Monday, March 30, 2009

Water Water Everywhere

This week's newspaper column:

Not enough water and you dry up; too much, you drown.

A few days ago I witnessed a startling sight. Out on the road in a thunderous rainstorm, I came upon a river of water rushing across the road in front of me. Directly ahead, a car was stalled out headlight- deep in the current.

Proving I’m not a natural photographer, I didn’t reach for my camera; I hopped a curb and got the heck out of there.

Mother Nature was severe that day, but we’ve had rains like that before. Why then, when the city invests a good portion of its infrastructure budget each year in the maintenance and expansion of an underground storm sewer system, would this particular rainstorm result in an instant raging torrent over one of the city’s most traveled thoroughfares?

It has to do with a simple principle: hard surfaces – such as parking lots, roads, and roofs – repel water hastening the speed of storm water runoff; a natural or landscaped surface absorbs much of the water and slows the velocity of any excess.

In a related story, that very same street was recently “improved.” The roadway was widened, landscaping was removed, and large swaths of planted median were paved over.

In the absence of adequate green space, too much water rushed the system all at once and a tipping point was reached. For a brief moment, everything was out of balance and the system was overwhelmed.

The conventional solution would be to install new and bigger pipes to carry the water “away.” Tearing up streets to install larger storm sewers is an expensive proposition, and after a few more parking lots go in nearby, it will be time to enlarge the system again as drainageways must be sized for maximum capacity.

The sustainable (and considerably less expensive) solution involves integrating green space into the fabric of the community. Conscious placement of parks, lawns, landscaped buffers, and natural areas around developed space creates a natural dynamic whereby water migrates into the system at a much slower rate avoiding that sudden rush and transcending the need to enlarge the system.

Green roofs and porous pavement serve the same function.

Green space is part of the natural infrastructure of a city. It’s how nature manages a sudden rainstorm without the drama or expense.

Greening the city also means cleaner air, cooler summers, and a more beautiful environment in which to live, work, and play. Imagine that blistering parking lot in the middle of summer transformed with a shaded canopy of green foliage and garden space giving expanded meaning to the word park.

In an age where businesses and governments are strapped for cash, sustainable solutions deliver results naturally. After all, plant life - ever energy-efficient - runs on free solar power.

Conventional thinking, on the other hand, may be all washed up.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Water Infrastructure

Some of the stimulus money in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is dedicated to construction and maintenance of water infrastructure.

Over the next decade, the US will need to rethink where we obtain and how we process potable drinking water or many areas of the country may run dry. Areas of lower rainfall like Arizona are considering such wild-eyed solutions as pumping water from the Mississippi River, over a thousand miles away, to meet the fast-growing demand for clean water.

How we deal with waste water, storm water, energy generation, and food production dramatically impacts the demand for clean water.

Infrastructure, when it comes to water, does not just refer to man-made systems. The health of natural water infrastructure - wetlands, headwaters, riparian corridors, etc. - dramatically impacts the availability of clean water and the cost of processing water to potable standards.

A few water facts:

One third of America's processed potable water is used to flush toilets.
It takes as much as 2500 gallons of water to produce one gallon of ethanol.
In some areas, up to 25 percent of processed water is used for cooling power plants.
Farming, mostly with low-efficiency flood irrigation systems, siphons off as much as 80 percent of some local water supplies.

There's an informative discussion on water infrastructure in a recent segment of the Diane Rehm show. From this interview, I learned a new term - Hydrostitute. Hydrostitutes are hydrologists who manipulate water models to conform to political will.

The link:

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

BeauSoleil: Full Steam Ahead

Solar Decathlon Update: Every two years 20 university teams are chosen, based on proposals, to design an all-solar home and assemble it on the National Mall in Washington DC for public viewing and judging. Check back each Wednesday as the NAV Blog reports on the process of the design and construction of BeauSoleil, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's entry. For more info about the project, visit their website. And check out a short film about the project.

A report from the field:

Last week was great for the development of the BeauSoleil Home. AIA South Louisiana sponsored a skeet shooting tournament that was held this past Saturday. The event was a success and the proceeds went towards student travel for the trip to Washington D.C. in October. Thanks to all students from the BeauSoleil Team and the Business Department at ULL who volunteered as trappers and assistants. Thanks especially to AIA South Louisiana for sponsoring the event!

Back home at the BeauSoleil warehouse everything seems to be going according to schedule (we’re keeping our fingers crossed!). The roof only needs two more panels to be completed and the steel in the transitional porch is finished and placed in the shell. This was made possible by Southern Steel & Supply who donated the steel tubes and labor. Moving the welded frame from outside the warehouse into the shell was difficult, but thanks to the forklift provided by Southern Steel, we were able to get the job done.

Currently we are working alongside Southern Steel & Supply on the “expansion modules”. The fabricators are working very hard to finish the frames as soon as possible. On another front, we are working with Begneaud Manufacturing to finish the design of the transitional porch roof and the solar-fin, water heating system. Communication between the fabricators and the students has been very important and this project is a great opportunity for students to learn how to work with engineers, fabricators and other professionals of the construction industry in general. We are getting excellent exposure to what an architecture project entails in the real world and owe it all to our contributors and sponsors. The next phase of construction is coming-up soon and we’ll have more exciting updates for you! Stay tuned and we shall see what the future holds for the BeauSoleil Home!

