With half of the Netherlands below sea level, the Dutch have always been famous for their clever ways to conquer the water. And they constantly keep coming up with new ideas and products that fight climate change. Dutch designer Fien Dekker now invented a series of pavement tiles that beautifully integrate rainwater drainage into the design of urban space.

Fien has always been attracted to water. The success of a summer holiday was dependent on the proximity of a pool or the beach. Later, when studying at the internationally acclaimed Design Academy in Eindhoven, it wasn’t a surprise that she chose to focus on creative ways to deal with water.

“It all came together in the end,” she smiles when we have a chat with her during the 2017 Dutch Design Week. Held every October in Eindhoven, the design event is the largest of its kind in Northern Europe. It celebrates the works and ideas of more than 2,500 designers, focusing on overcoming the challenges of tomorrow.

Rain(a)way has been nominated for the What Design Can Do Awards, she is giving lectures about her project and hosting workshops for landscape architects and policy-makers. “It’s a busy but inspiring week!” she shares.

closeup of red Rainaway drainage system
Rain(a)way’s design tiles bring out the beauty of rain.
Photo: Rain(a)way
designer Fien Dekker showing her project Rainaway
Designer Fien Dekker came up with the aesthetic and functional pavement.
Photo: Adam Nowek

The tides of rain in the city

During her workshop Fien aims to connect the distinct worlds of landscape design and water management. “That connection is still very hard to make,” she admits. “Strangely, water design is hardly ever part of an urban design project from the very beginning. It always comes afterwards. I want to change that way of thinking.

Rain(a)way started as her graduation project for the Design Academy. It’s a very straight-forward product design: a set of tiles for street surfaces. Thanks to its unique texture, the Ebb tile guides rainwater towards water-permeable surfaces.

It complements the Flood tile, which collects the water and lets it seep into the ground through tiny water-permeable openings. The Rain(a)way tiles can replace traditional ‘closed’ pavement tiles, making natural water infiltration possible again.

Fien soon discovered how her vision of water in public space needed more than just a product line. The focus of Rain(a)way has evolved to a broader perspective, where Fien acts as a source of inspiration and an expert for urban designers and policy-makers who are increasingly coping with flooded roads and pavements.

a red tile
Stylish and permeable: Rain(a)way’s innovative tiles.
Photo: Adam Nowek
a pavement consisting of Rainaway tiles that leads to a neighborhood
Several sets have already been installed in the Netherlands.
Photo: Rain(a)way

How to use rain with creativity

When Fien lived in Namibia for a four-month internship, she became inspired by the relationship between the locals and rain. A daily topic of conversation, people waited in anticipation for the rain to come. During her stay, it hardly ever rained. And when it did, people greeted the water with excitement.

Back in the Netherlands, she noticed the strong aversion to rain. “When I came back to Eindhoven, I read a lot about the issues surrounding increasing rainfall as my graduation project focused on climate change. The contradiction between the desire for rain in Africa and the aversion back home was striking,” Fien says. “I wanted to create something that would highlight the beauty of rain. A solution that shows how water in public space could add value and quality. I think we should embrace water.”

During her research, the young designer became fascinated by Japanese culture and architecture. She marveled at how the Japanese combined high-tech with a strong sense of nature. A few months later, Fien found herself on a plane to Tokyo.

“In Japan, they have a tradition of integrating water into architecture in a very refined way. So inspiring!” Fien took some of the basic principles and methods of Japanese architecture in order to shape her own designs. “All over Japan you can find temples — in cities and in the countryside. Most of them have a space for a traditional purification ritual, that involves a natural water flow that is captured in a basin before it flows over. The natural water flow is delayed as it were, and by doing so it adds a certain value.

Bringing back water into the urban mix

Why would you want to bring back natural water cycles to our cities? Fien explains: “The natural flow has completely disappeared in the modern urban environment. All rainwater flows directly into the sewers and not into the soil.” This is both a waste and a burden, being magnified by climate change.

“Heavy rainfall will increasingly be interchanged with periods of drought, leading to more heat stress in large cities,” Fien states. “Our current sewage systems will not be able to cope with increased periods of heavy rainfall. Sewers will flood and the water has nowhere to go, as all our streets are completely sealed shut with tiles and asphalt.”

Fien wants to show how a product like the Rain(a)way tile can be one of the missing links in a larger climate-adaptive design for urban spaces. “We are working together with more and more partners to make sure it’s more than just a tile. It should be part of an integral public space design with a more open surface.”

It started with a design, but now it is more about making it workable in practice. Government agencies, landscape architects – they all need to get on board, “on a scale that can actually make an impact.”

Fien Dekker stands next to tiles designed by herself
Fien Dekker with installed tiles in the city of Tilburg.
Photo: Adam Nowek

Realising her vision for climate-proof public spaces

Near Eindhoven, in the city of Tilburg, Fien’s visions have come together in a new public square named after Vincent van Gogh. “It’s a very cool project, opening this November,” Fien shares enthusiastically.

The square was redesigned on the initiative of local residents, who wanted to create a tribute to the famous painter who once lived on the square. Fien was first approached by the architects for tiles surrounding the historic trees, as they needed proper water infiltration.

“But I brought a lot of more ideas to the table. Ideas on how we could make the complete square’s design more sustainable and more beautiful at the same time.” The designer got on board and created a design inspired by colors used by van Gogh during his Dutch period.

A link between landscape and product design

Fien states that she doesn’t want to become a landscape architect. “I see my work as complementary to the work of architects and urban designers. We can inspire each other. My passion lies in creating a link between landscape design and product design and, of course, integrate water management into the mix.” The project in Tilburg is a beautiful showcase of such a collaboration.

Rain(a)way is part of a larger movement that is working on making our cities more climate-proof and adaptable to a changing environment. “Ten years from now, I hope that we, as Rain(a)way, can say that we have contributed to making our cities more climate-proof. That we have changed the perception of public space.” Fien concludes, “imagine if we could sweep our streets with lawn mowers instead of  broom trucks?”

Vincent Van Gogh square in Tilburg
A Tilburg square fitted with Rain(a)way tiles.
Photo: Adam Nowek

For more information on Rain(a)way, click here.