Details our process for team-building, communication, and to ensure full compliance with LBC and LEED requirements.

Desert Rain House Earns First Residential Living Building Certification

Desert Rain House located in Bend, Oregon, has become the first residential compound to earn Living Building certification, the most ambitious and optimistic international standard of sustainability in the world. Developed by the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge certification requires actual, rather than modeled or anticipated, performance across environmental, social and community impact. Therefore, projects must be operational for at least twelve consecutive months prior to evaluation.

“Barbara, Tom and the entire project team made a serious commitment to becoming what is now a powerful demonstration for regenerative design,” said Amanda Sturgeon, CEO of the International Living Future Institute. “They have also provided a beautiful and compelling blueprint for others to be inspired by and to follow. Certification of the Desert Rain marks a defining moment in the Living Building Challenge – a fully certified, multi-family residential project that is beautiful, just, and has a net zero impact on the environment.”

Six years in the making, Desert Rain earned certification by demonstrating that its five buildings produce more electricity than residents use each year and that 100% of water requirements are met by captured rainwater. In addition, toxic chemicals were screened from all building materials and all wood was reclaimed or Forest Stewardship Council certified. Human waste from the three residences is composted on site and all greywater is processed and reused for irrigation.

“Barbara and I built Desert Rain as a demonstration project and personal residence. If a residence and two apartments like this can be built in downtown Bend, Oregon, they can be built in any municipality,” said Tom Elliott, co-owner with Barbara Scott. “We hope the project will inspire others to reflect on the possibilities in their own built environment.”

Desert Rain has produced more energy than it used in each of the past three years due to its highly efficient design incorporating passive solar and a very tight building envelope.

“We can’t continue thinking we are building a better world by making a “less bad” version of the world we have created,” said Elliott. “The Living Building Challenge forces us to think in terms of a new paradigm.”

Barbara Scott, co-owner of Desert Rain, said, “It’s important to remember, Desert Rain is the loving and hard-earned result of a multi-year collaborative project between owners, designer, contractors, sub-contractors and the community at large. Bend is now home to one of the greenest buildings in the world.”

James Fagan, one of the owners of the general contractor Timberline Construction said, “Desert Rain was at least as much process as project. The technical challenges were many and some quite daunting. Together we managed to find our way to a fulfilling and beautiful outcome. As a general contractor on our first Living Building project, it was inspiring to be able work through this challenge with such an amazing team.”

“Dozens of design, engineering, and construction team members embraced the highly integrated design/build format vital to making the Desert Rain dream a reality,” said Al Tozer of Tozer Design, LLC.  “A pioneering residential effort, Desert Rain showcases what the world needs now more than ever – commitment to a clearly stated goal, collaboration of all stakeholders, open minds and creative thinking – to solve our planet’s most pressing environmental challenges.”

“Plants take longer to grow in the desert, but when there is a bloom it is stunning. The Desert Rain House is the product of years of thoughtful planning, design and perseverance led by two courageous owners,” said Jason F. McLennan, Board Chair of the International Living Future Institute and Founder of the Living Building Challenge. “What they have achieved is an example for us all: a better way of living and perhaps more importantly for all people touched by the project, a new way of thinking that will seed further blooms of change.”

About the Desert Rain House

Desert Rain is a residential compound consisting of three residential units and related out-buildings encompassing a total of 4810 square feet. The first residential compound in the world to be fully certified under the stringent Living Building Challenge, Desert Rain is also LEED Platinum certified and Earth Advantage Platinum certified.

Built as a demonstration project, Desert Rain is one couple’s exploration of the question, “How do we remake our human-made systems to align positively with what we know creates sustainable and resilient communities?”

Learn more about Desert Rain through our extensive case study:

Desert Rain House: Resilient Building, Sustainable Living in the High Desert  by Ecotone Publishing

About the International Living Future InstituteDesert Rain House-Resilient Living

The International Living Future Institute is a hub for visionary programs. The Institute offers global strategies for lasting sustainability, partnering with local communities to create grounded and relevant solutions, including green building and infrastructure solutions on scales ranging from single room renovations to neighborhoods or whole cities. The Institute administers the Living Building Challenge, the environment’s most rigorous and ambitious performance standard. It is the parent organization for Cascadia Green Building Council, a chapter of both the United States and Canada Green Building Councils that serves Alaska, British Columbia, Washington and Oregon. It is also home to Ecotone Publishing, a unique publishing house dedicated to telling the story of the green building movement’s pioneering thinkers and practitioners.

Landscaping with Restoration Principles

Rick Martinson, owner of Winter Creek Restoration, is passionate about incorporating restoration principles into created environments.

Rick Martinson, owner of Winter Creek Restoration, is passionate about incorporating restoration principles into created environments.

Rick Martinson and the team from Winter Creek Restoration have been on site this past week, creating an ecology-based landscaped area surrounding Desert Rain. By incorporating restoration principles into the landscaping, Winter Creek Restoration will be creating something that is both remarkably beautiful and astoundingly smart.

The Winter Creek Restoration Team: Dayne Galish, Andy Dwyer (OSU Intern), Calina Merrow (OSU Intern), Conor Bidelspach, Kimber Warnock, and Rick Martinson (owner).

The Winter Creek Restoration Team: Dayne Galish, Andy Dwyer (OSU Intern), Calina Merrow (OSU Intern), Conor Bidelspach, Kimber Warnock, and Rick Martinson (owner).

