Designing Living Roofs – Part 1...

Rooftop Garden over Garage

I’ve been exploring various aspects of living or green roofs since I first started my own architectural practice about ten years ago. In fact my very first project was to fix up a shingled Victorian in San Francisco. It had a tiny garage in front of the house dating back to 1912 and a nice garden that wrapped around the garage. Wanting to expand the garage to fit two cars and occupy the entire footprint where the garden stood, I decided to make the roof of the new garage a giant planter. 

House before renovation

There have been many reasons which led to planting rooftop gardens over the years. In this first project, I valued having a nice green space in the tiny urban lot. I also felt strongly pushed to design in a way that begins to counter the urban heat island effect resulting from the over-paving of our denser developed areas. San Francisco also suffers from a rare policy that requires all roof water to be diverted into our sewers and then treated in sewage treatment plants – an extremely energy-intensive process. When we plant gardens on roofs, much of the rainwater is taken into the garden where it feeds the plants, evaporates into the air or, if designed properly, recharges the city’s ground water. 

Concrete planting structure before waterproofing

Placing what is essentially a large planter on top of a building is inherently challenging. Water is heavy and we must design a structure that can support the weight of a fully saturated planting medium and which will protect from any lateral wind or seismic loads that might occur during a deluge. Protecting against plant roots as they try to work a way through waterproofing is also a concern as is guarding against the sharp tools gardeners use which are not friendly to most roofing materials.

Plantings just after completion of construction

The first fix up project was a good first living roof project because I was only working over a garage and a little moisture seeping in above cars is much less problematic than similar leaks above living spaces. I essentially ended up building a concrete bunker in the side of a steep hill. This allowed me to have generous soil depth to accommodate large plants and their correspondingly large root structures. Typically, we are pushing to minimize soil depth in order to reduce the structural requirements. Since the garage was holding up the existing hillside and the house above, we ended up with a sloped garden whose depth went from 18 inches in the front to about twelve feet deep at the rear. Subsequently, we could plant shrubs and even substantial trees. For waterproofing, we used a torch-down membrane and covered it up with a drainage mat and a root barrier. We filled the planter with a conventional planting soil that was sprayed on top of the garage with a gunite hose. The plants consisted of trees, bushes and a fast-growing iceplant that served to stabilize the sloping soil.

View of Plantings Above

In subsequent projects, I have had different reasons for designing and implementing living roofs, and have faced different challenges. I will follow-up with accounts of other green roof projects shortly. Stay tuned!

The garden after the 1st year and years later

Jonathan Feldman is Editorial Director of Green Architecture Notes and Principal of Feldman Architecture.

Cottage On The Green...

cottage entranceMy wife, Cathy, and I really liked our one-story cottage near downtown Palo Alto, but the floor plan didn’t work for us at all. The most direct path to the backyard was through the master bedroom, and loving to backyard-entertain as we do, running through our bedroom with plates of meat headed to the grill quickly lost its appeal. Also, our house cost us a fortune to “heat,” and we still froze our keisters off every winter.

When we hired Drew Maran Construction (DMC) to execute the remodel, all we wanted was a beautiful, warm-modern house. We didn’t set out to be supremely green. But Drew’s level of knowledge, and his willingness to teach us about the ultimate outcomes of our choices, had a huge impact on the greenness of our project. As the remodel progressed, we began to consider “green” in every choice we made, and we’re glad we did. The house is warm, comfortable, and more beautiful that we could have imagined. We refused to compromise on design or aesthetics for the sake of being green, and in nearly every case we ended up with both!

The decision we agonized over most was finding a heating system that would work the best and be energy efficient. We went with hydronic heat, embedded in thin gypcrete poured on top of the subfloor, powered by a condensing boiler. This system was definitely more expensive up front, but it was hands-down the best decision we made. Our new house is wonderfully warm and comfortable. We’re heating a 65% larger house and our utility bills are about the same as they were. We’re planning to install solar photo voltaics, too, to reduce our energy usage and utility bills even more. We totally nailed that one in terms of both function and green.

Another big decision was to deconstruct the old house instead of demolishing it. Drew advised us that we could offset much of the additional cost of deconstruction by donating the saved materials, and taking a tax credit. He was right. Not only did the tax credit offset the deconstruction cost—but we kept a lot of material out of the landfill. In the final analysis, this green choice also saved us money.

