Water quality and development

The tap, it could be said, is where the environment meets the house. As the fundamental infrastructure of community (at any scale), water is the first requirement for habitation, prior even to shelter. Drainage is a primary concern of Vitruvius when siting a city. Poor sanitation and water quality was in the West and is now in the developing world the greatest cause of disease; decreases in infant mortality (indeed most mortality rates) due to proper sanitation far exceed mortality decreases due to medical advances. Yet this necessary infrastructure, like power, is typically taken for granted in developed countries.

Within the context of new suburban development, Butler and Karvonen argue for the efficiency of an integrated approach when designing for water supply, sewer, drainage, runoff, and quality (Butler, K.S. and Karvonen, A. Integrative Water managements and Conservation Development: Alternatives for the Central Texas Hill Country. The University of Texas at Austin. December, 2004). Intentionally or not, their report supports organic notions of community development outlined in Melosi, albeit on a much smaller, suburban scale than the urban context the latter frequently cites. This integrated approach is on the one hand necessarily mechanistic, in that it relies on engineered sanitary solutions with distinct components or systems, but it also somewhat biomimetic in its emphasis on the interrelation of those system components.

This is in marked contrast, for example, to legacy urban sanitation systems. For good cause, 20th century sanitary infrastructures treat water supply, drainage and runoff, and sewer as independent systems. But in a justifiable effort to avoid contamination of the water supply, opportunities to lessen the impact of gray water are missed. For example, in a region prone to flash-flooding and with considerable impervious cover concerns, the City of Austin generally does not allow impervious cover credits for rainwater harvesting systems. (This is likely due to the fact that impervious cover limits are in many cases zoning restrictions designed to control scale of development masquerading as water-quality ordinances.) Likewise, expensive detention and retention ponds are not systematically downsized in consideration of bio-retention measures. Outside of designs negotiated ad hoc with City officials, such integrated sanitation strategies are not currently codified in CoA regulations.

In considering infrastructural change, whether an integrated sanitary system or an environmentally-sensitive power distribution system, in most urban settings one inevitably must overcome the considerable inertia of legacy systems. Butler and Karvonen’s report arguably addresses a relatively tractable problem: how best to provide infrastructural water resources to a suburban Greenfield development. Faced with an installed urban infrastructure, however, the problem becomes far less tractable:

“…decisions made about sanitary systems in the nineteenth century had a profound impact on cities more than 100 years later.
“one of [W. Brian] Arthur’s concerns was that a decision will ‘lock in’ an inferior technology path … early decisions on the path affect immediate decisions limiting available … [and] future [options].
“In 1842 … Sir Edwin Chadwick took a bold stand on the need for an arterial system of pressurized water which would place house drainage, main drainage, paving, and street cleaning into a single sanitary process… this remarkable hydraulic system was never implemented …”

—Melosi, The Sanitary City, pp 11-13

How then to circumvent the path dependency of a current infrastructure? Is it best to rely on market forces? Citing the rural electrification of early 20th century America, Nye argues that contrary to popular American notions, such changes can only take place when legislatively mandated. Butler and Karvonen admit as much:

“Individual home owners are typically not able to directly influence the direction of new developments or housing products—to move them towards more sustainable futures in terms of water use and environmental impact.” (Part 1, p 13)

Yet they hesitate to challenge the common perception of the invisible hand as all-wise, with this rather unsubstantiated claim, contradicted somewhat in the paragraph just prior (second passage):

“It is increasingly clear to the public that there can be large differences in the costs of living among communities and individual residences.” (Part 2, p 7)

“developers … all agreed that their successes were not achieved by marketing their projects simply as ‘green developments’ ” (Part 2, p 6)

One is inclined to suspect that American consumers tend to make decisions based on short-term costs rather than long-term value. An integrated, environmental approach to infrastructure may just have to be mandated.

About François Lévy

Registered Texas architect, former university lecturer and researcher, CAD/BIM consultant and trainer. I hold an M.Arch as well as an MS in architectural engineering from the University of Texas at Austin; I've taught architecture courses there. I have been practicing since 1993, and established my own firm in 1997. I design buildings that capture the imagination, express regional beauty and a sense of place, and touch lightly on the earth. My projects reflect their cultural and geographical context, are accessible and comprehensible to the user, relevant to their surroundings, and contribute to a sense of place rather than obeying a preconceived architectural agenda. All my work—whether in teaching, research, or architecture—investigates the intersection of design, technology, and sustainability. I am particularly passionate about working collaboratively to create projects that eloquently express how we use and conserve energy and water, and inhabit the land. My architectural projects have attracted regional and national press, including Dwell Magazine and HGTV. My residential architectural work includes projects up to 10,000 SF, with project budgets up to $2M. Nonresidential work has included collaboration with other firms on commercial office buildings, school projects, and public infrastructure. In addition to leading Vectorworks seminars to architects for over a decade, I have presented and lectured widely on CAD and BIM. My current areas of research interest are sustainable architecture, BIM, cooling through passive ventilation, and space architecture, on which I have presented at international conferences. Specialties: Sustainable architecture, BIM (building information modeling), CAD, space architecture
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