The L.A. architect and environmentalist David Hertz has a knack for repurposing stuff: planks of wood into skateboards, the wings of a Boeing 747 into the roof of a house, crushed LPs (smashed by teens in a gang intervention program) into flooring for a record label’s headquarters. But when a former client told him, last year, that he knew a guy who had invented a way to turn air into water, Hertz was incredulous.

“I was, like, sure, let’s try it,” Hertz said. “It sounds like alchemy. And it sounds too good to be true, but let’s try it.”

Hertz connected with Richard Groden, a general contractor in Florida and one of the inventors of the machine (called the Skywater). Last year, Groden flew to meet Hertz at his Venice office. It was four years into the California drought, and many fountains and showers near the beach, key sources of water for the local homeless population, had been shut off. Groden and Hertz hatched a plan: Groden would donate a Skywater 150 to Hertz—one of about twenty currently in use—and Hertz would demo it to prospective clients while helping to alleviate his neighborhood’s water shortage. Hertz installed it in his office last September.

The machine, which costs eighteen thousand dollars, looks like a large air-conditioner and sounds like a jet engine. It condenses moisture from the atmosphere into a tank and dispenses filtered, distilled water. Hertz does not need all the water his unit produces (as much as a hundred and fifty gallons a day), so he directs the excess into large drums that water more than eighty vegetable boxes throughout his Venice neighborhood, which, though gentrifying, is still gritty.

Hertz pointed one out the other day in front of Gjusta, a high-end deli, where he met Nicole Landers, a founder of the urban-garden initiative, for lunch. All the produce in the boxes is free for the taking. Hertz and Landers ordered fava-bean and charred-broccolini salads and two glass bottles of water (“From Arkansas,” Hertz noted, with a sigh).

“People think about water scarcity and they think about Africa—they think about the Third World,” Hertz said. “But now we think about Flint, these urban water issues.”

He said that at his house tap water smells like sulfur: “I can’t even brush my teeth with it.”

Back on the sidewalk, Landers and Hertz assessed a planter of rainbow chard. A gang sign had been spray-painted on it. “All the boxes are soon going to say ‘Watered by Skywater,’ to help the community understand that these boxes are not watered with tap water,” said Hertz, who earns a commission for every machine he persuades someone to purchase. He hopped on an electric bike (he has a Prius, but he rents it to a woman from Finland) and pedalled back to his office, which is near the beach. It’s decorated with photos of past building projects, like a “Balinese Modern” mansion made famous by the Showtime series “Californication.”

There’s a smaller Skywater unit in the office kitchen; it looks like a regular office water cooler, minus the plastic jug.

“Water’s available,” Hertz said. “There’s thirty-nine-per-cent relative humidity today, so it’s good weather to make water.”

The hundred-and-fifty-gallon unit shares an outdoor storage space with surfboards. It funnels water into a fountain that Hertz installed in an adjacent alley for homeless people to use.

“If they were going to buy water, it’s two dollars for a litre,” Hertz said.

Other neighbors have taken note. The studios of artists and filmmakers used to line Hertz’s block; now Snapchat has moved in, and Evan Spiegel, one of the company’s co-founders, just bought a three-hundred-gallon Skywater for his personal use. “It’s survival water—an emergency water supply,” Hertz said. He and Spiegel have talked about throwing a block party one day this summer and distributing donated canteens to the community. “We already have water mavens that are telling people, ‘Hey, there’s water at this location.’ ”

Hertz looked up at a new mural in the alley: hulking gold figures hold pots of water aloft. “Traditionally, you would have a community well,” he said. “You’d have an oasis, and people would come from miles around.”