We do have a few “woulda-shoulda-coulda’s.” We love our Blomberg windows, but we might have been able to go even more green there. Also, since our house is so well insulated, we probably should have installed a “heat recovery ventilation” system; condensation can be a problem in certain low-traffic spots during the winter.

That said, we’re absolutely thrilled with our home. The new layout works even better than we’d hoped. When the house won the Sustainable San Mateo 2010 Green Building Award, it was (organic) icing on the cake!

Bruce Schena is an inventor, entrepreneur, and engineer with multidisciplinary interests and experience spanning robotics, medicine, business, consumer product design, haptics, wood- and metal-working, modern sculpture, and architecture. Bruce has Bachelor and Masters degrees from MIT, and was the first to receive the Degree of Engineer in Product Design given by Stanford University. He holds 71 issued US patents with over 50 additional applications pending. Bruce has worked as a freelance design & engineering consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and is currently one of two Engineering Fellows at Intuitive Surgical in Sunnyvale, California. His responsibilities include defining and inventing next-generation daVinci® surgical robot architectures and technologies.

Mahiga High School Rainwater Court...

On the central plateau of Kenya, near the lush city of Nyeri, the windswept arid town of Mweiga stands in the shadow of Mount Kenya.  Locals diligently farm the land, but their livelihoods are beholden to an average of 6” of rain per year.  Despite the lack of water, the people have a thirst to provide their kids with a better life, and they recently organized to build their first local primary school.  With the support of the new town council, provincial leaders, financial support from the Nobelity Project, and design assistance from local architects, engineers, and Architecture for Humanity, the people of Mweiga are now constructing a secondary school, and a special multipurpose structure known as the Mahiga Hope High School Rainwater Court

When constructed, the Rainwater Court will provide a covered space for youth to engage in a variety of sports: basketball, volleyball, netball, football and badminton.  The space will also be open to community members for special events, movie nights, performances, and market days.  But above all, the expansive roof of the covered structure was conceived of and constructed to collect precious water for consumption and use.

The court covers 4,850 square feet, the soaring roof canopy that covers the court can collect an estimated 90,000 liters of water per year. When rainstorms occur, water immediately drains into two tanks, located at the down slope side of the roof.  In total, the tanks will hold up to 30,000 liters and is connected to a UV purification system that renders the water for potable use – to provide meals for primary and secondary school children, and to water plants and crops on site.  The roof also performs dual duties; an array of PV panels mounted on the roof will help generate enough electricity to light the facility at night for sporting events or community gatherings. 

The space is designed for flexibility and diverse programmatic uses.  Between the two storage tanks are storage spaces for sporting equipment and an elevated platform and backdrop to serve as a stage for performances, a surface to project movies, or a spectator area. It will be Mweiga’s first community meeting space and will serve as a covered farmers market. 

Perhaps the most important aspect of the project is that the project has been designed and constructed with daily input from the community.  Architecture for Humanity’s Design Fellow, Greg Elsner, lives in Mweiga and actively engages with the children, their families and local officials in Mweiga and Nyeri Province.  “Living with the community has been the most powerful part of the experience for me. The community design meetings were awesome; it’s really exciting to watch the community share their ideas, volunteer in full force, and truly take the pride and ownership in the project.”  The total design and construction process has taken a little over one year and the final project is estimated to be completed in August 2010.

Mahiga Hope High School hopes to embody the spirit and ambition that the community holds for its children.  Michael Jones, Project Manager for Architecture for Humanity, cannot underemphasize the community value of the project, “The site comes alive with community members at every opportunity to contribute.”  While the Rainwater Court is not a classroom specifically designed for academic achievement, its multipurpose nature intends to provide the resources necessary to empower the youth and extended community of Mweiga physically, spiritually and mentally, through the gift of water, the gift of sport, and the gift of community activity.

Elaine Uang currently works at Feldman Architecture and formerly worked with Architecture for Humanity where she had the good fortune to visit Mahiga High at the start of the project.

LED: The Tiniest Giants...

If you’re remodeling or building a home, you know that California has some of the toughest energy codes in the nation, and getting tougher every couple of years.  From a lighting perspective that means that lighting must be highly energy efficient.

