In conversation with Lenka Petráková on award-winning ocean cleaning facility

The ‘8th Continent’, a floating station prototype, won the 2020 Grand Prix Award for Architecture and Innovation of the Sea for offering a unique solution to the environmental crisis.

by Nivedita Jayaram PawarPublished on : Mar 16, 2021

Lenka Petráková, a senior designer at Zaha Hadid Architects in London, has designed an ingenious floating research station that has the ability to clean the ocean’s waters and restore the balance in the marine environment. Petráková developed the idea for her student master thesis at the University of Applied Arts in Studio Hani Rashid a few years ago after having studied ocean pollution. The design is named ‘8th Continent’, after the growing, gigantic mass of waste in the Pacific Ocean.

STIR speaks with the Slovakian designer about the functionality of the breathtaking structure and its role in cleaning the ocean to restore balance in the marine environment.

Nivedita Jayaram Pawar (NJP): What inspired the concept of ‘8th Continent’ - a floating ocean cleaning research facility?

Lenka Petráková (LP): I am fascinated by nature and its ability to adapt, regenerate and answer to any given conditions. When I was looking for my thesis project topic at the University of Applied Arts, I wished to develop a project that would help wildlife and reflect on current environmental challenges that I was aware of due to my previous research.

01 min watch The 8th Continent conceptualised by Lenka Petráková | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
The 8th Continent conceptualised by Lenka Petráková Video: Lenka Petráková

NJP: Can you explain the dynamic architecture of the 8th Continent? What are the main parts of the floating station and its functions?

LP: Each of the main parts is developed based on the required environmental characteristics and the program they carry.

The station consists of five main parts:

  1. The Barrier that serves to collect waste and harvest tidal energy.
  2. The Collector, where waste is sorted, biodegraded and stored.
  3. The Research and Education Centre to study and showcase the increasingly troubling side of aquatic environments.
  4. Greenhouses where plants are grown and water is desalinated.
  5. Living Quarters with support facilities.

The Barrier floats on the water surface and moves waste towards the Collector. The collection technology at the centre of the building is designed to optimise waste handling. The research and education centre is linked to the Collector and Greenhouses to follow the water processes and study them. Greenhouses are shaped to optimise condensed water collection and resemble large sails to allow wind to navigate the station. The Living Quarters, public spaces, and support facilities pass through the building's centre and connect all parts, geometrically matching the ship's keel.

The 8th Continent program diagram | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
The 8th Continent programme diagram Image: Lenka Petráková

The natural forces are affecting the station's movement and position as well as the inside environment. The floating station is self-sufficient, so the station's elements must cooperate and optimise the power source. The Barrier also collects tidal energy, which powers the turbine to collect the waste. Solar panels cover Greenhouses and ensure enough power for the water reservoirs' heating, allowing water and desalination evaporation. After the wastewater extraction, the filtered clean water is pumped into the water tank and either desalinated or used for halophilic plants' hydroponic cultivation.

NJP: How did you zero in on the gorgeous flower design?

LP: It was never the intention. I looked for inspiration in nature, but I developed the design based on the environmental requirements. I studied natural forms, but the outcome results from geometry studies, a self-sufficient system and technology integration. 

The 8th Continent, ocean cleaning and research facility | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
The 8th Continent, an ocean cleaning and research facility for the Pacific Image: Marko Margeta

NP: How will the proposed floating station clean the ocean to restore balance in the marine environment?

LP: The station's arms – the barriers skim the water surface and navigate the trash towards the Collector. The water is filtered in the Collector, and the garbage is further handled. But the station offers more than trash collection. It creates an interdisciplinary platform for the researchers to study various aspects of the oceans and develop and test future projects to clean the ocean. Through educational projects, it helps people to understand the current critical situation of the oceans.

Diagram | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
Diagram Image: Lenka Petráková

NP: The oceans' temperature is increasing year after year, which impacts the health of the oceans, everything in it, and climate change. How do you see architecture evolving to help mitigate these crises?

LP: Although I had a few projects connected to the ocean and climate crisis, I never researched the processes linked to the possibility of mitigating the seas' temperature by architecture. It is an exciting idea, but currently, among architectural projects, you see more addressing the issue of rising sea level due to the ice on poles melting and seawater expansion. We have to solve this with architectural proposals to facilitate our waterfronts as the floods would otherwise destroy many cities worldwide. But from the very long-term view, if we have to move the cities deeper into the continents, we face fighting temperature as the surface is heating up increasingly. So, there might be a point in time when we will build much more on the sea to have better climate and still access nutrition.

The floating station collects plastic debris from the surface and breaks it down to recyclable materials | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
The floating station collects plastic debris from the surface and breaks it down to recyclable materials Image: Lenka Petráková

NP: What type of specialists do you imagine working and living onboard the 8th Continent?

LP: Marine biologists would be able to research the ocean life and monitor how it is changing while the ocean is being cleaned. Chemists can help by researching the best way to biodegrade the plastic. They could gather information about water pollution and research on how future materials should be adjusted. Other than that, anyone interested in ocean research of any kind would be welcomed at the station - politicians, environmentalists, visitors...

NP: Your project addresses the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of plastic waste located in the central Pacific Ocean and extends over an area of 1.6 million square kilometres. Will the proposed station be moving or a static one?

LP: The proposed station is connected to the seabed, but the structure can still move with the currents to optimise the garbage collection. The position also depends on the water currents and it should be located at the part where the ocean currents naturally gather the garbage.

The floating station in move | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
The floating station in move Image: Lenka Petráková

NP: What materials would be used to build it? You have solar panels on the greenhouses, is there anything else you have proposed in particular?

LP: It is a concept design, and the materials will be characterised in the following stages.

NP: Who do you think would be the right person/company to move the project forward?

LP: I believe Elon Musk would be a great patron of the project given his energy and excitement to push the technology forward and to research new territories.

The proposed greenhouse on the 8th Continent | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
The proposed greenhouse on the 8th Continent Image: Lenka Petráková

NP: Can you tell us a bit of your work at Zaha Hadid Architects as a designer and architect, your design philosophy and how it evolved into this manifestation?

LP: The 8th Continent is the project I started to develop as my master thesis at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna before joining the Zaha Hadid Architects.

I was always interested in the connection between technology and design. How we can move the architectural field's boundaries and how we can support progress and research. I believe this is part of my motivation for applying for a position in ZHA, a company that embodies visionary architecture.

The proposed Research & Education labs and living quarters on board the 8th Continent | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
The proposed Research & Education labs and living quarters on board the 8th Continent Image: Lenka Petráková

NP: What are your views on the responsibility of architecture toward building a greener and cleaner tomorrow?

LP: From my experience, environmental concepts are part of every new building and they are being developed from the very beginning of each project to fit its needs.

The beauty of architecture is in its possibilities. Every architectural work combines aesthetics, technology, fabrication techniques and materiality. It has a large social and economic impact. The architects are, for me, conductors that integrate and synchronise all of the different aspects to create one final piece.

Lenka Petráková | The 8th Continent by Lenka Petráková | STIRworld
Lenka Petráková Image: Courtesy of Lenka Petráková

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