Speaking with Rick about his work, one quickly realizes that he is both passionate and knowledgeable about the way native plant ecosystems function.  He was kind enough to take time from the busy day to explain the science behind the work the team will be doing and the long term process that the Desert Rain landscape will go through.

Resource Islands

The most common landscaping strives to support plant-life evenly throughout a space. Shrubs, flowers, and grass are watered and given nutrients, regardless of the shade created, natural flow of water, and nutrient deposits. This type of landscape requires more water and more nutrients, and also requires more weed control. In an effort to conserve water, soil nutrients, and effort, Desert Rain is looking to the natural world for inspiration.

Planting shrubs near rocks helps create "resource islands" - areas that will support plant-life with very little water or resources.

Planting shrubs near rocks helps create “resource islands” – areas that will support plant-life with very little water or resources.

Looking closely at the natural vegetation in the sage steppe area in places like Central Oregon, you can see that plants clump together in small “resource islands,” surrounded by spaces that have almost nothing growing.  Rick explained that these clusters of plants are supported by, and create, nutrient pools – or areas rich with nutrients, water, and shade. A large sagebrush, for example, creates shade for smaller plants and sheds leaves to create a layer of mulch to keep moisture from evaporating from the soil. Similarly, a large rock creates shade as well as collecting solar heat. Rocks also cause water to collect and even provide nutrients.

A Wyoming Sagebrush is at the center of this "resource island."

A Wyoming Sagebrush is at the center of this “resource island.”

As a variety of plants begin to grow near the rock or shrub, they create a microclimate that other species can also take advantage of.  Conversely, the spaces in which no plants grow are all but nutrient void. These voids don’t support the growth of weeds like Cheatgrass and Russian Thistle. Winter Creek Restoration is using this understanding to plant native small grasses and flowers near shrubs and rocks, creating resource islands that will require very little water and maintenance, yet will offer immense beauty.

We're looking forward to watching the northern slope of Desert Rain grow.

We’re looking forward to watching the northern slope of Desert Rain grow.

Rick’s wife, Karen Theodore, runs Winter Creek Nursery and has supplied all of the plants for our project. We’re looking forward to watching plants like Western Yarrow (Achillia Millifolium), Wyoming Big Sagebrush (Artemisia Tridentata var. Wyomingenesis), Desert Spray (Holodiscus Dumosus), and many more native species thrive in a landscape that mimics their natural settings.

Currently working on his doctorate, Rick hopes that ecology-based landscaping will become more of the norm in the landscaping industry and more appreciated by municipal planning departments. We’re looking forward to hosting some of Rick’s future educational workshops and seminars on the Desert Rain site.

After a Short Break – Desert Lookout Construction Begins

We had a short break in construction this winter along with a brief hiatus in sharing updates on our home, the project, and the process.  But rest assured, we were not resting. During this time, we were preparing for Desert Lookout.  This new structure will include an office/apartment, a garage, a yoga studio, and –  perhaps most importantly – will house the composting/evaporator unit for blackwater.
Staking Desert Lookout in early April 2014.

Staking Desert Lookout in early April 2014.

Early this April, we received the exciting news regarding the approval of our permit to treat blackwater — toilet and dishwasher wastewater — on site, without putting it into the sewer lines.  Desert Rain has become the first in the state of Oregon within a city sewer district to receive a such a permit, and with this good news in hand, we broke ground on April 15.
Breaking ground on Desert Lookout.

Breaking ground on Desert Lookout.

Breaking ground and preparing the foundation has gone smoothly and quickly. Now, we’re excited to see the Desert Lookout structure rising.
Desert Lookout Foundation

The framework in place for the Desert Lookout foundation

The framing of Desert Lookout is nearing completion in Early June 2014.

The framing of Desert Lookout is nearing completion in Early June 2014.



Leading the Way to ‘YES’ – Permits and Policy

The 3 ½ year epic journey over water is ending a chapter this week as work begins on the constructed wetland at Desert Rain.  For Morgan Brown, President of Whole Water Systems, ‘ the odyssey through the permitting process has been intellectually and professionally, frustrating and fascinating’. Whole Water Systems analyzed water and wastewater needs, then designed and engineered the systems that can meet those needs and the requirements of the Living Building Challenge Water Petal.

After 3 years of wading through policy and permits, excavation is finally underway for the constructed wetland.

After 3 years of wading through policy and permits, excavation is finally underway for the constructed wetland.

To receive the LBC Water Petal certification, Desert Rain must collect all water on site for all domestic and irrigation use and process 100% of the wastewater on site.  The harvesting of rainwater to meet all water needs in an arid climate was overcome by designing hard-working roofs. The structures at Desert Rain have roof surfaces that maximize collection of the minimal, average precipitation of less than 11” annually.  Desert Rain is a pioneer project in the state of Oregon, as it received approval to use the rainwater for all domestic use, including, drinking water. The State of Oregon Chief building code official told Morgan Brown, ‘we’ve never had a system like this push the limits of our new state rainwater harvesting guidelines’.


Two of the most challenging issues for Living Building Challenge projects involve the Water Petal.
 Net Zero Water
100 percent of occupants’ water use must come from captured precipitation or closed loop water systems that account for downstream ecosystem impacts and that are appropriately purified without the use of chemicals. 
Sustainable Water Discharge
One hundred percent of storm water and building water discharge must be managed on-site and integrated into a comprehensive system to feed the project’s demands.

