There Are Too Few Housing Choices; Cause and Effect. by Matthew Salenger

INTRODUCTION

            A well-functioning city is a wonderful place to be. Cities such as London, Boston, and San Francisco have a great feel to them because there is a balance of consistency and variety that allows for a wide variety of housing solutions to occur. Economic stability helps as well. However, those cities went through their most formative years over 100 years ago. Young urban areas such as Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Dallas struggle to create thriving urban areas with consistency. One reason is a serious lack of housing choices. And when typologies come together in sprawling cities, there is often strange transitions from single-family houses to mid-rise (or even hi-rise) urban areas because they follow a very stringent formula of density and scale.

            Young city housing typologies in the US stick to a script of 6-7 versions (see diagram below). The lack of choice in typologies leaves us with far less choice in where and how we live. Without better options, two major consequences have created ongoing difficulties for such cities: First, people tend not to interact with their communities because they do not live in any home for long; Second, thriving urban zones in and around neighborhoods do not form organically as easily as other more established cities. Though these social and urban problems may have additional causes, the lack of available housing types have contributed to them and other issues.

            We are often asked questions about housing within Phoenix: Why are there so many rentals being built and so few for purchase? Why is there nothing being built for low-income singles? Why does everything look the same? Why is this street getting all the attention right now while two blocks away there are no plans for development? All good questions.

This paper will attempt to answer these questions and cover why we have such limited choices when it comes to housing types, the effects of those limitations, and what it might take to create change. Some of the statements along the way may seem rather sweeping, however such generalizations are helpful for raising conversation on the problem within this short medium. A good sized book would be required to answer such questions in detail. We will back up some statements with links to online articles where possible. It is important to remember this paper’s discussion is based around newer and larger suburban cities such as Phoenix, Dallas, Houston, and Salt Lake City. Though many of the same issues apply to smaller and sometimes more “hip” cities such as Portland, Tucson, and Austin as well.

 

EFFECTS OF LIMITED HOUSING OPTIONS

            Once upon a time suburban homes were a repeatable solution to the fairly severe post-war housing need. Traditional families, with two parents and two-to-four children were, well… normal. But today with people working out of their homes (Mike Brady: Home work-force pioneer!), live-work-commerce models, “non-traditional” families, boomerang generation trends, and the massive rise in single-living many of the traditional models for housing types have become fairly obsolete. Aside from currently trendy but very limited access to micro-dwellings and the small-house movement attracting interest from singles, the models for housing types most often built are out-of-sync with contemporary living needs. Whether you are a single artist, a stay-at-home 3D printing manufacturer, a LBGT couple, or multi-generational family, a typical 3-bedroom house with its standard wall placement and structural configuration is often considered inflexible for a wide variety of required uses. And it is often very difficult to find housing types that fit those uses and needs. Let’s look at a diagram of typical housing:

As already mentioned, there are the six basic housing typologies in most cities, listed here at their most common density levels. The diagram demonstrates several important points:

1.     There is a clear division between attached and separated unit types. Other research coLAB has conducted indicates there is a large population of people who cannot envision themselves living in attached housing of any kind. This is why single-family housing (SFH) is still so popular. And because of rising land and construction costs, the way to make them more affordable is to build “patio-homes,” which have none of the positive value of traditionally rural SFH and all of the negative effects of sprawl (poor health, long commute times, inefficient energy use, social isolationism, etc). Still, studies believe that over 50% of all Americans live in suburban single family homes.

2.     Because of growing populations, increasing construction costs, shrinking available land in most cases, and growing awareness for the importance of living in balance with the environment, cities should be building with greater density.

3.     #1 and #2 above are at odds with each other.

4.     None of these models automatically provide the required space-flexibility for non-traditional modes of living. All are built with fixed walls set up for maximum bedrooms with traditional living spaces, though often homes and apartments are now built with slightly more flexible “great rooms” that combine living, dining, and kitchen. However, most fixed walls in most housing developments are structural and offer barriers to renovation while still disabling further flexibility of use and function.

5.     The most positive overlap of different types of lifestyles occurs at the “townhouse” and “apartment cluster” scales and densities. This could indicate a good place to start looking for new typologies with greater flexibility.

