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Designer Water

Architects find ingenious new ways to water in the home

By MARILYN SOLTIS
   “Water is the new oil.” “Green is the new black.” “Blue is the new green.” These pithy phrases are bandied about in the media as catch phrases for the more serious subject of water conservation, which can start in the home voluntarily or on a non-voluntary basis as water resources become more polluted or scarce.  
   As architects struggle to keep up with new green innovations and LEED specifications, the use of water in the home is undergoing some radical changes from both a conservation and design perspective.    Ranging from the aesthetic to the gritty, some solutions are shown in Modern Sustainable Residential Design: A Guide for Design Professionals by William J. Carpenter, FAIA, PhD.   
   Surprisingly, all of the “green” hoopla isn’t translating into a lot of green housing. Carpenter starts out his book by stating that 50 percent of current new construction is residential, but less than five percent is green building. “Depending on your definition, there are as few as 592 (according to the Green Building Council, developers of the LEED certification) and as many as 750,000 (according to ENERGY STAR) or somewhere in between (around 100,000), if you’re listening to the National Association of Home Builders,” he says about the number of green buildings standing today.   
   There are many ways to conserve water in the home that may seem extreme by today’s standards. “A building can be completely off the grid by recycling water,” Carpenter says. “Gray water is anything with soap from showers, dishwashers, sinks. Recycled gray water can be used for irrigation or back through the system for flushing toilets.”    
   Black water is sewage made potable again by going through a treatment plant or an algae pond. Carpenter maintains that algae ponds can create drinkable water out of sewage water.   
   Another way to get off the grid is to use rainwater, filtering it and through solar energy, heating and using it for the shower and dishwasher. Combine that with waterless, composting toilets and you’re done.   
   However, according to architect Jim Burton, most building inspectors are not yet up to speed on the guidelines for these types of systems, so they are rarely used. Thus, while most people are not going to those extremes yet, other innovations are taking hold, and the book offers some salient examples.   
   The Yoga Studio in Bluemont, Virginia, by Carter + Burton Architecture was the first LEED Gold home (the highest and most stringent LEED certification) in the southeastern United States.    County restrictions set the size of the studio at 600 square feet, and the design allowed for the surrounding forest to return to its natural state as soon as possible after it was built. A living roof with sedums makes the structure maintenance-free while saving 20 to 30 percent on energy bills and retaining 70 percent of rainwater to aid with latent cooling and storm water management on the site. Minimal landscaping, indigenous trees and succulents on the living roof are noninvasive and drought-tolerant, which also saves on maintenance and water consumption.  
   Architect Burton says living roofs help with runoff issues while preserving the roof. “The system lasts longer because the sun is not degrading the roofing membrane,” he says.   
   Carter + Burton also designed the Shenandoah Retreat House in Warren County, Virginia, which is built on piers allowing ground water to feed plants and animals down hill from the house.   
   Another new water conservation concept according to Burton is that of grass paving systems for parking. “They help with erosion control and keep runoff to a minimum near lakes and streams,” he says. “Grass paving systems absorb water better.”    
   Some of the more standard water savers are rain barrels and cisterns. One of Burton’s clients combined the conservation effort with a water design element.   
   “The roof provided more water than the cistern could handle, so part of the water trickles down a rain chain to the rocks below,” Burton says. “A rain chain is made of metal-like copper or stainless steel and connects to the gutter. The extra water trickles down the chain in a design pattern.” Smaller versions can be found in gardening catalogues.    
   Ironically, a popular edition to more upscale second or country homes is the outdoor shower. If you can afford enough land for the privacy of an outdoor shower, the market offers a variety of upscale fixtures. According to Burton there is a paucity of medium- to low-end fixtures for those who may have more of a genuine need for outdoor bathing.   
   Mobile bathing enthusiasts can purchase a “Dutchtub”—a portable hot tub with a coil heating system you can carry around with you or even attach to the top of your car. Starting at roughly $6,000, it comes in a number of color choices, and T3 technical magazine gave it two awards in 2007—the Best Green Gadget and the Best Bachelor Gadget.   
   In warmer climates, there is a resurgence of decorative pools, according to Burton. “Some bodies of water will help to cool spaces, and the psychology of having the water makes things feel cooler,” he says. There is also an evaporative cooling effect.    
   Burton is currently fascinated with the “living pools” concept that seems to be catching on. Instead of a traditional concrete swimming pool filled with chlorinated water, a “living pool” is a natural pond with reeds and an eco-system. “You can swim at the other end where it’s all natural with no chemicals or filter systems,” he says. “It does take about 30 percent more room than a regular pool, so you’re not swimming in the reeds. It’s clean. If it’s done well, a healthy pond is a clear pond.”   
   Carpenter is an advocate of salt water ponds, which can use rain water as well. Adding sea salt to rainwater eliminates the need for chlorine. “It’s twice as expensive as chlorine, but it’s worth it,” he says. “As technology improves, the cost will come down.”   
   Inside the house, Carpenter says some Kohler water saver shower heads and faucets are so effective in conserving water you can’t tell the difference. Dishwashers with the Energy Star rating may use up to half the water as dishwashers of old.   
   Another new invention is a system that catches water from the shower or bath and uses it to flush the toilet. “It captures water down the drain, puts it in the tank and the toilet tank fills up with that instead of fresh water,” Carpenter says. “It costs less than $1,000, can be retrofitted and a plumber can install it.”
EPA’s New WaterSense Program   
   If you want to conserve water, but are confused about the many ways to go about it, the government has devised a program to help. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing guidelines for water-efficient new homes and appliances.   
   The stated goal of the program is to decrease indoor and outdoor nonagricultural water use through more efficient products, equipment and programs. A recognizable label will be affixed to water efficient products in the marketplace.   
   It is similar to Energy Star except that WaterSense requires third-part certification of its products and serves. Another difference is that WaterSense focuses on water-using products and services that don’t require energy to run. Energy Star includes water-using products that conserve energy.   
   Most indoor water usage is from toilets and clothes washers followed by showers and faucets, which account for 15 percent of the total interior usage. Plumbing leaks also account for a significant amount of usage.   
   Carpenter says new home buyers can benefit from using the EPA’s new home guidelines. “For water consumption, if there is an irrigation system that is used, on average 50 percent of potable water is used on the landscaping. Exterior water use can be decreased substantially by following the WaterSense for New Homes guidelines, including having the landscaping and irrigation system designed, installed and audited by a WaterSense professional.”

Published: August 09, 2009
Issue: Fall 2009 Water Issue