Bidyanondo Foundation, a non-profit organisation, ran an orphanage named 'Megher Bari' for ethnic minority children in the Chattogram Hill Tracts.
As the organisation had no experience of working in such hilly terrains, they soon began to face problems, namely having secure access to water.
Initially, the children would collect water from a small stream at the hill's bottom and carry it uphill to store in a tank. But the process proved unsustainable and eventually, the foundation set up a water pump with an electric generator.
This too, turned out to be unfeasible as the water would usually dry up during winter. The aim then shifted to harvesting rainwater during monsoon and using it throughout the harsh winter months.
To make this a reality, the foundation then hired a team of architects from the firm Chorcha Sthapatijog. Architects Shuvra Das and Rumman Mashrur Chowdhury were the project's design leads while Architect Pintu Chakma was the site architect.
The 'Hydro Pod: A water harvesting playscape' project is situated in an orphanage run by Bidyanondo Foundation in Sonaichori village of Bandarban's Naikhongchari Upazila. The project aims to provide the orphanage with safe access to water while creating a space that would benefit the children as well.
As one of the Design Architects Rumman Mashrur put it, nothing about the project was conventional, right down to the materials or the designing process. The result was high platforms made entirely of bamboo, built atop the water tank.
Though initially the architects' main aim was to provide the children with a wider social space, the bamboo structure ended up being the children's favourite spot to gather around.
How it started
The site was part of a larger area originally belonging to a Buddhist monastery; they had given Bidyanondo Foundation a smaller section situated at the ridge of a hill.
When the architects first arrived on site, they encountered a difficult task. Bidyanondo Foundation had previously attempted to create a space to store a water tank but, due to their inexperience with hilly terrains, the organisation did not anticipate the landslides that would form due to the massive hole.
"The pathways used by the children and teachers were slowly being destroyed by the landslides. There was no real space for the children to interact," explained Mashrur.
The hole was approximately 12 feet in depth with the deepest part being almost 20 feet then.
"Bidyanondo Foundation initially wanted us to build one big water tank but we needed to adapt to the terrain. So we made six smaller tanks instead of a big one," said Mashrur.
He added the tanks align with the hill's slope; each is sized according to the depth. The smaller tanks ended up creating a platform and chambers. It is also easier to collect water from smaller tanks.
The water tanks were designed to store a whopping 11,000 litres of water.
The architects designed two separate methods for water collection. The very top of the structure is outfitted with water collectors created entirely of bamboo with a metal funnel at the bottom which would filter and collect rainwater.
Secondly, they attached pipes to the water pump so that water could continue to be pumped and harvested from the pond.
The project's second stage entailed creating a space that would benefit the children.
To better connect with the children, the architects set up onsite workshops and icebreaking sessions. Though they were shy at first, the children soon opened up and began engaging in creating art.
A common feature in their art was the machang or platform that Bidyanondo Foundation had previously set up near the orphanage.
"We realised that these platforms were the social space for the children. They would play, study and eat in that space. This inspired us to further alleviate these platforms into something the children could truly treasure," explained Mashrur.
One of the project's main challenges was the budget constraint. To work around it, the architects began toying with the idea of using unconventional materials, namely bamboo.
"The bamboo was also specifically chosen because we wanted the children to feel welcome. Most materials were alien to them but the bamboo they had grown up seeing. It is a matter of pride for them too, to see us using bamboo," Mashrur shared with us.
He added, "The bamboo was cost-effective, environmentally friendly, culturally familiar, and we could easily source it locally."
The bamboo was tempered through a chemical treatment process - boric acid borax treatment. This treatment ensured the bamboo was properly preserved and it prevented termites, fungus etc from forming in future.
The design idea was to create platforms around the funnels for the water tank. These platforms, made entirely of bamboo, would be the social spot for the children to congregate. Each would be connected by ladders so children could easily move around.
"We went on-site with a model structure of our design. But once we consulted with locals, they began to help make changes to improve the idea. These ideas were eventually adopted and implemented," Mashrur said.
Finally, on the top of the reservoir, the architects decided to design a dynamic funnel shaped structure, inspired from the machang, where a number of overhanging bamboo platforms with different levels would create an extraordinary play space above the hilly ridge area.
Site Project Architect Pintu Chakma oversaw the construction process, being on site and synchronising the design with the artisans.
The project was on a strict schedule, it had to be constructed within one season mainly due to its remote location. As a result, it was all hands on deck; even the architects sourced the bamboo chemical treatment and transported it uphill on foot.
The idea for these massive platforms was so well taken by the children that even they had begun to use it mid-construction.
"They even brought vegetables to chop for their meals. It really changed our idea of this space. When we designed it, we saw it through a very different adult lens. But these platforms are their core for interactions and activities," Mashrur said.
In the end, the children's play area has become the focal attraction of the project with this massive bamboo structure with platforms for social gathering.
It looks like a full grown tree with its huge branches spreading into the surrounding nature, built one on top of the other, connected by ladders. Above each platform are the water collectors with pipes that go directly into the water tanks that are now underground.
In spite of facing all the challenges like cost, time, material, transportation and communication, the place has become a multi-usable space for the children and their pets where they love to eat, study, rest and play. Even during the pandemic, it became a major interaction area for them.
The local craftsmen and artisans were involved in the construction, which created the scope of knowledge-sharing through idea-exploration.
In fact, the locals were very enthusiastic about the construction idea and methods from the very beginning.
This was inspiring for the architects as they felt that the details and the method of construction as well as the design of the bamboo structure would spread among others in nearby villages.
This environment friendly architecture simply placed an inspiring reference for the community, which is truly responsive to the ecology.
Overall, the project was built on a minimal space of approximately 240 square feet. Not only is the hydropod a minimalist, multipurpose structure, but is also a marvel of creativity and sustainability.