These building types are also so specific they may lead to abrupt transitions between types. The worst case scenario I can think of is a 20 story condo building where my grandparents lived in Westwood, California, which looked over a couple of two-story apartment clusters and a vast neighborhood of single-family houses. The views and spaces were fairly uncomfortable for everyone. Another example I can provide is in my current neighborhood within Tempe, which currently has a five-story apartment complex under construction directly behind single-family housing.

            The final effects of these poor transitions produces negative urban spaces and disharmonious psychological effects on the people living among these conditions. In fact there have been many studies that show that these environments create specific psychological and physical health problems. One publication that lists out what positive spatial attributes contribute to positive mind and body responses is 14 Patterns of Biophillic Design by Terrapin Bright Green

Hudson Manor, Tempe. Photograph by Matthew Salenger.

Hudson Manor, Tempe. Photograph by Matthew Salenger.

The discomfort that people feel in sprawling cities, with or without the transitions, seems to result in shorter time periods for people to reside in one place. It is not uncommon for people to move every five years or so when living in sprawl. The shorter one lives in a home, the less connected they are to the neighborhood and community. Greater mobility and isolation occurs. This, in turn, breeds the desire for looking for familiarity with well-known brands, big box stores, “chain” restaurants over locally owned choices. All this contributes to weaker street activation and dull urban areas, which can create huge areas of static growth or even spiraling decay.

 

CAUSES LEADING TO LIMITED TYPOLOGIES

One would think that with so many people desiring variation and flexibility in housing types more models for living would exist. But there are various controls on what gets built, none of them sinister in nature, but all of them work together to constrict what gets built. One of the most obvious is what people are willing to purchase. And what people are willing to purchase is limited to what they believe they can sell, preferably at a profit. These are part of what we call market forces, and it alters what gets built at the same level of a developer as the individual home buyer/seller. These are some causes of the housing issue:

1.     A developer will only build what they can make a profit on (or at least break even if they are the rare non-profit type). They seek to develop what the current buyer wants, usually based on historical data of what has made money in the recent past, and then guess what will garner a higher price based on trends. They take into consideration what land costs are and what typology of building will be possible (by zoning and neighborhood) and test its economic viability through design and/or pro forma (number crunching) models. Experimenting with new typologies is generally seen as risky; both for the developer and the buyer. Thus, this isn’t just on the developer, it’s on “us,” the consumer as well. These are some of the ways in which “market forces” work to decide what, where, when, and how housing developments get built.

Developers also prefer to stick to their scripts on the aesthetics of developments. Units are often of a similar size from project to project, which makes for the repeated exterior appearances of nearly all 4-6 story developments. They can alter the materials they clad the building in, but they hardly ever have a different presence from the street.

Land costs often dictate where developers build, choosing areas with lower land next to higher property values with proper zoning (see #3 below). For years the land costs have been higher than they should be, necessitating developers build rental units over for-ownership models in order to bring in long-term money to cover the higher initial costs.

2.     A huge reason for limited typologies lies with financial institutions who finance construction projects. Banks are notoriously conservative, and base many of their decisions on historical models of given typologies. There is a lot of data on the most familiar types of developments such as typical five story blocks of housing or sprawling single-family houses on the outskirts of town. There is little confidence from banks on any new and creative typologies someone might want to create, so the developers find it difficult or impossible to find financing for anything other than the familiar/traditional types of housing. Banks are also currently more eager to loan to larger/proven national development companies offering high-end rental units near downtown areas which we see so much of today. For-ownership models are more risky because the financial gain is more short-term and limited.

3.     Zoning, the establishment of local districts for certain uses, is a huge factor in deciding what gets built and where it can be situated. Municipalities designate zoning based on what is the perceived best interest of the public. Heralded as a great accomplishment more than 100 years ago, when factories would pollute the air and water directly next to worker housing, it has gotten very prescriptive in the last forty years or so. Zoning mostly prescribes various building densities (how many homes per acre, for instance), and uses (housing vs commercial vs industrial).

