Blue Is the New Green

By: Allison Arieff – The New York Times

   For a couple of months there, it was sort of exciting to witness how dramatically higher oil prices were affecting human behavior. Ridership of public transit was up, homeowners were swapping exurban houses for urban condos, S.U.V. sales were down, people were walking. T. Boone Pickens threw cash at a wind farm.
   But in more recent weeks, as oil prices dropped, I started hearing indications of backpedaling on all of the above. With gas back down in the $2 to $2.50 a gallon range, there was talk of this all being less urgent, something that could be addressed later. Pickens even scrapped plans for the wind farm (for now).
   This is such a strange notion: that an interim price drop somehow solves the larger issue of our dependence on oil. And it’s something we see with another precious resource: water.
   A range of alternative energy technologies are available to us today; there is, however, no substitute for water. But there are new ways of thinking about water that can help us make better use of the available supply. (Pickens, by the way, is now actively buying up water rights in Texas.)
   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. (Earlier this year, a panel at the sustainability conference West Coast Green was titled “The Sexiest Large Scale Design Applications We Have Ever Seen.”)
   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 our nation’s water.
   As individuals we receive messaging about water that is dramatically similar to the messaging we receive about energy consumption — and constitutes an equivalent drop in the bucket towards solving the problem. Public service announcements urge us to, alternately, swap out conventional light bulbs for compact fluorescents, or turn off the water while brushing our teeth.
   Both are important small steps; neither can begin to mitigate the larger challenges of resource depletion.
   “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 (below).
   “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 Roofs

   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. Green roofs have overcome their once-ingrained association with ‘70s-style earth architecture, thanks to improved technology, better aesthetics and increased building incentive programs like tax abatements (New York approved such a program back in August; 55,000 new square feet of green roofs were installed last year alone in cities including Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.). Ford Motor Company installed a 10-acre green roof on its Dearborn Truck Assembly Plant back in 2003 (one wonders why the same early adopter stance didn’t carry over to their fleet of cars).
   Individuals are seeking out green roofs for single family homes like this one designed by Fred Ballerini in Carmel, Calif.

Carmel-by-the-Sea. (Fred Ballerini)

   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. It’s notable not only for its size but for its undulating form — designed to mimic the site’s original terrain — and the complete absence of grasses.

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

Living Walls

   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.

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

   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. (An urban example by architect Cesar Pelli, which is slated to receive LEED Platinum certification, is shown below). 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.

110 The Embarcadero. (Rendering by Pelli Clarke Pelli)


   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.)

imple greywater installation. (Photo by Laura Allen)

   So complex is the bureaucracy to install such systems that an organization called Greywater Guerrillas exists to offer DIY advice and workshops on sustainable water infrastructure to the public.

Rainwater Harvesting

Left, Rainwater HOG, installation view; right, a Rainwater HOG (Courtesy of Rainwater HOG)

   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.
   “The issue is that development and population continue, while water rights are static,” says Josiah Cain. “All available water has been accounted for, so the only way to get new water supply involves conservation and reuse strategies.”

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