The tiniest giant

Luckily, we have a tiny new player in the world of lighting: Solid State Lighting (SSL) better known as LED lighting. SSL has taken the lighting industry by storm and will soon knock out inefficient contenders such as incandescent, halogen and many fluorescent lamps by providing warm, dimmable, long lasting energy efficient light.

SSL is the best lighting innovation to come along since the Edison lamp, in fact, there is nothing on the horizon that can compete with this light source for the next 20 years, and SSL is projected to get better and better in 6 month cycles.

Why? Because SSL produce light via an extremely energy efficient  process called electroluminescence thereby eliminating the need to heat a filament in a gas filled vacuum tube like incandescents, or exciting gases in an arc chamber as in florescent lighting, both of which are inefficient ways to produce light.  

Instead, SSL only have to move electrons over a tiny distance to produce light. The LED chip itself is extremely small and requires very little energy to produce huge amounts of light.  Currently, a 1 watt LED is only about 1/8” square and can produce over 150 lumens per watt (LPW) of usable light.  By contrast, a 100W incandescent lamp only produces approximately 17 LPW, and fluorescents generate between 50-100 LPW – energy efficient, but still not as efficient as SSL.

This light source which until recently was considered too blue and too expensive for residential applications, now easily produces excellent color temperatures rivaling the purest white light from halogen lamps, outclasses any fluorescent light source, and is falling closer and closer to an acceptable price point.

When considering the cost of SSL, one must accept a paradigm shift in how you calculate lighting costs and its associated value. Historically, lighting cost was determined purely by the cost of the fixtures, and lamps were considered a disposable commodity.  With SSL lighting there are more criteria to consider: fixture cost, energy consumption, lamp efficacy, demand on cooling systems and lamp life. These parameters were given only marginal considerations by homeowners in the past, but going forward they will be given a bigger consideration especially since lighting is one of the highest energy consumers in the home.

SSL is not a disposal commodity; you can expect to use a typical SSL source for over 15 years. That’s longer than most people keep a car, or most appliances, so this product should be given the same consideration that one gives to choosing big ticket items such as flooring, appliances and surfaces.

From a green perspective, SSL are considered very environmentally friendly; in fact, they are environmentally friendly from production, through usable life, to disposal. 

Alfredo Zaparolli has over twenty five years experience in high-end residential construction, design and engineering. Alfredo established Techlinea Inc. in 1985 to provide quality lighting design services to discerning clients throughout the US and abroad. Prior to the founding of Techlinea, Alfredo was principal and partner of Electric Connection Inc., and was responsible for designing and installing electrical and lighting systems for many notable residences throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. He combines a deep understanding of lighting technology and design with a unique blend of creative vision, hands-on technical expertise, and collaborative style to make Techlinea sought out for projects worldwide.

Evaluating Green Choices In Sustainable Flooring...

FSC-certified Brazilian Cherry lumber at a sawmill in Brazil.

People often ask me to recommend the ‘greenest’ hardwood flooring option, expecting me to tell them to use reclaimed wood or Bamboo, and they’re shocked to hear my answer. After years of witnessing the impacts of our purchasing decisions on forests worldwide, I tell them to use FSC-certified tropical hardwood. Reclaimed wood and Bamboo are great environmental options – they both help reduce demand for wood harvested from forest ecosystems. But in my view the most significant positive environmental impact we can make is to support sustainable forestry in tropical countries.

The world’s tropical forests are rapidly disappearing – we lose an area roughly the size of Washington State every year. Logging certainly plays a role in some of that deforestation, especially when loggers cut roads into previously inaccessible areas, but the majority of the habitat destruction is for agriculture and cattle. The developing world often faces a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition – if we don’t create an economic value for the forest, it will be cleared for other purposes. So, whether it’s nuts, medicinal plants, or selectively felled timber, products that can be taken from the rainforest without destroying it are one of the best ways to breathe life into the lungs of the planet.

An aerial shot of an FSC-certified forest in the Amazon taken immediately after harvest.

The Peten, a jungle region in Guatemala, serves as a perfect example. The portion that was set aside for sustainable forestry under FSC guidelines enjoys a healthy in tact canopy, whereas the portion that was established as an ecological reserve is now a patchwork of slash and burn agriculture. The Guatemalan government doesn’t have the enforcement capacity to keep poor farmers out of the reserve, but where the forest is creating an income for local communities, they are out protecting the trees themselves. By buying FSC-certified wood from these communities, we create the economic incentive for them to keep the forest alive.