Denisse Castro

TEAM BeauSoleil - Instrumentation


Monday, March 23, 2009

EcoLecture at Southern Miss

Tuesday (March 24th) at noon, as part of the University of Southern Mississippi's monthly EcoLecture series, I will present a slide show entitled "The Greening of Southern Miss."

If you are on this quadrant of the planet, please feel free to drop in to this free event sponsored by the university's Office of Sustainability.

I'll talk about green buildings and infrastructure, zero-energy buildings, and sustainable connections to the surrounding community.

Location: (see campus map)

Stout Hall B, University of Southern Mississippi
Hattiesburg, Mississippi, USA

From Highway 49 or Interstate 59, take Hardy Street to Campus. Turn north at East Memorial Drive (at the light) and proceed to the guard house for a parking pass. Park as directed and walk to Stout Hall along the brick pedestrian plaza.

Larry Lee, Office of Sustainability

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

BeauSoleil: Raising the Roof

Solar Decathlon Update: Every two years 20 university teams are chosen, based on proposals, to design an all-solar home and assemble it on the National Mall in Washington DC for public viewing and judging. Check back each Wednesday as the NAV Blog reports on the process of the design and construction of BeauSoleil, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's entry. For more info about the project, visit their website. And check out a short film about the project.

A report from the field:

Life is good here at TEAM BeauSoleil World Headquarters. Not only do we have a house, but also we have begun to put the roof on it. In order to facilitate transportation of the house to Washington D.C. the roof will come off in three sections that we will re-attach on the Mall once we arrive. The west section over the kitchen is in place and we are beginning to assemble the east section. These two sections are 8 ½” sips panels that were pre-cut and prepped at Louisiana System Built homes. We are assembling the roof one panel at a time here at the warehouse.

We are really beginning to get a sense of the spaces inside the house. For instance, the ceiling in the kitchen will be over 13’ at its highest point. This will make the space feel bigger as well as allow us to vent heat easier through the high ribbon windows on the north side. Venting heat is important in a South Louisiana kitchen and because we do love our cooking and our food it is only fitting that this area have the most dramatic ceilings.

In addition to construction we are beginning to take delivery of materials. The dream that started a year and a half ago is beginning to take shape with every passing day. There is constantly a flurry of activity here at the warehouse from building, to finalizing detail designs, to ordering materials and organizing with subcontractors. It is really a magical process to be a part of and we are so lucky to have this amazing experience.

Scott Chappuis -Project Architect. TEAM BeauSoleil

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Home Recycling

Now here's an example of recycling on a big scale.

Instead of razing the home and carting debris off to the landfill, this enterprising crew is hauling a little cottage off to begin a new life.

Adaptive re-use can happen in a number of ways. Move and re-site a home. Build loft apartments in old warehouses. Convert an empty big box store into a skating rink or a community center.

Curbside recycling indeed.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Up on the Roof

This week's newspaper column:

Green roofs are the latest thing in sustainable building technology.

Well, not quite.

Planted roofs were around as long ago as the seventh century B.C. when King Nebuchadnezzar adorned roofs with vegetation in what famously became known as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

In Scandinavia and Iceland, people have utilized sod roofs to insulate homes from the extreme cold for centuries.

Fast forward to the twenty-first century and green - or “living” roofs - are making a big comeback.

Cities like Chicago and Portland, Oregon are aggressively encouraging the installation of green roofs on as many rooftops as possible. Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge manufacturing plant sports a 10 acre living roof, and you’ll even find a green roof on the Pentagon.


Green roofs offer a plethora of environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits.

While conventional roofs bake in the summer sun hiking surface temperatures to well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a planted roof remains roughly the same temperature as you would find under a nice shady oak tree. Extreme heat and ultraviolet rays degrade roofing materials, but a roof protected by vegetation typically lasts two or three times as long, and the insulating characteristics of a green roof keep the inside of a building cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter saving energy year-round.

Municipal officials always complain about the ever-increasing costs of storm water drainage systems. Water falling on hard surfaces (such as concrete, asphalt and roofing) rushes into underground drainpipes that must be sized for maximum capacity. Collectively, green roofs (along with planted areas on the ground) relieve the system of that extreme sudden surge of water runoff minimizing the need for costly expansions of underground piping.

Urban spaces act as “heat islands” and are typically several degrees hotter than the surrounding countryside. Planted roofs lower the ambient temperature of the surrounding area while simultaneously improving the air quality as they absorb carbon dioxide and emit oxygen.

And green roofs have aesthetic qualities too, as vegetation softens the hard edge of the built environment. As living roofs grow more popular, they’ve even been utilized as private patio gardens and as bonus public recreational space.

The cost?

Green roofs can be installed for as little as $10 per square foot and can easily be accommodated on new construction. If added to an existing building, it might be necessary to beef up the structure as planted roofs add at least 25 pounds per square foot to the roof load when saturated.

Want more information? Go to or just type in “green roof” on your computer’s browser and you’ll find a wide variety of interesting planted roofs and resources.

Think about a green roof next time you’re planning a building project; the idea is old, but the benefits are timeless.

Update: A link from Robert to an article about a very cool Richard Neutra house with a green roof: