardly sink the whole thing.

There are some flaws, of course – most notably with the interior.

As it currently appears, in the available renderings, the inside of the Jellyfish House is an almost uninhabitably sterile terrain of white sloping floors and curved walls, complete with pinched hallways and tight openings that lead from room to room.

I can't help but wonder, seeing these interiors, whether some plain old rectilinearity – with vertical walls you can hang pictures on, and rooms laid out to permit rugs and couches – might be a much better idea. The water filtration system is so ingenious, for instance, and even visually exciting, not to mention ecologically beneficial, that to limit its appeal to those families with a taste for the avant-garde seems like a huge mistake.

To put this another way: in an ideal world, these embedded – or ambient – technologies would simply form an unseen and, frankly, unnoticed infrastructural backdrop for mundane familial activities, without requiring homeowners to adopt aesthetically Modern lifestyles.

So if we could separate the technology from the style, perhaps we'd also find that high-tech greywater treatment systems and rainwater capture "jackets" begin to appear in houses all over the world.

In which case, the Jellyfish House will have served as a worthy and exciting model.

IwamotoScott's Jellyfish House, meanwhile, will be on display for the next few months at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, as part of their "Open House: Architecture and Technologies for Intelligent Living" exhibition.

There, you can also catch a number of other exciting architectural projects, including the absurdly great Mix House, by Joel Sanders Architect et al. So if you're anywhere near Los Angeles, consider stopping by.

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Very evocative! The SCIARC school of architecture in Los Angeles is also presenting senior thesis projects on April 21st and this home is reminiscent of the Growing Architecture work of Elizabeth Marley being featured in the show; her work on materials reclamation and the phytoremediation of the LA River discusses how these types of homes may organically begin to form throughout the city.

Posted by: Evonne on 12 Apr 07

Intriguing, but I'm left wondering if it wouldn't feel like living in a sponge--and would all that gurgling H2O be a soothing white noise or would I wake up dreaming that I'm going down on the Titanic? Glug Glug. I'll pass on this idea...

Posted by: Mal Gormley on 13 Apr 07

" an ideal world, these embedded – or ambient – technologies would simply form an unseen and, frankly, unnoticed infrastructural backdrop for mundane familial activities, without requiring homeowners to adopt aesthetically Modern lifestyles."

Geoff, this point is implied in their briefing document:

"...they create an ambient experience in the home that reveals the work of the skin in largely a peripheral manner. In this regard, the project expands upon of the notion of “calm,” or ambient, technology, which suggests that the digital realm will ultimately recede to the background of our spaces and lived experience."

The breathless technicity that seems to imbue most cutting edge - read biomorphic/bioadaptive - architecture is laudably tempered here, though I'm sure Greg Lynn would still find this prototype appealing.

The concept evokes a modern day Jonah and the whale scenario. There's some remarkable ideas at work here but judging from the tech requirements it would arguably collapse under the weight of its own carbon footprint.

Posted by: Blair on 13 Apr 07

My use of the word "ambient" in reference to the technology was actually itself a reference to IwamotoScott's design brief. I should have made that more clear! Thanks for pointing it out, though.

My point is still the same, however: that the technologies here may fade into the background - they may be "ambient" - but the foreground behind which they're hidden requires a certain aesthetic investment on behalf of the home's owners.

What I'm saying, then, is that to get more residential homeowners excited about the idea of water treatment machinery being embedded into their homes, and so on, it would seem more strategic to downplay the avant-garde styling, which, in and of itself, requires a certain lifestyle: no pictures on the walls, strange furniture, etc.

This doesn't mean that you have to make your design as boring as possible, so that it appeals to everyone - though one could infer that from my above statement. It simply means - or I intend for it to mean - that home interiors always enforce a certain limitation on behavior, and that, in its current design, the Jellyfish House, which I'm nonetheless a huge fan of, seems more limiting than it really needs to be.

If - and this is a big if - architecture is supposed to open up possibilities rather than constrain them, then I think the notion of "ambient" technology is, right now, not living up to its promise.

It isn't truly ambient, in other words; it impinges upon the internal structure and layout of the house.

Posted by: Geoff Manaugh on 13 Apr 07

I’ll certainly agree with your point about it being “more strategic to downplay the avant-garde styling”, at least in our current environment. I’ve made the very same point in a different forum. In the context of the Pasadena exhibit however, the request was for visions of a future house, projected 25 years from now. The aesthetic point here is then moot don’t you think? Should Zaha Hadid have self-censored her ideal house for imm cologne 2007?

My concerns about this model are more economic than aesthetic. But given the timeline, these concerns are similarly prone to irrelevance. The costs – lifecycle and actual - associated with TiO2, Phase Change Materials (PCM), exotic polymers etc. are likely cost-prohibitive today but may be more appealing thirty years from now.

