All the Water in the World

At the risk of seeming only concerned with water issues, which we’re not, here’s a compelling image from the USGS depicting all the water in the world relative to the Earth as a whole. This is not just all the fresh water, which would be but a fraction of the total, but all the water period.

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“When the Well’s dry, we know the Worth of Water”

Benjamin Franklin published the proverb above in Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1746. Yet the words are as true today as when he wrote them more than 265 years ago. And recently, some contemporary residents of central Texas are having a very real encounter with Franklin’s metaphorical aphorism.

The PBS Newshour and KUT have just released a story about towns here in Texas running out of water. Spicewood Beach has officially run out of water. Robert Lee is building a 12-mile pipeline so it can buy water from a neighboring town. And as the report mentions, the region is likely to become hotter and drier in the future. A warming climate and a rapidly increasing population mean that the supply and demand of water are likely to become ever more at odds going forward.

As that other witty American intellectual Mark Twain supposedly observed, “Whiskey is for drinking; water is for fighting over.”

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The Town That Ran Out of Water


An update on something we’ve been following…

The Town That Ran Out of Water

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Hedonistic Sustainability

We are far beyond the point where sustainability could legitimately be considered optional in contemporary architectural practice. However moving forward, the conversation surrounding sustainability will shift. Sustainability will be seen as a luxury not in terms of its cost but in terms of its benefits. Rather than being seen as an added expense often requiring some sacrifice in quality of life, sustainability will be recognized as an added value that can dramatically increase quality of life. Bjarke Ingels, the star Danish architect, refers to this as “hedonistic sustainability”. It’s not about what we give up to be sustainable, it’s about what we get.

Recently, I had the pleasure of seeing Ingels speak at the Center for Architecture in New York about his book, Yes Is More. An iconoclastic reaction to the old adage, “Less is more,” coined by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the revered giant of pure Modernism, Ingel’s book, and indeed his practice, lays out an architectural approach in which narrow dogmatism and reactionary cynicism are replaced with pragmatic inclusiveness and sincere optimism. That is to say, relentlessly testing designs for the best possible outcome without adherence to restrictive philosophical frameworks with the belief that architecture can in fact be a force for good and even joy in the wider world.  We would be hard pressed to disagree.

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In October, Dwell Magazine profiled a house in Austin designed by Alterstudio and portrayed as a green building. The piece caught our attention not just because of the house’s location in our fair city, but also for the approach the architect and owners took in incorporating green features into the house.  The house has no photovoltaic (PV) panels, no rainwater collection system, no solar water heater.  The primary reason? Cost. But what it does have are accommodations for all those elements to be installed in the future as the owners’ finances evolve. They are in it for the long haul, and the house was designed for upgrades.

While we respect this incremental approach, it got us thinking about the vulnerabilities of green building systems when it comes to the project budget, specifically PV panels. The decision to omit PV panels in the Dwell house stemmed directly from the suspension of Austin Energy’s subsidy program that offsets the steep cost of installing such systems. Demand forAustin’s rebate program has consistently outstripped the available funding and the city has repeatedly suspended the rebates, which have ranged from $2.50 to $4.50 per watt of installed system. With the cost of PV systems ranging from $4 to $9 per watt, the rebates can bring down the cost of installing such systems substantially. Similar federal programs further reduce the cost.

Austin’s rebate program was started in 2000, and the city now has more than 1,200 customer-owned solar energy systems which produce more than 4.7 megawatts of generation capacity. Since these systems are connected to the municipal power grid, they serve as distributed generation sites and feed power into the system any time their production exceeds their own users’ needs, with the users earning money for the excess power generated.

Completely off-grid projects, like our Alligator Creek Retreat which will have a 3.7 kW solar array (seen above), are not eligible for these city rebates, but federal programs similarly offset the cost.

It is an unfortunate reality that without such rebates or subsidies, photovoltaic arrays would be prohibitively expensive to install in most residential applications. The return on investment just isn’t there in a reasonable time frame right now.