The graywater and blackwater systems became a much longer story as the process moved through uncharted territory.  Initially there was verbal approval and e-mail approval from the City of Bend public works for an on-site, wastewater pre-treatment system.  As more details of the design and systems unfolded more questions and requirements impeded permit approvals. There was dialogue between The City of Bend Public Works and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality about jurisdiction for the project. DEQ relinquished authority to the city but the city wanted a DEQ stamp of approval to proceed.

Patrick Fitzgerald, Principal Engineer with Whole Water Systems, Morgan Brown, President and Founder of Whole Water Systems, and James Fagan with Timberline, look over the wetland plans.

Patrick Fitzgerald, Principal Engineer with Whole Water Systems, Morgan Brown, President and Founder of Whole Water Systems, and James Fagan with Timberline, look over the wetland plans.

The composter/evaporator for blackwater was proving to be the largest challenge since on site pre-treatment and eventual on site treatment and reuse has never been done when there is access to a public sewer district. In order to move forward the decision was made to apply for the graywater system permit first. The new State graywater program issued final rules in August of 2011 and began issuing permits in 2012. The rules are based on recommendations of a statewide advisory committee with limitations and safeguards for reuse of the graywater. The rules define three graywater types and a three-tiered approach to permits based on the extent of treatment, volume of water and allowed uses.

Monty with McKernan Enterprises compacts the soil.

Monty with McKernan Enterprises compacts the soil.

Desert Rain is one of the most innovative graywater projects to apply for a permit utilizing a primary, pre-treatment tank, then processing the graywater through the on site constructed wetland, into a 1,000 gallon holding tank, then pumping to a 5,000 gallon storage tank to be distributed for irrigation use. Due to the graywater being stored, Desert Rain had to apply for a Class II permit.  The Class II permit process is more involved requiring a system description and maintenance and operation guidelines.

Patrick Fitzgerald, PE for Whole Water Systems and Brent with McKernan Enterprises look over the inflow pipe.

Patrick Fitzgerald, PE for Whole Water Systems and Brent with McKernan Enterprises look over the inflow pipe.


After months of design, submittals, re-design, and re-submittals, the graywater system finally received approval. In an email from Morgan Brown on June 26, 2013, he wrote, ‘Thanks for all the team effort to achieve the first. We broke in new Oregon code for graywater (DEQ had expressed a lot of interest and enthusiasm for the system and overcame Building Division concerns about being on the bleeding edge.’

Being on the bleeding edge requires patience and persistence. There is much to be learned and applied for future projects and those who follow. It became evident that language is crucial in the application process and interpreting code at city and state levels. Determination between ‘code’ and ‘guidelines’ became a significant factor, as did the naming of materials. The initial plans submitted referred to the graywater tank as a ‘septic tank’. Under city code, ‘cesspools and septic tanks’ are not allowed within the city limits where a public sewer system is available.  The tank at Desert Rain would be used as a ‘primary treatment tank’. When plans were re-submitted with the new terminology, the permit was approved.

A rose by any other name... language became crucial in the permitting process. The naming of the 'primary treatment tank' was the difference between a 'yes' or a 'no'.

A rose by any other name… language became crucial in the permitting process. The naming of the ‘primary treatment tank’ was the difference between a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.


Morgan admitted there were many moments of frustration. There was a point of ‘make this happen or give up’.  He acknowledges  regulations are in place to get all channels of standard approval; the DEQ, Health Department, and City Public works are the major channels. The City of Bend has some progressive sustainability language regarding building. On the other hand, it is someone’s job to cover the risk. ‘To get to ‘yes’, the risks must be removed, Morgan said. ‘The code book is full of reasons to say, no. We have to be able to find ways to, yes.’  In the end, the solution will most likely be political – lobbying for change in local and state building codes to embrace progressive, sustainable design.  Desert Rain systems have been pushing the limits of existing regulations. With the designs, engineering, and monitoring of the systems in place  –  Desert Rain can begin, leading the way to ‘YES’.


Morgan Brown (right) and Patrick Fitzgerald with Whole Water Systems stand in the wetland that has been pending approval for many, many months.

Morgan Brown (right) and Patrick Fitzgerald with Whole Water Systems stand in the wetland that has been pending approval for many, many months.


























Cause for a Hullabaloo

A fleet of construction vehicles, workers, and projects are underway this week at Desert Rain. There is a bit of a hullabaloo over the recent news about water. Last Wednesday, the city of Bend approved the plan to treat and reuse the wastewater from the sinks, showers, and laundry by processing it through a constructed, bio-reactive wetland. Desert Rain is the first residential project in Oregon to receive state and city approval for its graywater treatment system.
click here to read the news in the Bend Bulletin

The graywater holding tank will collect the water that has been treated through the wetland. It will then be pumped to a 5,000 gallon holding tank next to the garage to be distributed through irrigation lines for the landscaping.

