Archie Lee Coates IV
May 01 2015
Jeff and I had just come back from starting PieLab in Greensboro, AL with a bunch of friends. It was an insane experience that blew the lid off what we thought we’d do together as PlayLab from that point on and solidified our belief that not knowing where we were going was a good thing and that we wanted to pursue things we didn’t entirely understand. We didn’t want to always wait for clients to knock on our door. We wanted to put ideas out there that we wanted to see—initiatives.
Playlab is A collaborative art and design practice founded in 2005 by Archie Lee Coates IV and Jeffrey Franklin.
Family is A design firm that focuses on buildings and public space, directed by Dong-Ping Wong and Oana Stanescu.
+ Pool has received press from the New Yorker, The Guardian, Washington Post, Fast Company, Huffington Post, Wired, Economist, NPR, Crain’s and Time Out.
It was chosen as one of Time Magazine’s best inventions of 2013.
Jeff had worked with Dong-Ping Wong and Oana Stanescu at an architecture office called REX but really didn’t know each other outside of that. Dong had seen PieLab, knew we were using design to build worlds around ideas, so he emailed Jeff and said he wanted to talk about an idea for a project. A lot of people talk about ideas, which is rad and fine. But Dong was different.
We had coffee near his studio (now a studio we share), on Perry St, and in the most chill way possible Dong said he wanted to design a floating swimming pool in the East River in New York that would filter the river enough for people to swim in it. Whether or not he had any intention for it to become real, he talked about it as if it were real. We saw it as real. Not that any of us thought it couldn’t be done, but we weren’t really thinking that far ahead. It was the recession. No one was getting calls, especially not small architecture offices. We had nothing to lose and thought it’d be better to put ideas out there that embodied the type of work we wanted, rather than wait for the work we didn’t.
It was about doing something awesome with your friends. Dong had this incredible way of talking about it all from the very beginning—like it was no big deal (but with reverence for what it would take). On that first day, I don’t think we had any idea that the filtration system we were proposing had never existed before, and we certainly had no idea how to make it. It was just a thing that we thought could get us all into the river.
The success of the project hinged on the thousands of people that put their time and money into making it happen.
Family had just placed in a competition for the design of a museum in Slovenia, and they put that prize money towards launching + POOL. That was a huge risk and super inspiring for us—that someone would spend money, or time at all, pursuing something so monumental and tough, without anybody asking him to. A lark.
We started with four incredibly fun weeks at Family building up the world around + POOL, starting pretty much right after that first day at the coffee shop. It was an insane month—
everything happened in that span of time. Together we found a way to communicate the way we saw it coming to life to the public. We treated it almost like any other project, but in reverse. No client, no money and no constraints. We had nobody telling us what we could or couldn’t do, so from the very beginning we were asking what and why it should be, and most importantly, how it should be.
At the end of it, we had a pool (at least in our minds). Renderings, drawings and stories spread across books, posters, and a website. We really didn’t know any of the people personally who could help to make it happen, so we made a wish list, put that list on the website, and explained the project in as fun and clear a way possible.
This was one of the major moments where friendship drove the project forward. Our friend Brian Jones, who we met through PieLab, was working for PSFK and wrote a little article on it. For his friends, you know? It was a far-out project, but he thought it was rad enough to share with the world. He called the article “The Future of Water Recreation in New York City”. It’s one thing to see an article like that online, but to have your friend write that about your project is a whole other wild feeling that we had never felt before. Somehow, that article made its way around the internet, and within a few days, there had been something like 50,000 visits to pluspool.org, and it crashed our server. Within days we were fielding all sorts of inquiries from people everywhere asking if this thing was real.
The biggest (and probably the most astonishing) call was from the principal of Arup in New York, Craig Covil. We weren’t expecting any calls, let alone one from a well established firm that’s engineered some of the most innovative pieces of architecture in the world. We thought it was a joke at first, but it wasn’t. He said they loved the project, thought it’d be a great contribution to not only New York but the world, and asked if we could work together to prove it could happen. That was the first major time we had to decide whether or not we were going to move this thing forward, it was of course, a no-brainer.
The filtration system is capable of filtering 600,000 gallons of river water per day. It can be used to solve a multitude of clean water issues in cities around the world.
All of it happened so fast that we didn’t even have time stop and think about whether or not we’d pursue it. We were in, right out of the gate.
The feasibility report with Arup took about six months or so, and at the end of learning more than we ever thought we’d learn about water filtration, engineering, and floating architecture, we had this thick report that basically said, “this can work.” It outlined some of the key next steps we needed to take to make + POOL happen, and just like that, it became a little bit more real.
The next step forward was super clear: we had to test a part of the filtration system. It was going to cost around $25K. We didn’t have that money, and certainly had no experience in raising it, so we went to Kickstarter. They were relatively new, and there certainly weren’t any large-scale civic architecture projects on the site, but we thought they were rad. We called them up, met a girl named Cassie, and told her about this insane plan to build a water-filtering floating pool in the river.
We told her the entire pool was going to cost somewhere around $15M in construction, but only wanted to raise a small fraction of that to test a part of the filtration system. Cassie helped us understand that the value of something like Kickstarter isn’t necessarily the money, but the community that’s built around a project. It’s people that make projects like this happen, not money. She wasn’t fazed by the massiveness, and for some reason neither were we, so we went for it.
The response was insane. Friends, family, strangers and everyone in between came out of the woodwork and all of a sudden that inconceivable $25K was raised in 6 days. At the end of the 30 day campaign, it’d almost doubled, and + POOL had $41K pledged from 1,400 people to build a small piece of a filtration system that had never existed before.
One of the first renderings showed + POOL in Brooklyn Bridge Park, so they were the first logical people to call. The Parks and Recreation Department introduced us to two extremely generous women named Jen Klein and Regina Meyer and we asked them if it might be cool to test in their park. They were phenomenally supportive, so we set up a mobile office and a testing facility at the end of a pier. Columbia University let us use some equipment and trained us on how to test for water quality. A dude named Wes LeForce moved from Texas to help us grab water samples and run the tests. We had no idea what we were doing at first, but because of that Kickstarter campaign, we had a circle of friends surrounding us pushing us forward.
After 10 weeks on the river and countless hours of Wes taking water samples in the hot sun back and forth from the river to a steaming hot shipping container, the tests had been successful. We had proof that the first part of this non-existent filtration system worked, leading us to believe the entire thing would, too. The renderings we had made the year before now felt tangible. We could touch the water, and we had data showing a trajectory that meant being able to swim in the river. That was the next big moment.
We spent the better part of the next year in meetings. Conversations with anyone and everybody that would talk with us. The only way this project was going to happen in the right way was if all of New York was involved. So, we called up everybody we could. We met people from the Department of Environmental Conservation, Parks & Recreation, City Planning, borough presidents, council members, state senators, developers, engineers, water quality advocates, swim organizations, designers, museums architects, urban planners. You name it. We had 5-10 meetings a week, each one making our next steps more clear: permits we’d need, people we needed to talk to, unforeseen things we never would’ve thought we needed to accomplish. The project was becoming larger and larger and larger, but we looked at each of those things one at a time.
After a year of building up support and planning, it was time to take the next step, and we went back to Kickstarter. The community that was built around + POOL with that first campaign was so powerful that we couldn’t imagine fundraising in any other way. This time was different though, because we needed $250,000 to build and test the entire filtration system. The first campaign was scary enough, but a quarter million dollars. Holy shit. That’s a lot of money, but again it didn’t really faze anybody on the team. We all had our fair share of oh fuck moments, but every step of the way, Dong, Jeff, Oana, Wes, Nancy, Craig, Gabriel, and all the people that had pushed it this far weren’t fazed. There was never a shadow of a doubt that we were going to swim in the river.
