Learning to value water and a greener habitat

Roof of the Academy of Sciences, California. (Photo: Tim Griffith)

Although 70 percent of the earth is covered with water, just 3 percent of that water is fit for human consumption. This isn’t going to improve anytime soon. Failures in water-related infrastructure result in lost biodiversity, higher temperatures, increased flooding, massive impact on energy and unsafe, unsanitary water. But important advances have been made in water resource management — and they are far more compelling than the term “water resource management” would suggest. Because water is cheap (at least for now) and seemingly in infinite supply, efforts to improve its use — or deter its overuse — have been inadequate. And it’s not just water itself that’s being wasted: there’s the energy required to transport and deliver it (particularly in such cases as Atlanta’s bizarre arrangement to get its water from Alabama and Florida, or any of us buying bottled water from Fiji). But there are innovations, large and small, now available that would provide for systematic management and optimization of the water.

“We use huge infrastructure to move and deliver water,” says landscape architect Josiah Cain of Design Ecology, who worked on the design for the California Academy of Sciences’ distinctive living roof . “We wash our face with or take a shower with it, then we use that water, treat it with chemicals and dump it into our waterways. It doesn’t make any sense. There’s no such thing as waste water. We need to take advantage of water multiple times.” Living (or “green”) roofs are one of several integrated water management systems. Vegetation is ideal for managing water, and provides benefits that are otherwise hard to capture. Individuals are seeking out green roofs for single family homes. The most high-profile recent example is the living roof atop Renzo Piano’s new Academy of Sciences building in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. At 197,000 square feet and containing 1.7 million native plants, it is the largest green roof in the United States.

Pont Max Juvénal, Aix-en-Provence. (Photo: Patrick Blanc)

Living walls are far less common at present, but can be similarly effective at reducing building cooling demand and restoring bird and butterfly habitats. Patrick Blanc has helped make living walls into design icons with such projects as the most beautiful overpass you’ve ever seen: Pont Max Juvénal, Aix-en-Provence. But despite their fantastic appearance, living walls are highly practical: they absorb and filter storm water, which reduces local water body pollution and helps prevent the overwhelming of municipal storm water infrastructure. They also filter air particulates, improving air quality and help to reduce the urban heat island effect (UHI). Living walls can also be installed in building interiors, where they not only improve air quality but add humidity to the air when central heating is used in the winter. Much less exotic but far easier to implement are greywater systems. Grey water describes water post-shower, -dishwasher or -laundry. Its use will reduce demand as well as sewer-system loads and the amount we pay for our water bills. A simple system of tubing allows one to repurpose this water for landscape watering (which, not incidentally, accounts for 50 percent of home water use in most districts.)

Rainwater harvesting requires little more than a few barrels. For every 1,000-square-foot catchment area, one inch of rainfall can result in 600 gallons of rainwater, which can be used primarily for irrigation, toilet flushing and fire safety. A recent product launch may help transform rainwater collection into high design: minimalist, olive-toned Rainwater HOG collection tanks are now sold at modern furniture emporium Design Within Reach. (Source: NYT)


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