The graywater holding tank will collect the water that has been treated through the wetland. It will then be pumped to a 5,000 gallon holding tank next to the garage to be distributed through irrigation lines for the landscaping.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality approved the plan on June 10. It has been a 3 year process of plan designs, permit rejections, and ‘back to the drawing’ board for Tom and Barb and Whole Water Systems. Morgan Brown, president of Whole Water Systems, refers to the wanderings and trials through the city and state permitting process, as an Odyssey.   The process at Desert Rain prompted  Morgan Brown, and ML Vidas, architect and Living Building consultant for Desert Rain to present a program at the 2013 Living Building unConference.  Their session highlighted  the lessons learned on the bleeding edge of green building as Desert Rain sought approvals for blackwater, graywater, and rainwater harvesting systems.  In Morgan’s words, Whole Water and Desert Rain owners and team members ‘share the objective of setting an example that expands sustainable limits, is worthy of emulation and is financially accessible.’  A big sigh of relief and hooray, for graywater and rainwater harvest approval. Next on the list  – the blackwater system that is still pending.

The challenges of the LBC water petal at Desert Rain.

The challenges of the LBC water petal at Desert Rain as presented by Morgan Brown and ML Vidas.

The plastering on the exterior walls is nearing completion as the final, colored coat is being applied. The ADU is finished after some tweaking with the color hue last week. The entire plaster story will be upcoming soon.  The plastic that has been covering the structures for months will be removed after the final curing – what an exciting day that will be!

DR plastic rolled up

Desert Rain’s exterior is exposed after months of being protected by plastic tenting pending the plaster curing process. The final, coat with color is underway.


plaster hue

The final color of the final coat of plaster has been applied to the accessory dwelling unit.

The Miro wall is nearly completed with the exception of an opening that will allow the landscapers to move equipment and materials around the site. The wall will provide privacy for the inner courtyard, a backdrop for a water feature, screening between Desert Rain and the ADU, and visual continuity from the exterior through the interior.

The Miro wall gracefully curves through the structure and emerges outside to enclose the courtyard.

The Miro wall gracefully curves through the structure and emerges outside to enclose the courtyard.

A slot in the Miro wall reveals the Serviceberry tree that was planted as a memorial to the ponderosa pine that was removed.

A slot in the Miro wall reveals the Serviceberry tree that was planted as a memorial to the ponderosa pine that was removed.

Inside Desert Rain the installation of the bathroom tiles is nearly completed and will soon be ready for grout. The recycled glass tiles cover a large portion of walls in the guestbath and the entire walk-in shower in the master bath. Doug Caihil, tiler, said there will be a few smaller, follow-up projects as other contractors complete their work.

tile m bath

The recycled glass tiles in the master bathroom shower cover a large portion of wall space.

Cabinet installation continues throughout the house. The Forest Stewardship Certified wood combined with the craftsmanship of Gabriel Dansky at Dansky Handcrafted, creates a dramatic impact in all the rooms. Watch for an upcoming story about the cabinet materials and process.

murphy bed cabinet

The custom work of the built-in ‘murphy’ bed cabinet reflects the beauty of the wood and the craftsmanship throughout the project.

office  tones

Elements coming together to create beauty and function; FSC wood cabinets, salvaged myrtlewood flooring, American Clay plaster, and reclaimed wood trim grace the future office/media room.

What’s next? Desert Lookout  is the final structure proposed for the site. It will contain a composting/evaporator system, a garage, and yoga/fitness studio on the ground level. A dwelling unit will be on the upper floor. The existing garage from the original dwelling on the site will be deconstructed to make room for the new structure. Materials will be salvaged and stored for future use in other projects. The design and plans for Desert Lookout are in the early stages of the process: application for the site and use plan has been submitted and is pending approval.

permit notice

Part pf the permit process for the proposed Desert Lookout is public notification. Here the notice is posted on the existing garaged that is slated for deconstruction.

The project continues to place great demands on Barb Scott and Tom Elliott. As owners, they have faced countless decisions, financial concerns, frustrations with timelines, scheduling, unknowns, and barriers – typical to any custom building project – magnified with Desert Rain and the demands of the Living Building Challenge. They have also realized success and elation as pieces of their extreme, green dream meet the challenge. Their persistence and patience is paving the way for the future of green building in Central Oregon and beyond. With the approval of the graywater system – the first in the state of Oregon – they indeed have much cause for celebration and hullabaloo.  Congratulations Barb and Tom and the Desert Rain team!

Tom and Barb deserve much appreciation for their pioneering spirit, persistence, and vision for breaking barriers with the Desert Rain project.

Tom and Barb deserve much appreciation for their pioneering spirit, persistence, and vision for breaking barriers with the Desert Rain project.

The Art of Decision

How many decisions are made during the process of building a home? I don’t have a number but I know it is many. Designing and building Desert Rain, the compound of structures, and mechanical systems and meeting the Living Building Challenge criteria,  stretches those decisions by leaps and bounds. I recently listened in on a design meeting for the proposal of a new structure on the compound. In the three plus years the project has been underway there have been a series of design changes as building for LBC certification has many unknowns and is a ‘learn as we go’ process.

design meeting

Barb, Tom, Al Tozer , and James Fagan take a look at the preliminary design for the new structure, Desert Lookout.

The plan to this point has been to keep the garage from the original structures on the site and remodel it to create Desert Station – a studio space. With the waste water system still pending approval there is the need to build a composting toilet facility. In the usual team effort that keeps Desert Rain evolving, the new concept is to build a structure that will do more of what meets the needs of the project and Barb and Tom’s lifestyle. Al Tozer, designer,  presented the preliminary concept for the new structure – Desert Lookout. Included in the design is a garage, an upstairs unit that could be office or dwelling, a fitness space, and the composting toilet facility. The design is functional, aesthetic, and may have some dramatic elements. The decisions begin.