Municipalities often want to increase density in order to make civic service (fire and police), utility, and transportation infrastructure more efficient. Greater density provides increased tax revenue per acre, which is a benefit to the city’s ability to function- but also often for the population. Having more people per acre provides better commercial services for residents (as long as it is zoned appropriately) as walkability improves. When a town wants to increase density, it revises zoning to allow for greater density, and usually eliminates less density in an area. This is when you get 5-7 story buildings or even high-rises next to single-family homes.

Some municipalities don’t even allow for anything in between. We recently discovered that Scottsdale, Arizona, for instance, doesn’t allow townhouses that act as single-family houses for ownership (as opposed to rental units) as an in-between density level. They also don’t allow clusters of attached houses. They used to allow these typologies, but likely eliminated them thinking such typologies damaged a standard of living or lowered adjacent property values.

4.     Another deciding factor is how government gets involved. Prior to the 1970s, banks in the US would generally not loan to non-whites or females because they were traditionally seen as “high risk.” Congress helped to set up government backed loans for such people to equalize the loaning industry. After World War II, government also started to support development of low-income (or “socialized”) housing- sometimes with rather disastrous results. While these interventions have had their flaws, they at least recognize the need for assistance for those that do not have purchasing power within standard market forces. Without them, home ownership for a majority of people would likely not exist at all.

There are many limits on what government can do to level the housing playing field, and it is not evenly governed from state to state. In Arizona, for example, the state legislature has ruled out many options for its municipalities to provide for better urban environments. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) to provide subsidies for such low-income projects is outlawed, as is mandating percentages of any development to provide for low-income housing. These restrictions are unique to Arizona, along with the recent meddling with Business Improvement Districts that allow an area to self-govern for greater improvement than municipalities provide. Though proven successful in other states, these tools have been removed from use in Arizona because of a strong belief in the market to cure all ills on its own. Though Arizona has a relatively low cost of living in the state, the current low wages and little incentive to build for diversity in urban areas, there is a location separation of the wealthy from those that must “drive till they qualify” out to the edges of town where sprawling developments so often occur.

This can be a trap for people with lower incomes, as the long drive times means there are few public transportation options, leaving them beholden to their private vehicles at greater cost than if they could live closer to urban areas where most of the jobs are. The neighborhoods, too, do not escalate in value as quickly as most other areas, meaning they don’t have the chance to build up as much wealth. 

POTENTIAL SOLUTIONS

Though there are strong forces that create the limited housing typologies we have, there are possible solutions we can be working towards to create real and lasting change.

1.     Municipalities can push developers to be more creative. Municipalities should have design review boards that contain industry professionals who understand the issues, are endowed with power that goes beyond just “checking boxes,” and are accountable to the public. They should be able to recognize good creative design and not punish projects that stray from the norm. They could offer more European style competitions or design assistance with positive case-study examples developers might work with.

2.     There needs to be better education of financial institutions so they begin to feel more comfortable providing loans to more diverse projects. This requires utilizing housing types from other cities, states, or nations that have proven historically viable. Developers may also have to find creative ways to compare a desired typology model to something more standard in order to convince banks towards what is desired. Working with local banks with more community ties is always a good idea, and in some cases new private or public institutions could be created, such as state banks.

3.     Changes to zoning, to allow for more flexibility, could also help considerably. In some cities, there have been changes away from traditional models to what is called the Form Based Code. This is zoning that uses physical form rather than separation of uses and densities. These often still contain flaws, so with either format errors should be noted and improvements should be requested.

4.     Government rules and regulations are the most difficult issue to fix, though not impossible. Even in Arizona, there is movement towards getting a state legislature vote on TIF’s. However, regulation, in any form, often has negative consequences. Rules, or their abandonment, should be carefully considered and examples from other states should be studied. But with enough support, the right tools can be implemented.

Each of these potential solutions require a lot of advocacy from industry professionals, professional associations, affiliates, and the general public. For a lot of us, that may be as simple as acting the part of a good “consumer,” and tell developers we don’t like the choices we have. Housing developers want to provide what we will actually purchase, so let them know how to best serve you.

