Beat The Drought: The Walls Of This Subterranean House Save Water For You

Architect Jie Zhang’s Thirsty House slurps up water right through the walls.

With droughts devastating California and threatening other parts of the country, residents have taken some creative approaches to conserving water, spray-painting their lawns green and filling their pools with dirt. But what if you could build water-saving measures into the design of your house itself?


Architect Jie Zhang has developed a concept called Thirsty House that collects and filters enough water to be self-sufficient. What’s more, it’s made from materials that require little or no water during construction.

Construction can be extremely water-intensive. Concrete, the most common building material in the world, must be mixed with water, wasting resources that could be used for drinking water or agriculture. Thirsty House would be constructed with fiberglass composite material, which the architect describes as one of the most water-efficient construction materials around.

As for the design: The Thirsty House would be located at World’s End Park in Boston, near MIT, where Zhang received her master’s in architecture. The house would be underground, situated on a slope at the bottom of a valley to take advantage of rainwater that naturally pools there. The water would be collected in pockets inside the walls, then filtered for everyday use.

The other advantage of an underground house? Better indoor climate control, so you don’t need as much energy for heating and cooling.

The house’s layout is also an important factor in its water conservation: The kitchen, where residents need clean water, would be on the top floor. Then, dirty water from the kitchen would flow down through the house to be used to flush toilets on lower floors.

Zhang’s concept was a winner of the AIA and Houzz‘s Future of Architecture competition. She was inspired by caves, which are carved by wind and water over thousands of years. “[I was] treating the house as a tribute to water, which will be a lost resource in the future,” she says in an interview. “What will be its residue on the Earth?”


Zhang says that though the house is conceptual, the technology needed to build it already exists. Researchers at MIT are working with fiberglass composite materials for use in construction. Zhang thinks the main challenge would be convincing people to use nontraditional materials to build their house (we think sacrificing natural light to live underground might be a harder sell).

About the author

I'm a writer living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. Interests include social justice, cats, and the future.