Interior choices - colors, knobs, tiles, materials- tough decisions.

Interior choices – colors, knobs, tiles, materials- tough decisions.

Considerations in the decision process factor in the cost, time-line, aesthetics, function, materials, and how it can meet the LBC standards. The water petal has been a significant challenge to meet. The permit is still pending for the water system. The city required that the site is hooked to city water and sewer.  Early in the process the decision was made to plumb the structures for both conventional and alternative systems. There has been discussion about hooking the Accessory Dwelling Unit to the sewer.  That would result in losing the LBC Water Petal; Barb and Tom are reluctant to let that happen – a tough decision.  The big choice about Desert Lookout: keep it functional and affordable, sacrifice drama for costs, or make a statement. Tom reminded everyone that, ‘ The whole home is a demonstration project. Every aspect needs to demonstrate something innovative and it also needs to make an aesthetic statement’.  More tough decisions.

Gabriel Dansky with Dansky Handcrafted, Tom and Barb look at the cabinets.

Gabriel Dansky with Dansky Handcrafted, Tom and Barb look at the cabinets and discuss options for the exterior finish.






As the large decisions loom there are ongoing, daily details that need answers; choosing fixtures, appliances, cabinets, doorknobs, wall textures and colors, how many shelves, art niche or storage cabinet, – the list is long. In addition to making choices every product and material used must be vetted through ML Vidas, a sustainable architect and consultant for Desert Rain and LBC compliance. The spread sheet for that process is growing.

American Clay plaster walls  - Earth, and the custom Manzanita on the Miro wall.

American Clay plaster walls – Earth, and the custom Manzanita on the Miro wall.

While Barb and Tom and the design/build team collaborate on new questions, work continues with the elements that have completed the decision-making and approval process. Inside is seeing more finishes.


The American Clay plaster is nearing completion, cabinet bases are being installed, and the reclaimed wood is in place on the ceiling and trim. The exterior of the site is currently under siege as trenches are abundant laying infrastructure for the rainwater catchment, gray-water, and waste-water lines. When the excavation moves out of the courtyard construction on the exterior Miro wall and other landscaping features can begin. The exterior plaster will be applied to the structures, and the old garage will be deconstructed. As many materials as possible from the garage will be reclaimed and used. Jim Fagan, general contractor with Timberline said,’we are wrapping our arms around all these elements, staying within a time-line’.
With so many questions unanswered, options to ponder, choices to make; many of us would simply give up or collapse . Barb and Tom keep forging forward. Continuing to embrace this innovative and conceptual project, Barb stated, ‘this is a learning environment and still very much our passion’. Perhaps in the process of creating Desert Rain, Barb and Tom have learned the ‘art of decision’.


One wall, one word, one decision – done.

The Educational Element

When Barb and Tom started the process of the Desert Rain project, they knew that demonstration and education would be part of the goal. Hundreds of people have visited the site to learn about the leading edge technologies for the built environment, the process of building to meet The Living Building Challenge, and to view first-hand the materials and construction techniques being used on Desert Rain.

Barb and Tom, Desert Rain owners, and Jim Fagan the general contractor with Timberline, tell the students the Desert Rain story.

Barb and Tom, Desert Rain owners, and Jim Fagan the general contractor with Timberline, tell the students the Desert Rain story.

One group of recent visitors were sixth and seventh grade students from Powell Butte Charter School. They are studying sustainability in the classroom.  They were excited to be up close and personal to a sustainable project and see elements such as the extensive array of photovoltaic modules.  Barb and Tom reviewed the Desert Rain story – from the deconstruction of the existing homes to the current state, visibly a home, coming closer to completion.

Students from Powell Butte Charter School make decisions about lunch leftovers: what can be recycled, composted, or landfilled?

Students from Powell Butte Charter School make decisions about lunch leftovers: what can be recycled, composted, or landfilled?

Desert Rain manages construction waste differently than a traditional construction site. There is not a dumpster on site. Materials are separated into piles to be composted, upcycled or re-purposed, recycled, or land-filled. The students were asked to manage the waste from their lunches in much the same way; deciding what could be recycled, what could be composted, and what would go to the landfill.

The students take a detour to the 'secret terrace' garden below Desert Rain.

The students take a detour to the ‘secret terrace’ garden below Desert Rain.

The students from Powell Butte Charter School had a sunny day to tour the site, learn about the process of sustainable building, and be introduced to the Living Building Challenge. The following day a Clean Energy Service Corps team arrived in a bitter, cold, rain to view first-hand some of the latest technology in sustainable building design.  Clean Energy Service Corps is one of the programs under the umbrella of the Heart of Oregon Corps.  Both organizations have a mission ‘to inspire and empower positive change in the lives of young people through jobs, education, and stewardship’.  The CESC group here in Bend partners with Habitat for Humanity to learn about energy-efficient home design, weatherization, and construction skills. Part of their service is to give back doing a variety of community service projects, primarily focused on insulation installation.

The Clean Energy Service Corps meets in the old garage on a windy, wet day to hear about the Living Building Challenge petals.

The Clean Energy Service Corps and a few additional guests meet in the old garage on a windy, wet day to hear about the Living Building Challenge and the 7 Petals.