 

SYNOPSIS

            Within a lot of sprawling cities, such as Phoenix, there exist many acres of empty land waiting to be developed. If we want a vibrant city with a sustainable economy and thriving cultural events, we desperately need more housing types that provide for more community diversity. To see those types develop, we need to recognize the forces limiting our choices and work in the right directions to create the change we want. You can start by telling this developer, vali homes, what you are looking for in a home. They are working on new development models in the Phoenix area and would love to hear from you. More than anything, get involved in your community, educate yourself on the issues, and be vocal. 

Biophilia and Biomimicry Basics by Matthew Salenger

Photo by Sherwood Wang of 180 Degrees

Photo by Sherwood Wang of 180 Degrees

INTRODUCTION

            There are many different ways to bring about greater happiness and more value in our everyday living. Everyone wants to live more healthy, happy, interesting and productive lives. We also want to make our dollar stretch further. When it comes to designing products and buildings, there are new tools that help us do all of that. And thanks to new technologies and scientific studies, there are quantifiable methods of providing better, more comfortable, efficient, and attractive buildings.

            coLAB studio has experts in two of the most fascinating tools for designing innovative built environments: Biophilia and Biomimicry. As their names imply, both deal with ideas based in nature- however, there is less overlap than one might imagine. Many people, including designers, are not familiar with the base purpose of these two important tools for designing better, more efficient, and more productive buildings, spaces, products, and providing better life choices. This paper hopes to provide basic information about Biophilia and Biomimicry to help readers understand them and also describe how to incorporate both tools into their lives and professional practices.

We've provided links within the following text to more information- so be sure to check them out.

BIOPHILIA

            The root of the word, Biophilia, means a love for nature, life, and living systems. The term was first used by Erich Fromm as part of his conception for a productive psychological orientation. This is relevant for how we now use the term today, which was part of what Edward O. Wilson called the Biophilia Hypothesis. In his 1984 book, Biophilia, Wilson defined the term as “the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”. Recent researchers have found strong psychological, physical, and cognitive benefits from utilizing ideas put forward by Wilson that have been statistically verified in numerous studies.

Before discussing scientific studies, it is important to note that designers have instinctually known about the advantages of Biophilic design for millenia. One can think about Mies Van Der Rohe’s Farnsworth House, and its elimination of boundaries between interior and exterior. Or Frank Lloyd Wright’s desire to, as he put it, blend the boundaries of interior and exterior. Frederick Law Olmstead designed Central Park with the purpose of bringing a sense of calm and joy to the working classes by connecting them to nature. Traditional Chinese courtyard houses were designed for centuries with nature at their core. Every culture on every continent have utilized tools of Biophilia to produce various benefits ever since people have made buildings. Now we have plenty of evidence showing these tools actually and quantifiably work.           

 There are several books on Biophilia available, though the one we find most helpful is called 14 Patterns of Biophilic Design, Improving Health & Well-Being In The Built Environment by Terrapin Bright Green. The authors organize a wide ranging series of Biophilic design tactics into fourteen categories and provide a matrix showing what each of those categories provide as benefits in terms of stress reduction; cognitive performance; emotion, mood and preference. The book cites scores of neurological, psychological, quantitative, and other scientific studies showing direct links between various design strategies and mind-body benefits. The book was written specifically to assist designers in making more conscious choices to improve the environments they create.

            As an example: Imagine a large residential courtyard. Picture it surrounded on all sides by eight foot tall opaque walls with a beautiful tree in the middle. This type of space providing a protected “retreat” falls within Terrapin’s fourteen patterns as “Refuge”. It appears to be engrained as a desirable space in all people, as it has been used all over the world over many centuries. This particular pattern provides increased cognitive performance including improved concentration, attention, and perception of safety as shown in a study by Grahn & Stigsdotter in 2010 along with two other studies completed in previous decades.

            Other studies have shown that particular patterns and colors can be combined to expedite healing in hospitals and calm prison inmates. Terrapin’s book does a great job of providing descriptions of the patterns and benefits. One of the most interesting is the pattern “Risk/Peril”, which provides strong dopamine or pleasure responses. Think of looking out from the observation deck of the Sears Tower or standing on the edge of a cliff. And though that may seem like simple “fun” (to some at least), there are actually quantifiable psychological and task-related benefits from occasionally engaging in such behavior. 