I really admire the thinking behind this model, despite what Chris Hawthorne suggests may be a creeping “survivalist regionalism”, and could quite easily live in this space. I’ve seen some Art Nouveau interiors that were far more unctuous. Come to think of it Hadid’s furniture would probably be quite at home in there. Brownfield regeneration never had it so good.

Posted by: Blair on 14 Apr 07

"the request was for visions of a future house, projected 25 years from now"

Good point; I would simply add that, while agreeing with you that the aesthetics of domesticity, in 25 years' time, will be quite different, there will, I imagine, be some things that will probably stay the same - the desire to hang things on the walls, etc. etc.

Also, I should point out that I don't mean to imply that all avant-garde aesthetic styling needs to be eliminated from all architectural projects, or that all architects need to censor themselves for the greater good in all cases.

I just mean to say that, when you're dealing with something as ecologically and technically important as home water treatment and so on, then you shouldn't limit that technology's appeal by making it so aesthetically streamlined, biomorphic, and avant-garde that only readers of ID will ever want to purchase or use it.

That's all I mean when I say that the technology should be separated from the style; otherwise you'll only reinforce the idea that, to live an ecologically sound life - or at least to live a life in which you filter and reuse your domestic water supply - you have to live in a futuristic white plastic spaceship.

So I'm saying that I love the exterior design of the Jellyfish House, and that I love all the thought that's gone into the water treatment technology, but I think that the interior instantly limits the appeal of the larger design.

If the technology were truly ambient, in other words, then it could just as easily work inside the walls of a room where a dozen Pailhead posters are hanging, Christmas lights stretch across the ceiling, and huge piles of laundry sit next to stereo equipment and a mounted dartboard. I think that, even 25 years from now, most bedrooms will still look like that.

Then again, there are people who don't live like that, who will, in fact, want white sloping walls and floors without personal decoration. In which case I'm more or less just expressing a personal preference.

Posted by: Geoff Manaugh on 14 Apr 07

The "survivalist regionalism" that Hawthorne predicts is particularly disturbing as it is presented in this and many models for the house of the future. While these machine-houses with their built-in self-sustaining systems appeal to our science fiction fantasies, they suggest a future of increasing disconnection. The sustainable future is looking more and more like a suburban future for those who can afford it. This strategy seems to suggest that while the cities are flooded or without water and power the survivors will be floating in the post-apocalyptic sea and purifying water and absorbing solar energy. Having said that, I find this project beautiful and I am holding out for Iwamoto Scott's full proposal for the jellyfish community, avant-garde styling or no. I certainly don't mean to accuse Iwamoto Scott of endorsing a suburban future and realize that this is not their focus here. However, I do mean to question the directives and intentions of the curators of this project. Why a house of the future? We shouldn’t allow the meanness of the "sustainable" ideal of the house "off the grid" to dominate our designs for the future. What’s more intriguing is the idea that the grid can be fed by these technologies from multiple points across its web. What's so wrong with the grid after all?

Posted by: binx on 16 Apr 07

This was an awesome article and an inspiration for a blog I just wrote at Thanks for all the info and I'm hoping to see the video about the jellyfish house at the exhibit at art center when I go. Thanks again, and I cannot express how simply cool this design is.

Posted by: Marisa on 17 Apr 07

I agree with Jeff that this project has perhaps limited appeal to Joe Public as it is represented by the architects, but that stance reveals the strategic nature of their response to the premise of the exhibition it was designed for. The architects' take on 'ambient technology' doesn't necessarily suggest an 'ambient urbanism' (i.e. background architecture), but rather an interiority where the embedded technology can recede to the background or not, if so desired.

Two specific additional points in response to Jeff's comments above: the proposal at the urban scale of the island is that in fact a large number of the Jellyfish Houses do (or would) float -- this can vaguely be seen in the aerial view, image no. 5 under "Jellyfish House" on IwamotoScott's website. Also, there are in fact rather normative rectilinear spaces with vertical walls and flat floors off of the more scluptural/dynamic middle portion of the house which is where the vertical circulation occurs -- its just those are not the focus of the rendered views.

At the Open House exhibition, further evidence of these two points can be seen in the supporting material exhibited on the back side of the main panels, i.e. there is a photo-collage/rendering of a 'flotilla' of Jellyfish Houses in the Bay; as well as floor plan and section drawings revealing the more normative spaces at either end of the house.

Posted by: tourant on 18 Apr 07

Personally i loved this model. Its different and it helps our earth in many ways.It has a fresh look aswell which captured me. (jellyfish)

Posted by: Melody on 2 May 07



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