Desert Rain is an excellent demonstration site for the CESC team to view alternative energy technologies and insulation materials. They primarily work with the standard, fiberglass insulation batts so they could appreciate the eco-friendly ECO-Batts, the benefits of the spray-foam, the blown-in cellulose, and the recycled cotton batts used at the Desert Rain site. The team was familiar with blower door testing to determine the tightness of the building envelope. They were surprised by the extremely low numbers of the tests conducted at Desert Rain.  The goal for Desert Rain is to meet or exceed the Passive House standard of .60 Air Changes per Hour (ACH). In the preliminary test conducted before drywall was installed and without under-floor foam insulation – Desert Rain had an impressive .65 ACH!  For more on the insulation story, please read the blog, Making the Grade

Tom and Barb continue the tour amidst the on-going construction in the main house.

Tom and Barb continue the tour amidst the on-going construction in the main house.

Barb and Tom’s vision of reaching out to community and sharing the process of their extreme, green, dream has brought 18 groups of visitors to the site to date. The groups vary in numbers and ages but everyone can come away from a tour at Desert Rain with an idea, an insight, or a dream of their own about sustainability in the built environment. Andrew, one of the Clean Energy Service Corps team members even went away with a piece of Desert Rain. He was inspired by the memorial plaque of the ponderosa pine that had been removed from the site. Barb sent him away with a giant slab of that ponderosa pine. He is contemplating a project that will be a reminder of his visit to Desert Rain and what he learned here. Desert Rain is very much an educational process; for Tom and Barb, for the design/build team, for the sub-contractors, material manufacturers, local businesses, and for the many visitors that toured the project. The educational element will continue as the building process moves forward and on completion, Desert Rain will remain as a visible demonstration of what is possible.

Andrew was enamored by the ponderosa pine memorial plaque. Barb sent him away with a slab of his own for a creative project.

Andrew was enamored by the ponderosa pine memorial plaque. Barb sent him away with a slab of his own for a creative project.

Pondering the Ponderosa Pine

The memorial to the ponderosa pine – a service berry tree is planted in the hollowed out stump.

Near the main house structure of Desert Rain  is a service berry tree planted inside a large stump.  It is a memorial to the magnificent ponderosa pine tree that once graced the property.  In the fall of 2009 in the very early stages of design and deconstruction of the existing houses on the site, the ponderosa pine posed a difficult decision.  Chris Hart-Henderson, landscape designer with Heartsprings Design has been with the project since Desert Rain was still a concept. She came in early to help guide the process of design in relation to existing vegetation, the orientation of the house, and how to take advantage of the vegetation and the views.  Part of Chris’s task was to help negotiate Barb and Tom through the process of weighing in the value of existing trees, including the aged ponderosa; what was the inherent value, the long -term value, the longevity? Should the home be built around the envelope of existing trees or should they come down?

Some of the tree planting crew. Two hundred one ponderosa pine seedlings were planted at Shevlin Park to balance the removal of the 201 year old ponderosa at the the Desert Rain site.

The ponderosa pine as the old house on site was undergoing deconstruction.

Barb was fond of the ponderosa and had concerns that removing it would negatively impact the environment and drastically change the character of the property. From the design and build viewpoint, there were concerns about the health and age of the ponderosa. The height and span of the branches created a good deal of shade that would be detrimental to the proposed solar energy system.  In the end, the difficult decision was made and the ponderosa came down.

Barb and Tom held a neighborhood contest to guess the age of the tree.  The winner received an artisan spoon, carved from the wood of the tree.  The ponderosa was estimated to be 201 years old.  In addition to the on-site memorial planting, Barb, Tom, friends, and volunteers planted 201 ponderosa saplings in Shevlin Park on the westside of Bend.  Part of the ponderosa was milled into lumber that will be used on site for fencing, benches, tabletops, and landscaping.  Some of the larger timbers have become inventory for future building.

Tom and Barb with the ponderosa logs in the background.

Ponderosa pine is one of the most important timber species in the western United States. Approximately 1.3 billion board feet of ponderosa pine lumber is produced annually out of Oregon, the largest supplier in the United States. It is popularly used for the construction of buildings. Contributed by USDA NRCS National Plants Data Center


On the mill – from log to timber.

Al Tozer, designer, with Tozer Design, incorporated the ponderosa memorial into the design plans. Al uses simple organic elements in his work.  He had the idea of a ‘paint brush stroke across a white canvas – an arcing stroke’. He came up with the idea of a curved wall that flows from indoor to outdoor spaces. Inside, the graceful curving wall separates the public spaces in the house from the private more intimate spaces. Outside, the wall will overlap and continue to wrap around the ponderosa memorial.  Al defines the look on a blank sheet of paper, ‘it is like the start of a Miro painting – simple curving lines that overlap. That creativity and geometry is imbedded into the house, and the house is wrapped around that organizing element’.

Barb and Tom admire the memorial plaque created by Bill Sturm of Oregon Timberworks using a slab of the ponderosa.

What is now called the ‘Miro’ wall, has become the spine of the home. When the home and landscaping are completed, the wall will visually bring the inside out and the outside in.  The reflective space created by the wall wrapping around the ponderosa memorial will give pause to pondering.  The spine and beauty of the ponderosa pine that once grew at Desert Rain, will retain its value – it will be remembered and honored.