Realizing that the success of the project hinged upon the thousands of people who invested their time and money into making it happen, we wanted to give people the opportunity to buy and reserve a piece of it for themselves. The whole campaign was centered around the individual tiles that would be on the future pool. We took the construction budget, divided it by the number of tiles on the future pool (which came out to be right around $200 a tile), and offered to engrave the name of anyone who purchased a tile. We figured if every tile was reserved, + POOL’s entire construction budget would be funded from front to back. We launched it, and it worked. 3,175 people reserved $273K worth of tiles. There are no words to describe that day.
We spent the winter designing and building the prototype of the filtration system and called it Float Lab. Dozens of organizations, firms, schools, volunteers, designers and engineers got together to build something nearly 5,000 people had given money to see happen. Because of these people: Persak & Wurmfeld, Wes LeForce, Greg Grzybowski, Nancy Choi, all of Arup, Hudson River Park, Columbia University, Community Boathouse, Riverkeeper, River Project, DEC, Army Corps of Engineers and countless others, we launched a 30 foot long rough draft version of + POOL into the river.
After 5 months of battling a multitude of filtration materials, it worked. It took four years to get to this point—monumental support, excitement, and friendship, and now we have data that shows we can clean river water to New York City’s standards for swimming.
Now we’re embarking upon the craziest and most challenging part of the project yet: raising the rest of the money needed to actually finish development, permitting and construction of + POOL in New York. We need to raise a lot more than $250K, but we’ve got the team to do it.
Just like every other stage of the process, we have no idea how to proceed, and ask the advice of the people around us that have supported the project to get it here. After months of conversations and reviewing options, we’re now the proud owners of Friends of + POOL, a non-profit dedicated to making it happen. We have an insane board of directors (soon to be announced), and the world around + POOL is growing at a more rapid pace than we could’ve ever imagined.
There have been little bits of panic, stress, worry and confusion, but at the same time, we’ve been continually surrounded by positivity that pushes + POOL forward. Time Magazine called it one of the best inventions of 2013. It was nominated for awards at INDEX in Copenhagen and more recently SXSW in Austin. It won engineering and design awards, was the subject of a David Letterman monologue, and made its way into United Airlines’ magazine on every flight in America. Jay-Z wrote about it, the Mayor of Sydney tweeted about it. It’s been in the New Yorker and on the cover of the Village Voice.
3,175 people bought $273K worth of tiles.
The project has become one of the largest crowdfunded civic projects in the world, raising over $310K from over 4,500 backers on Kickstarter alone.
At the outset of a project as large as this, you have to have a firm belief that it can happen, but be comfortable with the fact that you have no idea how it’ll happen. That’s the crazy thing about + POOL. It’s not like one day it’s not a real project, and then one day it is. It has always been real, and the attitudes of our team, friends and family are what makes it real—a long and gradual slope of reality.
It’s not that we intentionally hold ourselves back from thinking about how big this thing is, we just naturally don’t think about it. In the day-to-day, you’re so zoomed in and focused on small pieces of the puzzle—and every piece of the puzzle is so much fun to solve—that you just don’t think about how massive of an undertaking it really is.
There’s no model to follow for doing this, so the process is like one big black hole. You’re traveling in the dark. You don’t know which way is up or down, you just trust that you’re going to get somewhere. You keep the big goal in the back of your mind and focus on that next step. You take leaps towards what you think is the best direction, and if it fails, you just shrug it off and leap in a different direction. You hold onto the little victories and keep building them up until one day you’re hopefully standing on a deck with your friends, about to jump in and turn years of insane work from thousands of loving people into a sweet pool.
It has attracted interest from municipalities in Sydney, London, Sao Paulo, Cape Town, Tokyo, Philadelphia and Boston.
The completion of the project will mark the first time in over a century that New Yorkers can safely swim in their rivers.