Courtyard House; Cedar Street Residence by coLAB studio

Courtyard House; Cedar Street Residence by coLAB studio

BIOMIMICRY

            Sometimes also referred to as Biomimetics, Biomimicry is the study and imitation of natural systems for the purpose of solving complex problems. A famous example you are probably familiar with is the invention of Velcro. In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral went hiking in the woods and returned home with burrs clinging to his pants and his dog’s fur. He studied what made them hold on so effectively and noticed many tiny hooks designed to cling to any hairy animal passing by. A few years later, Mestral developed a tape that mimicked the hooks and hair that is still in use today.

            While Biophilia is ancient in origin, Biomimicry is a wide-ranging and ever-evolving field that is in many ways still in its infancy. It also has several ancient examples of people learning from nature, but many of the current ways in which we study nature have only been possible through recent technologies such as computer modelling and electron microscopes. The ideas that have sprung out are amazingly exciting - such as wind turbines modeled after humpback whale flippers that provide a 20% increase in efficiency. and self-healing plastics for aircraft. Another example is a tall building in Zimbabwe modeled after termite mounds that passively regulates the interior temperature of the building with no conventional air-conditioning- all through careful manipulation of form and air patterns. Biomimicry lessons can also increase efficiency and vitality when applied to business practices, group dynamics, and almost any aspect of life

Efficient turbine blade based on Humpback Whale fin by  WhalePower .

Efficient turbine blade based on Humpback Whale fin by WhalePower.

The standard jumping off point for Biomimetic thinking comes from the idea called “The Genius of Place”, an imperative to study how nature solves issues related to a particular location. For instance, if one is building a structure in a very hot climate, studies of how local plants and animals have adapted to the climate may provide ideas for innovative answers to complex problems. For an example of this, coLAB studied how Saguaro cactus create micro-climates in their vertical flutes using the stack-effect to keep cool and developed a ventilated cladding system using similar systems. The exterior skin helps to keep the building cooler and reduces overall energy use. There is even a handy website to help find information on how nature solves problems.

Ventilated skin system, Vali Prototype Infill House 1 by coLAB studio.

Ventilated skin system, Vali Prototype Infill House 1 by coLAB studio.

            Nature is an amazing teacher. As more people study this field, the more we realize there are virtually no limits to what our environment can show us how to improve ourselves and the world around us. There are several entities delving into Biomimicry- and in Arizona we are lucky enough to have one of the most prevalent consulting groups in the world in this subject, Biomimicry 3.8, working right around the corner from coLAB studio at the ASU School of Sustainability on The Biomimicry Center

SYNOPSIS

            Biophilia and Biomimicry each provide amazingly helpful tools for improving our built environment, but do so in very different ways. Biophilia offers physical and psychological benefits directly for human health, wellbeing, and productivity. Biomimicry delivers innovative efficiencies for complex systems in the building industry and beyond. And though very different, they often work well together and even enhance each other’s value and benefits.

            Utilizing these tools in design requires a knowledge of the potentials and the processes to produce results. Biophilia can be intuitive to designers, but can also be enhanced through greater knowledge of the examples and scientific evidence available. Biomimicry usually takes a bit of training, and also patience to fully study a site, subject, or species. The benefits of both usually greatly outweigh the costs.

            Feel free to contact us to see how we can help provide greater value to your life through these and other tools. 

NET-ZERO WATER DESIGN BASICS by Matthew Salenger

Central Arizona Project Canal in North Phoenix.  Photo by Chuck & Micky.

Central Arizona Project Canal in North Phoenix. Photo by Chuck & Micky.

INTRODUCTION

            We all need clean water to survive, yet is increasingly becoming scarce on the planet. While architects and engineers have gotten much better at how to reach Net Zero Energy (NZE) with buildings, Net Zero Water (NZW) remains more of a mystery. And yet access to clean drinking water could very well define the viability of every village and city in the future. Indeed, the overriding importance of water related to the built environment has not escaped some very big governmental entities. The US Army, for instance, has taken major strides at NZW (as well as NZE and Net Zero Waste), seeing it as an imperative part of their ability to function.