The graceful curve of the ‘Miro’ wall back in the very early stages of construction.

The Artist – Miro
Joan Miró i Ferrà (April 20,1893 – December 25,1983) was a world renowned Spanish Catalan painter, sculptor, and ceramist who was born in the sea port city of Barcelona. Joan Miro



The beauty of wood – details of the plaque – walnut dovetails will keep the slab from splitting further.

Rethinking Construction Waste

Striving for Zero Waste is a worthy goal.

Part of any construction site is the waste generated by the building process.  Scrap lumber, cardboard, metal, plastics, and other packaging material make up the bulk of construction waste .  Building a 2,000 square foot home typically generates 8,000 pounds of waste that ends up in a landfill.  Data collected by the Sustainable Cities Institute  indicates that, ‘construction and demolition waste materials make up to 45% of what goes into the landfills in the United States. This contributes to the reduced life of landfills, operations and maintenance costs, as well as environmental impacts. Diverting construction and demolition waste avoids the costs of new landfills, and can support local businesses that can use the waste material as a resource.’

Wood waste is a major contributor on a construction site. At Desert Rain wood is re-used when possible or recycled at the county facility.

Desert Rain has been recycling and/or reusing the construction waste materials since groundbreaking. The Living Building Challenge  requires that a percentage of waste is recycled or reused. There has never been a dumpster or trash trailer on the Desert Rain site. The contractors are educated about separating the materials into various piles – the most important step to maintaining an effective recycling program.  Anna Vacca works with Timberline Construction as the recycler for Desert Rain. She comes to the site as materials accumulate, loads them into a trailer in appropriate piles and hauls them to the local recycling center and landfill here in Bend.  Even with the contractors on the Desert Rain site being aware of the process, the waste materials often have to be re-sorted.  With the influence of Desert Rain, Timberline Construction has bumped up recycling on some of their other projects.  On those sites a recycling trailer is in place but Anna still finds recyclable materials in the landfill pile. She believes education and simplification of the process would be the best tools to encourage recycling on a construction site.

Construction waste from Desert Rain has been tracked using an offloading sheet. The sheet is divided into categories: metal, rock/soil/ compostable material, cardboard, upcycled material, recycled/repurposed material, and landfill.  A good portion of the recyclable material (25 ½ yards) has been compostable wood/brush.  Cardboard from materials packaging is a major contributor. Diverting and recycling the construction waste at Desert Rain has created significant results. To this date less than 600 pounds has ended in the landfill.  In addition to construction waste, close to 800 yards of rock was hauled off the site to a crushing facility. Most of that rock accumulated during the process of excavating for the 35,000 gallon cistern. Some of that rock returned to the site in the form of gravel.  The Living Building Challenge requires the design/build team to encourage manufacturers and distributors to reduce, use a recyclable alternative, or eliminate packaging. This also has contributed to the reduction of waste generated.

Anna Vacca, Desert Rain recycler sorts all the materials before they are hauled to the recycling/landfill facility. Only the black garbage bag ended up in the landfill. The rest was recycled.

Using reclaimed materials is a required element of the Living Building Challenge and essential to the goals of Desert Rain.

Inspired by the numbers at Desert Rain, Jim Fagan, general contractor, with Timberline Construction would like to see a local construction waste recycling program in place. He, Anna, and some other interested individuals are in the talking stages of creating a non-profit that could provide seed money to encourage contractors to set up recycling on their building project sites. A cost analysis of the labor required to recycle waste, verses dumping in the landfill, will be a necessary step to quantify the process.  Anna thinks homeowners in the Bend area tend to be more conscientious about environmental impacts. Educating homeowners and proposing the idea of construction waste recycling may be the catalyst to encourage contractors to be on board. Good planning is the initial step to an effective waste reduction strategy.  Designs that are based on standard sizes, quality materials, and reclaimed materials, decrease waste by not producing it in the first place.  Jim said,  ‘incorporation of on site recycling may have to be a requirement at the design stage’. Looking at other projects in place there is evidence that waste diversion goals that are proposed and/or required as an element of design are more likely to be realized.

Many cities have construction waste programs in place throughout the USA.  Some cities require a recycling program as part of the building permit.  According to the Sustainable Cities Institute,  ‘Most of the effort required will be centered around enforcing any new regulations and educating contractors on how to comply. Enforcement is made easier by incorporating the diversion requirements into existing permitting procedures, but industry buy-in is crucial for achieving desired results and creating stable material markets.’

This Timberline banner was made from lumber packaging material by a local ‘upcycling’ company – Sara Bella in Bend, Oregon – an excellent example of recycle reuse.

Necessary steps toward an effective program include: identifying the construction and demolitions waste materials that will likely be generated on a building site, procedures used to collect and sort the materials, resources to haul the materials away, locations that will accept the material, and how those materials will be used. Some materials can be recycled directly into the same product for re-use. Others may be reprocessed into new materials. Many can be donated to be used as reclaimed material.

Construction waste recycling has many benefits. Environmental impacts from extraction, transportation and distribution of raw materials is reduced.  Regional landfills will have an extended life expectancy. Energy costs are reduced overall. Possibilities may extend beyond the building site to create jobs associated with a regional recycling industry.  Most contractors do recycle some percentage of the construction waste.  Desert Rain is raising the standard and once again, demonstrating what is possible with a conscientious effort to build sustainably.

