New desalination technology to revolutionise settlement possibilities

Updated: Dec 12, 2019

Exclusive interview with Los Angeles based Jake Johnson, CEO of Net+ (Net Positive).

In our first exclusive interview with innovative architects, planners and engineers, Climate Change Cities talks with recent Sci_Arc graduate Jake Johnson about his new solar powered desalination technology that is creating a stir in the design world.

CCC: Congratulations on being invited to the Milan Design Week 2019. Can you tell us a little about the project that you will be exhibiting/talking on and how you came to be selected for this prestigious event?

Several months ago I was approached by car maker Lexus ~ who are sponsoring innovative emerging designers ~ to submit a design for a small scale desalination system for the Milan Design Week. I had been selected because of the success we had at the Global Grand Challenge that was hosted by Cambridge University last year. We will be exhibiting our newest technology that will be able to provide water for up to 800 people per day with a small system without using grid-supplied energy. Afterwards, we will be donating the system to a location that needs the water system.

CCC: What is the difference between reverse osmosis desalination compared to your new technology?

Reverse osmosis, which is the industry norm, is a filtration system developed at UCLA in the 1950s and have grown to prominence around the world. It uses vast quantities of fossil fuels to push water through thousands of layers of fabric to get somewhat clean water at the end. It is expensive to build, power and maintain. The excess salt is then dumped back into the ocean where it becomes saltier and kills marine life. The filters need to be replaced and full-time staffing is required for any of the dozens of problems that occur.

Net Positive Desalination is a response to all of those problems. Our systems use the same logic as the natural precipitation cycle. We use concentrated solar energy from mirrors to boil the water into steam. That steam is pure water which is pushed through a turbine. The result is pure water and renewable energy. The hot brine/salt is then flushed into a chamber with the city’s wastewater from our toilets, showers, and sinks. The hot salt kills the bacteria in the water and it becomes the same salinity level as the ocean where it is safely released without killing marine life. It solves several large-scale infrastructure problems with cities while generating revenue.

CCC: As a recent graduate of Sci-arc in Los Angeles did you find support in the curriculum and faculty for your interest in designing new desalination technology and design for climate change refugees?

SCI-Arc is an interesting place that has many layers that most people from the outside do not usually see. If you see the thesis events or the spring show, you would imagine that the majority of the curriculum is dedicated to the visual impact and formal exploration without resolving building systems, sustainable design, or tectonic legibility but the advanced studies courses are taught by some of the best in the world.

<Our mission is to mitigate drought in cities around the world in order to reduce the amount of mass-migration in the future>.

Although there is a culture of experimentation that does not mean there wasn’t an internal struggle when it came to proposing a hybrid engineering and architectural urban design project for thesis. Proposing an urban planning project that relied on a heavy engineering foundation at SCI-Arc was challenging. I understood that parametric/engineered urban planning thesis was venturing into uncharted territory but SCI-Arc was willing to guide me even though they did not know where I was leading them.

CCC: Did you experience a “climate change epiphany” that informed your current direction? A point where you realised as a designer that almost nothing else matters? Or was it a more organic, natural progression to where you are now?

The most important paradigm shift has been the ongoing drought in California as I have seen my home go from lush farmland and vineyards to a dry dustbowl due to the extreme drought and overconsumption. Nothing motivates you to take action more than when your home is threatened.

The recent fires in California have been progressively worse and its entirely due to the lack of rainfall, high winds, and human over-consumption of our natural water resources. Since concerning myself with the water industry, I have found out that nearly every major coastal city in the world has water shortage problems. Even in tropical climates, locations such as Miami are suffering from dwindling water resources due to contamination and human overconsumption.

Our mission is to mitigate drought in cities around the world in order to reduce the amount of mass-migration in the future.

CCC: How do you find working in Los Angeles, arguably the epitome of fossil fuel reliant cities from a planning perspective? What innovations can you see that hold promise for stemming climate change and improving the quality of life in Southern California?

Despite all of its growth and prospects, Los Angeles is the most problematic city in a developed nation that I have visited. The housing crisis, endless traffic, homelessness, drought, low wages, pollution, fires, contamination, and lack of public transit are some of the many significant issues that need to be solved urgently. Fortunately, they are also opportunities that we can solve through intelligent planning.

Many of these issues can be fixed with large multi-family housing. Single family homes have a large land and carbon footprint in Los Angeles and there is a lot here. Changing zoning laws and building dense and vertical will lower traffic demands because people will be living closer to work. It will also lower water consumption because multifamily housing is significantly more efficient with water usage than single-family homes with individual pools. If enough central housing is built, we could solve some issues such as water consumption, traffic, high housing costs, pollution, and some homelessness.

CCC: Can you tell us about some of the applications and markets you are approaching for your new desalination system?

The primary market right now is drought-affected cities, island communities, remote military bases, agriculture, and new cities. Our system has been designed to be built in less than 6 months and up to 90% cheaper than anything currently available. Current ‘reverse osmosis’ systems cost roughly $100 million+ to operate a year due to the high fossil fuel and energy costs as well as fines for dumping the brine back into the ocean. Our system generates water and electricity while using the hot brine to treat wastewater. It ultimately saves cities $150 million+ a year while making coastlines cleaner because a byproduct of the system ~ the hot salt that is extracted from the water ~ is used in the wastewater and sewage treatment plants of the same settlements saving an additional $40m-$50m per year. We also have portable modules for disaster relief, remote locations, and contamination sites. This system would be able to desalinate or purify contaminated water for up to 800 people without the use of grid supplied energy and is immediately deployable.

<Net Positive's philosophy is to build with the expectation of evolution>.

CCC: At the advent of modernism the idea of Utopia was in vogue for a number of seasons; a century later mere survival seems to be a difficult enough task - what are your thoughts about the consequences for the architectural profession?

I am reluctant to use the term utopia in the same way that Le Corbusier did in the 1920’s and 30’s because those utopias fetishized the automobile. I think we have great cities around the world that have excellent strategies that can be implemented with new technologies and minor improvements. There are simple elements we know that work everywhere: Dense cities with housing and commercial integrated into each neighborhood, efficient transportation, and access to public spaces. Those elements can be mixed and rearranged in an infinite amount of ways while creating something new.

Net Positive's philosophy is to build with the expectation of evolution. A utopian city today would not meet our requirements in 20, 80, 200 years into the future. We need to make spaces, buildings, and policies that allow our cities to change with our values, technology and lifestyle. The best way to do this is to make simple yet smart buildings that are low-energy, incorporate solar geometry, and have low resource consumption as their most important design criteria, including water.

CCC: Thanks Jake - Best of luck at Milan Design Week and for 2019.

Net + work can be viewed at and Jake can be reached at for more information.

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