Of course, buying wood from half way around the world may seem like a poor environmental choice because of the transportation impacts, but taking a closer look at the carbon footprints of wood products reveals that things are much more complicated than many people assume. For example, a wood floor that is cut from a log harvested near a river in Brazil will travel primarily over water on its way to foreign markets. Because ocean freight is dramatically more efficient than trucking, it may actually take less diesel to get that Brazilian floor to its final destination in Seattle or New York than to truck an Oak floor to those locations from Wisconsin or Tennessee. Similarly, a Bamboo floor that is grown and manufactured close to the coast in China will have a substantially smaller carbon footprint when installed in L.A. or Miami than a Maple floor coming from Minnesota or Canada. And then there’s the fact that in today’s global market, Chinese factories are importing huge volumes of North American species, turning them into furniture, flooring and other products, and shipping them right back to towns not far from where the trees were harvested. Nowadays, to make an informed judgment about the real transportation impacts of a wood product, we may have to trace back through many legs of the journey.

Bamboo flooring installed in the Dahesh Museum in New York City.

To complicate things further, we can’t make the assumption that certain species are good and certain species are bad. Brazilian Cherry is a species that is biologically abundant throughout the Central and South America, so an argument could be made that using FSC-certified Brazilian Cherry might be better than using uncertified North American Walnut, which is in increasingly limited supply. Much of the White Oak that is currently being sold in the U.S. is coming from Chinese factories that buy illegally-logged material out of Siberia, from what is shaping up to be one of the greatest ecological catastrophes the world has ever seen. One would think that good old-fashioned White Oak wouldn’t be so risky.

So as with many questions in green building, the answers are fairly complicated. But one simple truth will always hold true – we are better off specifying a wood product that is certified under a credible forest certification system like FSC than simply winging it on our own, believing what our suppliers are telling us or relying on assumptions that in many cases don’t hold true. The more we can learn about where the product was harvested, how it was harvested, and the journey it took to the jobsite, the better, but often credible information is hard to come by. If you can take old wood from a building and re-use it in a project just up the street, I may have to re-visit my recommendation about the ‘greenest’ product available, but those opportunities are unfortunately rare. In the meantime, spec FSC, and take the bus if you can.

 

The author in a Bamboo plantation in Zhejiang Province, China.

Dan Harrington, former VP of Product Development at EcoTimber, has spent many years traveling the globe visiting factories and sustainable forestry operations. Dan serves on the Sierra Club’s Forest Certification Committee and formerly served on the USGBC’s Technical Advisory Group for Certified Wood. He is currently the Commercial Sales Manager for Golden State Flooring, an FSC-certified hardwood distributor based in San Francisco.

Green Can Be Beautiful...

I recently wanted to build a home. After spending over 30 years in the energy industry focusing on energy efficiency, energy R&D, environmental issues, and energy policy, I wanted this home to be energy efficient. My wife wanted our home to look very beautiful, and be “green”. A LEED home sounded nice.

We didn’t really know what we were getting into. There is a wide gap between theoretical analysis and practical implementation.

Main Entry to the House

We moved into our home last July and it actually works the way we intended. USGBC just awarded our home a LEED Platinum rating.

And we’re still happily married.

Since this is a sustainable building energy blog, I’ll keep my comments to the energy and design features, and spare you the more interesting details of the design/build process for a Northwest style home with Asian influences.

I did work at the California Energy Commission for 30 years in many different roles, so the energy part is both professional advocacy and personal passion. The home is in Bend, Oregon, where temperatures reach the high 90’s in summer and get below 0 in the winter. The home is larger than it should be for an environmentally conscious couple and tops 4000 square feet. However, our August energy bill was $39, and the home stayed below 72 degrees F. Our January energy bill was $138, and the home was warm and well lit.

Entry Elevation

Our neighbors’ homes have energy bills in the hundreds of dollars, and many have smaller homes. Some of our energy saving innovations cost less than traditional approaches, making most measures very cost effective. Some of these measures included:

– A building shell used 8″ thick staggered stud walls that are very tightly sealed. Our blower door test came in at 3.3 ACH at 50 Pascals, one half of the state standard.

– Insulation using a blown in blanket for R-38 walls and subfloor, with a blown R-49 ceiling.