            There is a vital need to re-think our water supply and waste-water structures. After all, we base our supply and waste systems on technology that is over 2000 years old. And while centralized systems were extremely valuable achievements in their day, we have enough knowledge now to understand what should come next. And this is important because our cities have grown to the point where centralized systems have become less efficient than decentralized potentials. Two such examples of central inefficiencies are; first with the amount of energy it takes to pump water across urban and rural areas, and second with the problems of how to deal with massive amounts of black-water (toilet) waste- which currently is processed with toxic chemicals including chlorine. A recent study by SERA Architects found the most efficient way to handle a variety of utilities and waste is at a scale much smaller than that of cities and closer to the size of a college campus.

            Thankfully there are proven ways to deal with collecting and treating water on-site. There are several barriers to such systems, such as social misperception, lack of governmental understanding, and cost- but there are several excellent examples of built projects that provide paths on how to think about these issues for the future. One such example is the Bullitt Center in Seattle, which shows that NZW and waste water treatment can be achieved, even at urban sites.

            We hope to provide the basis for understanding how to conceive and design for NZW with this paper. For brevity, we will discuss a greatly simplified idea of how we think about on-site water use and provide a single-family residential project as an example. However, we will also provide links to examples of much larger projects to show that living in balance with the water cycle is achievable at essentially any scale. 

Ottosen Entry Garden at the Desert Botanical Gardens.  Design by Spurlock Poirie r, photograph by Bill Timmerman.

Ottosen Entry Garden at the Desert Botanical Gardens. Design by Spurlock Poirier, photograph by Bill Timmerman.

MINDSET AND NZW PROCESS

            Native Peoples around the world mostly lived in balance with the water cycle and their environment- though for the purpose of this paper, let's use an example of a familiar project type: A typical house. Let's imagine you are a nineteenth century "homesteader" attempting to start and run a farm on a piece of land with no centralized utility systems available. Water would likely come from one or both of two sources; A well tapping into a water table below ground; The collection of rainwater into a basin or cistern. Blackwater would most likely be treated either with an underground pit or an on-surface leach-field. If the black-water is handled correctly, the waste can be turned into fertilizer to increase crop yields. These types of systems are easier to utilize when there is enough open space for each house/project to avoid waste occurring too close to living and working spaces. However, with the use of some new technologies using ancient ideas, these processes can be placed in close proximity to populations without harmful effects. In particular, John Todd's Living Machines have been in use for decades with great results.

            To demonstrate how to conceive of getting in balance, and possibly "off the grid" when it comes to water, let's look at a simple residential example to understand how to consider and design for NZW. Look at the example graph and you'll see the tall column on the left representing typical water usage for a family of 3-4 people living in a single family home with a small yard including a patch of turf lawn (column A). What you'll notice is how much certain uses consume. The initial process to getting in balance is to reduce water usage as much as possible before considering the options for water collection.

By eliminating the turf, utilizing xeriscaping (native drought-tolerant plants), installing low-water use fixtures (such as low-flow sink faucets and dual-flush toilets), and good individual practice (the 4-minute shower, for instance), much of the water load is reduced as shown in the second column (B). This means we need to collect less water to achieve balance, which is a huge help. There are even some new low-flow shower heads that actually work well. Most low-use fixtures have been shown to lower actual water use. And though we all enjoy having turf and lush landscaping, we can instead consider increased placement of neighborhood parks, which can utilize area storm-water re-use to supply landscaped environments for entire neighborhoods. These communal spaces may also form better social cohesion and reduce social isolation. And there is an alternative to conventional turf, which is UC Verde Buffalo Grass, which uses only 20% of the water of turf and never needs mowing. Ok, let's return to our graph example...

            In column C, you can see that we've eliminated the need for landscaping irrigation with careful plant choices. We've also eliminated the need for water used for toilets by replacing them with composting toilets. While such toilets conjure up negative visions of port-a-johns or smelly camping facilities, new technologies in composting toilets with vacuum flushing (similar to what you've likely used on airplanes) provide bathrooms without odor and improved health over conventional toilets that spray germs with every flush. There is a choice here, though. One could choose to keep traditional water-flush toilets, but this comes with the requirement to collect more water and treat a greater amount of black-water. So, for this exercise, to keep it simple, let's stay with the example of composting toilets.