But considering the subsidies and tax incentives that once enabled the petroleum industry to gain hold and flourish more than a century ago, and which by the way are still very much in place, subsidies for emerging energy industries that will necessarily replace those based on fossil fuels seems quite reasonable. As markets grow and industries mature, costs will inevitably fall. And we are proud to be part of that growing market.

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Green Building, Extreme Weather, and Self-Reliance

Self-reliance is one of those core American virtues that forms a key part of our national identity.   According to our national myth, the country’s forefathers forged into the great American wilderness and survived if only by their own hard work and ingenuity.  They were beholden to no one and no one to them.  It was the essence of liberty, the promise of freedom and self-determination that this new continent offered.  Whether this myth reflects historical reality does not really matter.  What matters is that we, by and large, still hold it in our heart of hearts.

As Americans, we like to believe that we still possess that same degree of self-sufficiency and independence as our mythical forebears.  Of course, we do not.  We live in an incredibly interconnected society, one which has produced great wealth and prosperity of the sort those woodmen of centuries ago could scarcely have imagined.  The connections that sustain us are interpersonal but also physical, and it is these physical connections that we’d like to focus on here.  We are dependent on vast infrastructural systems to maintain our way of life, yet these systems are far more fragile than we might realize.  And in this context, the strategies of green building take on a whole new relevance.

The weather in the great state of Texas this past year has been, well, not so great.  Between the record cold last winter and the record heat this past summer, it has not been a good year for weather here or in much of the country.  The extremes we experienced led to some rather unpleasant events: rolling blackouts, dire water shortages, and raging wildfires to name a few.  These weather-related events revealed just how vulnerable our utility systems are and how dependent on them we really are.

As temperatures plunged back in February, Houston, the self-styled ‘energy capital of the world’, endured rolling blackouts for the first time in over two decades.  For those unfamiliar, a rolling blackout is a damage control strategy in which an electrical utility selectively shuts off electricity to specific areas for a period of time to reduce the strain on the system and prevent the entire grid from collapsing and causing widespread blackouts.  In Houston, frigid temperatures forced the closure of several electrical generation plants at the same time as demand for heat soared necessitating the need for rolling blackouts to stabilize the system.

The searing temperatures this past summer had far more serious effects.  While Texas narrowly escaped rolling blackouts as electricity production managed to just barely meet demand for air conditioning, the heat led to a series of serious water shortages.  While it may seem obvious that during the hottest summer on record in Texas there would be water shortages, the actual reason for many of the shortages was anything but.

Broken water mains actually caused a large proportion of the shortages this summer.  It is no secret that the water supply systems in many cities need work.  In the US, most water pipes were installed in three periods: the late 1800s, the 1920s and the post World War II era, and many pipes still in use are far beyond their designed lifespan of 65 to 95 years making them much more susceptible to breaking.

The summer heat along with drought conditions led to a drop in the moisture level in ground soil and a rise in the stress on water pipes due to high use.  As the soil loses moisture and dries out, it shrinks away from the water pipes it surrounds.  The pipes, typically already weakened with age and no longer contained by the soil, then burst.

This summer Houston reported having about 700 water main breaks per day, compared to an average of about 200.  The fact that 200 breaks per day is considered normal should already tell us something about how delicate our water systems are.  And in times of increased strain, those systems fail at a far higher rate.  In some smaller towns like Lake Brownwood and Gatesville,Texas, the residents experienced what it is like to actually run out of water completely as a result of water main breaks.

Even without breaking water mains, water was in short supply in Texas this past summer.  The town of Llano draws its drinking water from the Llano River, which normally flows at 158 cubic feet per second but dropped down to just three cubic feet per second in June due to drought and evaporation.  A lack of water this summer also impaired the ability of firefighters to combat fires in places like Kemp,Texas.  But lack of water is not limited to small towns.  It has been suggested that Houston, San Antonio, and Fort Worth are all at risk of running out of water in the coming decades.