– A closed loop ground source heat pump with a COP of 4.8 keeps the home comfortable.

– An 8’ overhang and an active exterior solar shade reduces 95% of the summer heat gain from the very large west facing windows needed to allow views of the Cascades. The same shade stays up in the winter days to allow solar gain, and comes down at night to further insulate the windows.

– Almost all lights are a combination of LED cans and CFLs.

– The roof is covered with both solar thermal panels for the hot water supply and a 2.25 kw solar PV system.

Bamboo, Spiral Staircase

We built a larger home so we could demonstrate a key message to architects and homeowners. If you are going to build a larger home, you have a responsibility to build a green home, and reduce your energy and environmental footprint. And you can do this while having a beautiful home.

Oh, did I mention that we were on the Central Oregon Builders Association Tour of Homes, and won not only the green home award for our class, but Best of Show, Best Architectural Design, Best Interior Finish, and Best Master Suite? It is a challenge, but you can build a beautiful home that is energy efficient and sustainable.

If you read blogs on this website, you already know the value of energy efficiency and green building, and probably have excellent examples of your own to offer. Our goal is to help other professionals in the building industry to not only understand this, but for them to convince their clients as well.

Green can be beautiful. Pass it on.

David Maul is currently President of Maul Energy Advisors. He has spent 35 years in the energy field, including 30 years at the California Energy Commission, working on energy and environmental issues. The scope of his experience includes managerial, policy, and technical responsibilities covering energy efficiency, power plant licensing, energy R&D, transportation energy, natural gas planning, and energy forecasting. He can be reached at dave@maulenergyadvisors.com.
 
 
 
 

 

Sink or Swim – Architecture for a Warming Planet...

Comprising 70 percent of our bodies, covering 70 percent of our earth’s surface, and providing more than 50 percent of the world’s ‘renewable’ energy, water is also the ultimate adaptor: evaporating, condensing, crystallizing, icing, melting, flowing and filling, according to its environment.

The beauty of water, and its emotional power as a latent energy force, is celebrated throughout architecture, from the rainwater-pooled Roman atriums and trickling water gardens of the Alhambra and the Taj Mahal, to feng shui-directed streams, artificial English lakes, and reflecting ponds worldwide.  From Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s built homage to the Bear Run waterfall, to Tadao Ando’s masterful intensification of the calm and weight of water in his epic Awaji Island, water has proven a powerful muse.  Now the changing geography of the world demands a reaction to the practical issues of spreading water and shrinking landmass.  With fast-spreading biofuel plantations jostling with food crops and people for space, what is the appropriate built response for such epic change, and how and where do we build our houses?

The concept of the floating house is nothing new, but the genre just got a whole lot sexier with a raft of new technologies and forms. Koen Olthuis, a pioneer of modern floating structures, hails from waterlogged Holland. His firm Waterstudio.NL is dedicated to designing water-interactive houses using five main concepts.

  • lifted – a dwelling on piles far above the highest water level.
  • waterproof – resistant to the presence of water. (For example, a garage with elevated services, built of concrete and tile, will flood without damage).
  • sealed – dwellings isolated with watertight doors and windows (as in a submarine).
  • amphibious – houses used in dry conditions with a foundation that will float if the land floods.
  • floating – the familiar floating house.

Almost one-third of Holland consists of polders, an artificial landscape of reclaimed land below sea level protected by dykes and maintained by constant pumping. Olthius says rising water levels are forcing Holland to ‘depolderise’, watering down the land available for building. Using patented foundations of foam and concrete, anchored on telescopic piers to eliminate horizontal movement and to allow interconnection for roads, gardens and housing zones, Waterstudio.NL is finalizing a 1400-strong floating settlement for a soon-to-be-flooded polder. Fishing for answers, I grilled by e-mail:

Koen, is it a houseboat?

“A houseboat is in fact a boat with a house-like unit on top. A water house is a house with a floating foundation, but with the exact same specifications as a normal house.”

Does the floating nature restrict its design?

“Everything is technically possible, but not always economically feasible. We always refer to floating oil platforms on the ocean, with many people working and living on board. If that is possible, then a floating apartment beyond the waterfront is easy.”

How do floating structures and their piers affect existing aquiferous ecosystems?

“We tell our clients about the environmental benefits of floating buildings compared to landfill projects. Landfill will permanently destroy the water life of the footprint. Floating buildings give only a shadow to the seabed. We have engineered a patent for a floating beach (http://www.dutchdocklands.com/). It has the look of a beach … but it keeps the seabed intact… we expect a new ecosystem to develop on the underside of the structure. Exciting for divers!”

What’s on the drawing board?

“We are preparing a dynamic development in which buildings can be moved during their life span. Normally a building will be demolished when its economical value is no longer in balance with the value of the land. In a floating city … a building can be moved to another part that is in balance with its value and continue functioning. This will save a lot of energy and is much more sustainable. We [will] design now a floating school which will move every 10 years to a newer part of Amsterdam.”

Floating infrastructure presents a raft of challenges and opportunities to town planners.  Stay tuned for more waterborn architectural innovation.

Trained and practiced in sustainable architecture, Sally Dominguez has moved from a sole practice specializing in architecture that “treads lightly” to a career in award-winning product design.  Sally’s products include the multi-award-winning Nest high chair, held in the Powerhouse Museum and the V&A in London, the Rainwater HOG which was named one of 2008’s Top 10 Green Building Products and recently awarded its fifth “green” award, and the O MOON outdoor light sold through Design Within Reach. Sally is a panelist on ABC TV’s New Inventors program, judges Car of the Year for Fairfax Media and Wheels magazine, and writes and lectures in Australia and the USA on innovative sustainable design and technologies.

Recently a judge of the Spark Design Awards and the TED/Lexus Living award, Sally is also developing more innovative rainwater storage systems and solar accessories for her company BeautifulUsefulGreen.

Emerging Practices Highlight the Demand for Water Recycling...

Competitions give us a chance to elevate the ideas of transforming our existing cities into something new, inspiring and green.  Tackling the environmental challenges of dense living has been a theme of the eVolo Magazine’s Skyscraper Competition for the past few years.  Their forms reflect idealism and digital visualization, yet the ideas face real-life problems.

Taking second place in this year’s competition, the Water Purification Skyscraper in Jakarta was the most aggressively green project of note.  http://www.evolo.us/competition/water-purification-skyscraper-in-jakarta/ Often green proposals are aimed at a generic, overpopulated city.  This proposal focuses on a specific place and problem – the lack of accessible water in largest city of Southeast Asia.  In 2006, the United Nations Human Development Report estimated 7.2 million individuals were without clean water in Jakarta. 

Water Purification Skyscraper in Jakarta: 2nd Place Winner in the 2010 eVolo Skyscraper Competition

This proposal not only purifies waste water with a complete filtration system, but also employs and houses a population within the same complex.  The Sanskrit root of Jakarta translates to “complete victory” – replacing the slums along a polluted river within the second largest metropolitan area in the world would be just that. 

The project may be inspired by advances in water recycling, but the challenge of re-creating potable water will require research on small scale systems.

Living Machine® (http://www.livingmachines.com/) has been implementing systems that avoid environmentally harmful chemicals and reduce energy use.  Basing their system on wetlands and tides, water is naturally cleansed by cycling through compartments of gravel, microorganisms, and plants.  The company customizes its system to each installation’s location and needs.  Though the final product is not potable water, responsible water treatment reduces use of potable water and returns ‘waste’ safely to the environment.  As a bonus, exterior installations of Living Machine® provide resort quality landscaping. 

Living Machine at Esalen Institute, Big Sur, CA

Living Machine® has potential to be applied world wide.  The U.S. based company has received inquiries from India, Australia, China and the Middle East.  A basic system was installed in Tema, Ghana that has successfully improved the water quality of a protected lagoon and provided agricultural irrigation since 2007.  Currently, additional purification technology can be applied to effluent from the Living Machine® to reach standards for potable water.  Working in countries with greater need and less stringent regulations might push the company to edge their system closer towards this goal.

Currently, Living Machine® has been installed in several locations where the mechanics of the system doubles as landscaping and courtyard for the projects.  The Water Purification Skyscraper in Jakarta offers an enticing vision for a similar technology in which the mechanics and structure furthers the trend of using living walls which are productive, educational, and lush.

Camille Cladouhos is on staff with Feldman Architecture.

Grasping the Importance of “Watergy”...

