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Environmental Studies

David Bruce '13 sees future of urban design
David is an ES/Econ major

Posted July 23, 2012

photo credit: Urban Lab webpage

Sam “David” Bruce ‘13 is taking advantage of a new Bowdoin fellowship to gain experience in the imaginative field of sustainable architecture and urban design. This summer he is helping to fashion cutting-edge buildings and infrastructure that could one day recycle resources, reduce waste and cut pollution.

Bruce is the first recipient of the Cooke fellowship, established last year by Chester W. Cooke III ’57 to support students pursuing environmental studies. The rising senior is using his funding to intern at the UrbanLab, an architecture firm in Chicago founded by the husband and wife team of Martin Felsen and Sarah Dunn.

Bruce’s first project is to look at the feasibility of placing outdoor machines that can recycle household and office wastewater, and stormwater, on every city block. “The firm is looking to keep water in Chicago and recycle it,” Bruce explained. “They’re proposing to build Living Machines, which have natural filters that clean wastewater using natural biology [such as plants and beneficial microrganisms].” The Living Machine is a patented technology that mimics the cleansing process of a natural tidal wetland.

Bruce said the machines would take up the equivalent space of one or two parking spots. This system, which he referred to a “water farm,” could, in the eyes of UrbanLab’s architects, one day replace the city’s current system, which draws water from Lake Michigan, cleans it and then expunges it into the Mississippi River where it ends up in the Gulf of Mexico.

urban lab diagram

As a plus, Bruce said, Living Machines can be artfully designed as wetland tanks with living creatures, such as plants, shrimp or goldfish, visible to passers-by.

Bruce’s role in this project has been to research the average water consumption per city block, as well as to make diagrams of what the machines might look like. He said it’s been gratifying to see the Living Machine project move from an abstraction to a real possibility. “This Living Machine project was very conceptual and idea-based when I came in,” Bruce said. “But … I’ve helped Martin realize how feasible it actually is.”

At Bowdoin, Bruce is an environmental studies and economics major, and a visual arts minor, and credits the classes he’s taken with Prof. Jill Pearlman, a lecturer in environmental studies, for giving him a grounding in urban architecture and design.

UrbanLab is also tackling a number of other projects, including the creation of “free-water districts,” Bruce said. “UrbanLab is looking to revitalize the rust belt by attracting water-intensive industries to the shrinking towns and cities in the Midwest,” he explained. The concept is that in exchange for free water, industries will treat their wastewater through a series of constructed wetlands that would help remediate adjacent post-industrial landscapes.

Besides imagining the future, the firm also engages in other more traditional architectural work, including retrofitting buildings and designing earth-friendly housing projects.

Bruce said working with UrbanLab’s visionary architects and the graduate student interns (he’s the only undergraduate intern) has been both inspiring and grounding. “They have all these very big ideas on how to change infrastructure,” Bruce said. “We’re going to have to change, what with rising global populations and increasing densities of cities. We need to change the way we do things, and I think environmental design is interesting because it incorporates creativity and practical considerations for the way we live in cities.”

Besides delving into environmental architecture this summer, David Bruce is playing rugby. Back at Bowdoin, he’s president of the rugby club. In Chicago, he’s playing a form of the game called, among other things, sevens rugby, which will be featured in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. “I’m playing with the Chicago Lions alongside some very talented college players, a few all-Americans, and one U.S. Eagle [the national team]. I’m learning a ton,” Bruce said.

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“UrbanLab is looking to revitalize the rust belt by attracting water-intensive industries to the shrinking towns and cities in the Midwest,” he explained. "The concept is that in exchange for free water, industries will treat their wastewater through a series of constructed wetlands that would help remediate adjacent post-industrial landscapes."

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