            For the use of composting toilets, there are now "plug-and-play" appliances that collect and treat the waste with non-toxic bacteria. The end result is a compost that may be utilized in gardens or sold (helping to recoup costs of the equipment) to companies that resell the waste as commercial fertilizer. If one chooses to additionally utilize a urine diverter in the system, the liquid waste may also be sold to companies for fertilizer and even for processing the resulting metals.

            Now that we've reduced as much as we can on the water requirement side, we know how much water we need to collect. Let's assume that our residential example is a 1500 SF house in the Phoenix Metropolitan area (PHX)- a place with far less annual rainfall than much of the USA. Even in the Sonoran Desert we can collect 6000 gal/yr from a 1500 SF roof area. The majority of the rainfall in PHX occurs in July & August during the monsoon period, with almost all the remainder falling in January & February. This results in long dry seasons between the two wet seasons. In order to stretch out the collected water through the dry periods, we have to gather everything possible during wet months and store the water. This requires large containers to be installed, monitored, and maintained to eliminate algae or other harmful agents. In column D, you'll see how far the rainwater collection and reuse gets us, with our water requirement now dropped to just 8,000 gal/yr.

            The other methods of water collection come through greywater (non-toilet uses such as laundry and showers) and black-water (toilets). As we've decided to use composting toilets in our example, we will skip the latter for this paper. Greywater also needs to be stored, but since it is collected on a daily basis (rather than seasonal), we don't need to add much additional water containment space. However, this water needs to be treated a bit more with enzymes and bacteria to ensure the water creates safe reuse for showers, laundry, and dishwashing. Here again, plug-and-play products are available, including for residential projects. By reusing this water along with rainwater and the reductions in usage, you can see in column E that we have achieved NZW.

             This examples shows a pathway to living in balance within our imaginary site, but let's take a moment to discuss some real-world barriers we likely have in our way. One perceived barrier is a lack of space for a given project. But as discussed earlier, urban projects such as the Bullitt center have shown that it need not be an insurmountable problem. It may add cost for the extra equipment required to achieve balance, however. And cost for the equipment, extra piping, and water storage systems may definitely be a barrier. But even if cost isn't a problem, quite often governmental regulations are in the way of gaining approval for the use of these systems. In Maricopa County, for instance, there is a requirement for all projects that have access to centralized water and waste systems MUST be connected to them. And many health regulators do not approve of on-site water collection and reuse. It can take a great deal of convincing to get regulators onboard with a project's goals. It may even require a client to become their own registered 'utility supply company'- though that may not be as difficult as it sounds. Still, the barriers are real and it takes a good deal of patience from designers and project owners to clear the hurdles. It also wouldn’t hurt if there was a greater amount of advocacy to demonstrate working project examples to regulators.  

            And while the path to living in balance with the water cycle may not be initially easy, there are huge benefits to our cities and planet. The good news is that there are some very good examples of projects out there finding new ways to achieve real NZW and potentially even creating a new interconnected infrastructure for collected and treated water. By sharing water across projects, we can help raise the efficiency of decentralized water production and usage.

Eco-Rain  crates are inexpensive and can handle cars and trucks driving and parking on them.

Eco-Rain crates are inexpensive and can handle cars and trucks driving and parking on them.

SYNOPSIS

            Our planet is struggling to provide clean water sources as the population and industrialized production increases. Extended droughts are also creating dry areas with large populations, and many reservoirs and lakes are at record low levels. We have never lived in a time where producing projects that exist in balance with the water cycle has ever been so important. The project value of producing NZW projects is increasing, and it is important as owners, clients, designers, and students to understand the fundamentals of designing and living responsibly when it comes to water. We hope this paper will provide a basis for greater change when it comes to how we deal with on-site water, even in extremely dry areas such as Metropolitan Phoenix.

            For more information on water issues, NZW design and barriers, see this excellent report