8,000 pounds verses 600 pounds in the landfill – you do the math!





Desert Rain – Breaking Barriers

More visitors take a tour with Tom to learn about Desert Rain and sustainable building elements they may incorporate into their own projects.

From the beginning of the design and building process, Tom and Barb envisioned the Desert Rain project as a demonstration site with an educational element.  Along with their dream of building and living in their own extreme, green home, they have an objective of setting an example of what is possible in sustainable building. They are making an effort to expand ideas and push barriers with regulatory agencies, contractors, product manufacturers, and building materials.  In Tom’s words, ‘we’re not saying everybody should go build a home like this, but we think there are elements of this home that could and should be incorporated into just about any structure that is being built.’   There have been a number of people who have toured the site and been inspired by one piece or another of the project. They  may not be interested in building a Living Building Challenge home but they may be looking for methods or materials that they can utilize in a home being built or remodeled. For example a tighter building envelope saves enormous amounts of energy, no matter the source of the heat.  Insulation, windows, framing methods, passive solar design, and alternative heating systems may be pieces of the project that many people would implement when building a green home.

The 35,000 gallon cistern – a large piece of the Water Petal puzzle.

The water systems at Desert Rain have created the largest hurdles and are perhaps the least applicable for others to embrace.  Not many homes will have the extensive rainwater harvesting system and 35,000 gallon cistern collection tank that Desert Rain is using. Nor will the average, green home have a graywater system that treats all household wastewater for reuse to the standards that Desert Rain is setting. The proposed solution pioneered by Tom, Barb, ACS, Whole Water Systems and Tozer Design Design, to use efficient, conventional toilets that process blackwater and solid waste through a solar evaporator and on site composting facility is remarkably, innovative.  These systems that are currently difficult to encompass for the average homeowner, may prove to be the most educational element of the design and building process of Desert Rain.

Inspired by Desert Rain
As a result of his work with Desert Rain, Morgan Brown, President of Whole Water Systems has proposed a Living Future Talk for the Living Building Challenge. LBC Water Petal Solutions – Technology & Permitting Challenges; Lessons Learned on the Bleeding Edge
“Navigating the bleeding edge of LBC Water Petal technology and regulatory approval can emphasize the “Challenge” in Living Buildings. This session will focus on lessons learned from Desert Rain, an LBC home located in historic downtown Bend, OR. The session will highlight the 3-year Odyssey seeking approvals for cutting-edge blackwater, graywater and rainwater harvest systems and the joys of stretching city building codes and new state guidelines to the breaking point. An overview of Water Petal solutions by early LBC projects followed by audience participation in Fantasy LBC Water Design will help others learn from pitfalls and avoid costs.

‘Some of the above came about out of necessity – given the current situation – in order to achieve the Living Building standard. Others are a result of inflexibility and shortsightedness in interpretation of regulations. ‘ said Morgan Brown, president of Whole Water Systems. He refers to his work on Desert Rain water system solutions as a ‘3- year Odyssey.’  Brown sees each of the water systems: rainwater harvest, graywater, and blackwater as cutting edge. He believes, ‘that if these systems are realized they have the potential to become extremely influential.  That they are state-of-the-art green systems pushing the limits, that they will be a vehicle for valuable study, that others will want to emulate them, and finally, that they will make it more affordable for those that follow.’

Tom sees Desert Rain as an opportunity to break through hurdles. He and Barb are hoping to leverage this Desert Rain b experience by building an affordable Living Building Challenge home that could then be replicated by others.  He also hopes that Desert Rain will create an awareness of possibilities that might benefit the community in a larger sense. The idea of ‘scale jumping’ – taking some of the elements of Desert Rain that may not be cost-effective or make sense for one home – and incorporate them at a larger scale. A constructed wetland for a single residence may not make sense but a constructed wetland that can serve a small residential development of 15   homes makes a lot of sense toward decentralized and sustainable water treatment.

Tom and Barb deserve much appreciation for their pioneering spirit, persistence, and vision for breaking barriers with the Desert Rain project.

Desert Rain is an educational tool demonstrating what is possible. Tom compares the process of building extreme green to Roger Bannister breaking the 4 minute mile. “ It couldn’t be done. It was humanly impossible, bio-mechanically impossible, physics wouldn’t allow  it – just couldn’t be done until Roger Bannister did it. Then all of a sudden everybody was breaking the 4 minute mile.’

Breaking Barriers
In the sport of athletics, the four-minute mile is the act of completing a mile run (1,760 yards) in less than four minutes. It was first achieved in 1954 by Roger Bannister in 3:59.4. The ‘four minute barrier’ has since been broken by many male athletes, and is now the standard of all male professional middle distance runners. In the last 50 years the mile record has been lowered by almost 17 seconds.   resource – Wikipedia 

Desert Rain has been pushing the limits of new state rainwater harvesting guidelines and local and state codes for pre-treatment and reuse of graywater.  The blackwater, human waste system design is innovative and untold. Thanks to the persistence of Tom and Barb, and the Design and Build Teams, Desert Rain is jumping the hurdles, breaking the barriers, and setting some records in the built environment.  Like the breaking of the 4 minute mile, Desert Rain may be setting some new standards.

The Desert Rain Design/Build team – thanks to their persistence and innovative thinking, Desert Rain is pushing the barriers of the built environment.