Water series POST 2: The Water Bind
Written by Todd Vogel, Homeowner
Pete Muñoz, Crystal Grinnel and Juan Ravalo give a well-crafted overview of the Bainbridge watershed here, its challenges and how they analyzed the way Loom House could meet those challenges.
With their guidance, setting up the basic system for drinking our rainwater was simple. Our path to full LBC certification for the house’s water petal proved complicated, however. It followed a winding road not because Biohabitats missed something. Pete and Crystal did great work on the design. And it wasn’t because the end solution was so complex.
The journey was bendy for two important reasons: 1. We were setting a very high bar to generate all our own water for the house, even during the Northwest’s dry months and 2. We were trying to create a water solution that respected the existing forest garden.
That garden was a driving force for why we bought the house. The lot had been beautifully landscaped in 1968, and the architect, Hal Moldstad, was known for constructing homes that nestled seamlessly into the terrain. Rock walls, understory planting and shrubbery framed the home, and the plants had thrived for 50 years on the lot, maturing to impressive sizes. Fir, Cedar and Hemlock trees shot up arrow straight 150 feet. We fell in love with the lot at first sight, and it became the foundation for our understanding of the LBC’s Biophilia and Beauty petal requirements. We had to create a new entryway for the house, and in the redesign, we positioned the path to the front door between two tall firs that stood sentinel. Karen also felt the garden would be an ideal location for her work with clients in her Spiritual Direction and Nature Connection Mentoring practice. (Stay tuned for more from Karen.)
Unfortunately for our LBC aims, the plants around those trees were thirsty during the dry months of July, August and September. The garden guzzled water and, according to records, consumed about 100,000 gallons a year. Most went into the ground as irrigation.
We had asked Anne James, of Anne James Landscape Architecture, to help us rework the garden for our multiple goals. It needed to function not just for Karen’s practice, but also to meet the LBC imperative to grow food. To further complicate Anne’s job, our LBC aims meant that the new food-producing plantings would be on a water diet. Talk about making bricks without straw. Oh, and we wanted to preserve the feeling and the integrity of the garden’s original design.
Anne started by creating a water budget for the garden – and we imagine for someone like Anne who loves gardens, that prospect could be as grim as making a monthly budget. Miller Hull and Biohabitats came up with an estimate of how much water we’d have to store to supply the house and get the garden through the dry summer. The answer: 30,000 gallons – enough to nearly fill three railroad cars. A fiberglass tank that size weighs six tons. Alternatively, we could pour a concrete cistern under the carport and use it as part of the foundation.
Our 30,000-gallon cistern would cost $400,000. At first, our response was stunned silence.
We quickly shifted to denial – there must be another way! Along with Biohabitats and Miller Hull, we investigated huge baggies that could live under the foundation. (About the same cost.) Or under the deck. (Not enough capacity.) We looked at milk-crate-like boxes that inexpensively stored stormwater under strip-mall parking lots. (We couldn’t find one approved to hold drinking water.)
Back to concrete. We thought we had to zoom out to the big picture. Concrete has an enormous carbon footprint. Cement, concrete’s main ingredient, is created when lime, silica and other ingredients cook at 2,600 degrees Fahrenheit. Revving up the kiln uses a tremendous amount of energy, making world cement production accountable for about 8% of total C02 emissions. It’s difficult to imagine that the carbon savings of even a super-efficient house would ever make up for the cistern’s carbon emissions.
When we were researching to decide if we would sign onto the LBC process, we read a book by the builders of Desert Rain in Bend Oregon. That gorgeous piece of new construction was the first fully certified residential home under LBC. To make it through the dry summers, the owners of Desert Rain built a cistern under the carport of about the same size proposed to us. Looking back on the project, Desert Rain’s owners said that the carport cistern was the only piece of the home that they wouldn’t do the same way again. Its cost was too high for the return. We thought, “Shame on us if we don’t learn from those who came before us.”
Miller-Hull’s John MacKay and April Ng worked their pencils to study how we might squirrel cheaper, above-ground, cisterns around the yard. Storing 30,000 gallons required about a half-dozen tanks six feet across and six feet high. When April showed us the 3-D computer modeling of the house and site, the tanks dominated everything. Loom Water Works.
For every proposed solution, we hit either a design road block or astronomical costs.
Our surprise at the challenge of net-zero water was being replaced a grudging acceptance: there were no clear-cut solutions, only expensive, somewhat questionable, compromises.
Lurking beneath our house designs lie a fundamental conflict between the needs of the house, the needs of the planet, and the land the house sits on. How were we going to marry our hopes for preserving the aquifer and supplying our own drinking water with our respect for the beauty of the garden? And how could we stand on the shoulders of Desert Rain to try a new solution that would translate to future LBC projects?