Monday, July 13, 2009

The Waterpod Project: Sustainable Living In the Waters of NYC

If you’ve ever wanted to escape city life without being too far from the city, you might take some cues from artist Mary Mattingly. After several years of planning, she is now living on an inland deck barge — dubbed Waterpod — currently docked at Governors Island’s Yankee Pier.

Built from recycled materials and eco-friendly products, Waterpod is a sustainable living space, with its inhabitants (all artists) living almost completely off the barge itself. Chickens and a garden supply the food, and the barge relies solely on solar power, bicycle power and a picohydro system (water power).

Designed as a public work of art, since it launched in late May (it was first docked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard), it has showcased artwork and served as an educational tool, with visits from three to four school groups a week, said Mattingly.

Waterpod has open hours for the public to take tours. This past weekend, inhabitants of the barge hosted a yoga session, after which participants were encouraged to tour Governors Island’s green landscape.

The barge will be touring the Hudson and East Rivers, docking in each of the five boroughs. So far, it has had a strong presence in Brooklyn. Along with the Navy Yard, Waterpod was previously docked at the Sheepshead Bay Marina. For almost two weeks in August, the barge will visit Brooklyn Bridge Park.

Sustainable Living

Waterpod measures about 120 by 18 feet. It is made up of four separate spaces: a public area; space for the garden; an area that includes a bathroom, kitchen and gathering space; and a structure of 10 by 60 feet that’s broken up into sleep spaces.

Although the space to sleep is small and the barge is sometimes shared by up to five people, Mattingly (pictured left with Alison Ward and Eve K. Tremblay, artists and residents of the Waterpod) says it wasn’t that hard of an adjustment. “My apartment in Long Island City was quite small as well,” she laughed.

A typical day for the Waterpod occupants — all volunteers — starts at around 6:30 a.m., said Mattingly. Morning activities include visiting the chickens, cleaning their pen and watering the garden. The group then makes coffee with a “rocket stove,” which is a steel drum in which scraps are burned, made for the Waterpod Project by students in California.

Mattingly explained that for the remainder of a day, inhabitants clean the deck, check e-mails, make phone calls, work on the systems on the boat that aren’t yet complete, and take some leisure time.

The experience of living on the Waterpod has been good so far, Mattingly noted. “It’s really nice to sleep here at night. It’s peaceful.” But, she said, “it’s more isolating than I had imagined.”

There have been some challenges that Mattingly didn’t anticipate before moving on to the barge. “We don’t have enough food,” she said, because the chickens only produce one to two eggs a day and the vegetables — although getting fuller, particularly because of the rain — haven’t been able to feed the entire group. So they have supplemented with produce from local CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture groups) and gifts they have received.

Mattingly said the group has also decided to incorporate visits to surrounding neighborhoods, something that wasn’t planned before. They would take between 20 and 40 dollars a day out to explore.

Mattingly previously thought the group would be able to rely on bicycle power, but this has also proven difficult. “I have to pedal for half an hour to get half my cell phone charged,” she said. So they’ve placed more of an emphasis on solar power, which has been good despite the rain, and a machine that generates power from rainwater. Mattingly noted that she hopes to get a wind turbine installed on the barge, but that’s also been a struggle, as the Department of Buildings doesn’t allow them in New York City.

Still, “every day I’ve been learning something new,” Mattingly says. She hopes that people who visit and learn about the Waterpod will make changes in their own lives. “We’re pushing the limits for New York City. I hope it inspires people to implement [sustainable practices] in their own lives.”

Photos by Georgine Benvenuto

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