So what does all this have to do with green building?  At a global scale, green building helps to reduce climate change and the extreme weather associated with it.  By using sustainably harvested lumber, locally sourced materials, and energy-efficient construction and mechanical systems, green building reduces a project’s carbon footprint and thus its contribution to climate change.

But we would further argue that at a local scale green building is actually a way to proactively control how susceptible we are to that extreme weather and the infrastructure failures that often follow.  Off-grid projects, meaning buildings that are not connected to public utilities, offer the possibility of self-sufficiency and self-reliance of the type so central to the American ethos.  The ability of off-grid structures to generate their own power, collect and store their own water, and treat their own waste not only means a highly sustainable building, it means independence from the kind of fragile public utility infrastructure we’ve seen fail this past year.  If and when a scarcity of resources occurs, off-grid projects are fully prepared to cope with the circumstances.

One of our projects, the Alligator Creek Retreat, is being built as a completely off-grid building.  It will generate power using a 3 kilowatt solar array and will collect, treat, and store 19,000 gallons of rainwater.  The design employs passive solar strategies in terms of massing and orientation as well as a high performance building envelope to reduce energy consumption.  The house, currently under construction, will be a completely self-sufficient dwelling, independent from the vicissitudes of municipal utilities.

The Alligator Creek project also demonstrates our general design approach.  The basis for any project is our client’s program and the site.  From that, we derive the massing and orientation of the building, incorporating passive solar performance strategies as well as facilities for power generation, rain water collection, or other systems as required.  Once the major elements of the building are established, we incorporate active systems to augment climate control in the building, which may include sensors, timers, or other operable elements.  Coupled with a highly efficient building envelope, the resulting building uses minimal energy and resources.

While green building may not be exactly akin to reclaiming our national myth of self-reliance, it does go a long way toward mitigating our complete dependence on questionable infrastructure systems at a time of increasing risk.  Of course, green building is not a call for survivalist isolationism, but it is a call for taking ownership and responsibility for our own needs and use of resources.  In the end, green building is not just a method, it is also a mindset.

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On Green Building

‘Green building’ is something of an amorphous term that encompasses a dizzying array of design approaches and construction techniques. It can refer to everything from energy efficiency and sustainable material sourcing to traditional construction techniques and bio-mimetic design. The diversity of green building is at once inspiring and overwhelming, but ultimately we must begin to define terms to have a meaningful discussion of what we believe in as designers and builders.

For us here at Forsite Studio, our concept of green building revolves around the close integration of advanced building systems with simple, commonsense design elements to create buildings that are efficient, cost-effective, and beneficial to users and the surrounding environment. The SIS Alley Flat embodies much of our current thinking about green building. Developed as a prototype for adding an additional residence to a suburban lot here in Austin, the SIS (Sustainable Integrated Structure) Alley Flat addresses core issues of sustainability, health, affordability, design, and efficiency, which are all central to our design philosophy.

The full description of the SIS project can be found here.

Buildings inherently consume energy and resources, both in their construction and operation. But with a truly integrated design approach, including choice of building materials, use of advanced technologies, and thoughtful consideration of form and site, it is possible to mitigate or even eliminate the net use of energy and resources. Such is the aim of the SIS project in particular and of our practice in general.

Of course a key variable in the equation is cost. Building can be fantastically expensive or shockingly cheap, and green building similarly runs the gamut. But more money does not necessarily buy you a greener or more livable building. That is to say, it not the size of the budget that matters, it’s how you use it. We are firmly in the camp that good design is well within the means of nearly any project budget. And green building is, or should be, a requisite part of any formulation of ‘good design’.

Ultimately though, we believe in creating good buildings. All the energy efficiency in the world will not make up for an oppressive interior or unpleasant layout. Buildings are made for living, for people, and the experience of the users is really where the focus ought to be. This includes the users’ immediate comfort and pleasure in the building but also extends to the building’s operational costs, ease of use, and health effects. We would further extend this to the building’s local and global impact recognizing that any building project affects, to at least some degree, the surrounding environment and community.

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