With so much buzz surrounding the modern green movement – grant money, tax credits, and an ever increasing market demand – there is an important question of the associated role of water and where it stands.  Energy, for the most part has been a topic that has elicited an enormous political response, especially, at the federal and state level, with generous incentives and subsidies to homeowners encouraging investment in their own residential energy systems.  These energy savings in green buildings are of course very beneficial and are predicted to save approximately 45 million metric tons of carbon output within the next four years.  This is the equivalent of taking 8 million cars of the road!  But, what is also very astounding is the amount of energy that can be saved by de-centralizing water systems, capturing and using on-site water resources for outdoor purposes, as well as for toilet flushing and washing machines.  This practice can equate to a 60-80% percent decrease in annual water use which also entails huge energy savings.  California, the second highest energy using state in the U.S., shockingly uses approximately 30% its energy to move and treat water.  Most people don’t realize that the water coming out of their faucet originated hundreds of miles away.  If homes can be furnished with independent energy systems using governmental incentives than why can’t independent water systems be under the same umbrella? … pun intended.  Using alternative energy to supply power to small residential pumping systems supplying water for 60-80% of a building’s total water needs, equates to an astounding energy savings of approximately 21-28 million metric tons of carbon output per year! In four years, this adds up to 84-112 million metric tons of carbon or the equivalent of 14.8-19.6 million automobiles off of the roads.  The profound implications of water and its relation to energy or “watergy” has unfortunately been held under the radar for far too long.

These numbers, though substantial, are still only taking into account residential water use and corresponding energy savings.  Utilizing rainwater for cooling and toilet flushing in commercial office and retail buildings, public institutions and hospitals could increase energy savings by much more.  When the continuing threat and impact of global climate change has been simplified to an over abundance of carbon in earth’s atmosphere an important question to ask is this:  What is the carbon footprint of a glass of pure rainwater caught from the clouds supplied via gravity, versus, the carbon footprint of a desalinated glass of water filtered from a high saline source and pumped miles to your faucet?

Though the topic of this discussion has primarily been about energy, the other, more apparent issue is water scarcity.  By being aware of water use and supply in any development or future development, and taking certain steps to limit unnecessary water waste as well as harnessing on-site water resources, we can tackle the looming issue of a water crisis.  There are numerous projects that have incorporated water saving strategies as well as on-site rainwater or greywater reclamation systems that have been documented to have reduced water usage by 60-70%.  The most notable examples of these projects are in Australia, where it is common place to utilize rainwater for interior as well as exterior purposes. It is also important to note that only 10 years ago there was almost no legislation of this practice which now is considered mainstream.  Water sustainability can be accomplished in most old and new developments as long as a comprehensive approach is taken.  Given our dwindling groundwater supplies, ever increasing population, reduced snowpack and state budget woes, large scale solutions to water shortages cannot be depended on to solve the problem. 

“We can obtain real water from a Virtual River of water efficiency, trimming water waste, recycling wastewater, and capturing rainwater in urban areas before it flows into storm drains. There’s more water available from these sources than we’ve ever exported from the Delta.”  – Doug Obegi

This quote sums up the potential solutions to water availability and is very profound given all of the political issues that constantly come up regarding water rights and diversion debates.  A top down effort and decentralized approach to natural resource conservation and management is of the utmost importance in the focused efforts of the 21st century’s green movement.  All energy and water systems are inextricably interconnected in nature, and the same goes for modern society.  Water and energy are the two main driving factors for life on earth and should continue to be, as we responsibly carry on humanity through sustainable development for centuries to come.

Bobby Markowitz, founder of Earthcraft Landscape Design, has been designing rainwater harvesting systems and educating professionals for nearly a decade. A licensed Landscape Architect, Accredited Professional by the American Rainwater Catchment System Association, Certified Permaculturist (taught by Founder Bill Mollison), Mr. Markowitz has advanced the viability of water conservation systems into the forefront of landscape architecture. A graduate of Rutgers University, Mr. Markowitz’s work is influenced by his study abroad in Japan and advanced water harvesting workshops in Australia. A frequent guest lecturer and keynote speaker for numerous Landscape Architecture and Rainwater Catchment System Associations, Mr. Markowitz has provided valuable insight into the design of sustainable sites and water conservation systems. In addition to his practice, Bobby Markowitz also teaches “Rainwater Harvesting System: Principles and Design” at Cabrillo College.

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