“We bonded quickly,” Coates recalled during his 2014 College of Architecture and Urban Studies commencement address, “and during intense times at the studio, we’d head to Bollo’s downtown, take an absurdly large stack of napkins, fill them with the most ridiculous ideas we could think of, and wouldn’t leave until we’d drawn on all of them.”
“This became a regular thing; napkin after napkin, we drew heaping mounds of ideas, always trying to imagine things that weren’t things that existed before we drew them. Some made sense, and most of them didn’t, but it didn’t really matter because there in a tiny coffee shop in Blacksburg, Virginia, we could make whatever we wanted, and no one could tell us we couldn’t,” he said.
With their design studio PlayLab now based in New York City, Coates and Franklin continue to dream without limits, partnering with professionals from a wide range of disciplines.
“On a super-hot summer day in 2010, Jeff and I sat down for coffee with an architect and friend named Dong in front of a pile of napkins and drew an idea that would change the course of our adventure forever,” Coates said. “It started with an extremely simple realization that no one swims in the rivers that surround New York.”
And so was born one of PlayLab’s best-known—and high-tech—projects: a floating, water-filtering pool named +POOL.
The team spent six months proving the feasibility of an innovative concept for a filtration system and launched an initial 30-day Kickstarter campaign to help fund the project.
By August 2011, PlayLab had partnered with Columbia University and was conducting water-quality tests in a rented shipping-container lab in Brooklyn Bridge Park on the banks of the East River.
The next year, Coates and Franklin collaborated with an engineering firm to design the proposed filtration system. When the system needed to be tested in real river conditions—which required $250,000, money they didn’t have—they approached the challenge like any other design problem they had learned to solve in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
“We broke the pool down to its most common element, a 4-by-12-inch tile, and gave [people] the opportunity to put their name on the pool. We realized that if people bought every single one of the 70,000 tiles that would make up the deck, walls, and floor of +POOL, the entire construction budget would be funded ... making it the largest civic, crowd-funded architecture project of all time,” said Coates.
Their plan worked. In 30 days, 3,175 people had purchased $273,000 worth of tiles.
And now, a seemingly impossible dream conceived on a napkin is becoming reality. After working to perfect the filtering technology, the team reduced the river water’s bacterial counts to zero without using chemicals—an amazing feat since the regular bacterial count in the Hudson can reach frighteningly high levels. As the project enters its next phase, the team anticipates that the +POOL will be construction-ready in a year.