The Astute Architect

Swimming against the tide of water conservation

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We need to save water with better building technology, writes SmartPlanet columnist C.C. Sulivan, but our behaviors -- and new "full-flow" thinking -- threaten our sustainable future.

Houston's Wortham Fountain has kept on spraying, even in the drought. By John Dennison

Houston, we have a problem.

Yesterday, city officials in my favorite Texas city lifted mandatory water-conservation measures, even as one of the worst droughts ever continues there. A little rain, some cooler temperatures, and the problem has gone away, right?

Hmm. The real reason Houston can afford not to worry is that water equals energy. And Houston has plenty of energy.

Confused? Consider: About 10% of all U.S. electricity is spent just to treat or pump drinkable water, per the EPA. In California, where the state snowpack is at one-fifth of normal levels, make that 19% of all electric power -- and add in an astounding one-third of all natural gas used. Nationally, we expend 50 billion kilowatt-hours just for our water supply, enough power to run 5 million homes. And that's without wastewater and sewage.

Water = energy

Saving water saves energy. And that's why tomorrow's best green buildings exceed Houston's mandatory water-efficiency rules every day of the year.

Carnegie Mellon's Gates complex, the 2012 AIA award-winner by Mack Scogin Merrill Elam.

UPS just got LEED Gold for their corporate HQ, re-engineered to save 39% of its water use. The new computer science building a at Carnegie Mellon University, a stunning zinc-clad design with memorable windows by Atlanta's Mack Scogin Merrill Elam Architects, is one of only nine projects nationally that will receive a 2012 AIA Honor Award. This "Center for Future-Generation Technologies" incorporates future-proof water conservation techniques, part of the gorgeous building's unseen beauty.

What's behind the walls?

  • Better plumbing fixtures, for one. While waterless bathroom fixtures are slow to catch on, dual-flush toilets have been seen beyond San Francisco lately. Kohler's Persuade is catching buzz. Get used to the yin-yang double button.
  • Sub-surface irrigation and drainage is another. A test plot has just been announced for Yas Island in Abu Dhabi, where UAE-based EPIC Green Solutions will install its "Environmental Passive Integrated Chamber," which can save up to 80% of system water.
  • Speaking of deserts, xeriscape is a hot trend for 2012, the term rapidly becoming a household word. (Look it up.)
  • Efficient building systems. Cooling towers use water constantly, and companies like VRTX use hydronic cavitation and other non-chemical means to treat water used for air-conditioning.

On our side: Kohler's dual-flush Persuade. Get to know me!

That's just the tip of a slowly melting global iceberg.

Another big challenge is industrial use. Last week Ford announced its goal to reduce water used to make vehicles by 30% before 2015. That's on top of water savings the carmaker calculates at 62% over the last decade. Their secret? Lubricating cutting tools without water, for one.

All wet?

Some manufacturers are swimming against the tide, in search of a quick buck. The cheap-sounding fixture maker ConservCo proudly announced last week they are "exiting the low-flow segment to focus on what consumers" really want: Full-flow, baby! One new launch is named after Victoria Falls, the huge cascade in strife-torn Zimbabwe. These guys are all wet.

The enemy: Get two showers at once, from Conservco's Victoria.

Let's face it: Water-conserving technology is only half the battle. More important are our basic, everyday behaviors at homes in Houston and beyond.

The Pakistani architect Arif Belgaumi wrote in the Express Tribune last week about his New Years resolution. It's not about specifying more water-saving faucets, but merely keeping his own faucet turned off at home. "I have resolved ... not let the water run in the sink while I shave every morning," he writes.

Get ready for some neighborly peer pressure, too. "If you water your lawn every day, shame on you. You're a hypocrite," said Col. Alfred Pantano, district commander of the Army Corps of Engineers at the Everglades Coalition's annual conference, in Florida the other day. "I do believe as Americans we got to get real about conservation."

Come in Houston -- do you copy?

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C.C. Sullivan

Columnist (Architecture)

C.C. Sullivan is principal of a marketing and advertising agency by the same name focused on the shelter, construction and architectural markets. Formerly, he was chief editor of the magazines Architecture and Building Design & Construction, and launched the Home of the Year awards with Metropolitan Home. He holds a degree from Yale University and previously worked for the architects Tai Soo Kim, Emery Roth & Sons, and Angel Fernandez Alba (Madrid). Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure