Holding Our Breath Over Water

Ask the question, ‘what has been the biggest challenge in the process of building Desert Rain?’  The answer you will receive in one word – WATER!  Building a home to meet the requirements of the Living Building Challenge’s Water Petal, means building ‘net zero’ water in terms of source. This translates to all water needs for domestic and irrigation purposes being met by the precipitation that falls on the site.  With annual rainfall in the Bend area at 11” or less annually, – water collection and harvesting is paramount to meeting the criteria.  All the roofs on the 5 different structures feed into the 35,000 gallon cistern. That stored water will be filtered through a variety of systems and used for all domestic purposes.  The other side of the water issue, known as ‘ecological water flow’, has proven to be more difficult.  All water that falls on the site must remain on the site. This includes storm water and discharged water, both graywater and blackwater.

Jim Fagan, General Contractor performing some ‘first-aid’ on a temporary drain. When the project is completed, all the gutters on all 5 structures will collect and send water to the 35,000 gallon cistern.

In a standard construction process the water and wastewater systems would have been part of the infrastructure in place prior to any building.  Desert Rain is nearing completion, yet a couple of major permits have not been approved by the City of Bend and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.  The project is pushing the regulatory envelope and has created a trail of plans, submissions, rejections, revisions, and re-submissions. The latest plan is a 600 square foot bio-constructed wetland that will purify the graywater and pump it to a holding tank for irrigation use.  The blackwater from toilets and the dishwasher will be processed through a composting system housed in a building that has been named Desert Throne.  Liquids in the composter will be evaporated with a solar powered, hot- air panel. Solids will compost and be mechanically removed about once a year.  This latest plan is pending. There is disagreement whether the city or the Oregon DEQ has the final say.   Tom said, ‘The process on the one hand has been difficult, on the other it has been educational for all parties. The bureaucracy that we have put in place to protect ourselves serves us and can also hinder us, depending on how you view it.’

Many of the systems designed for Desert Rain are far beyond the ordinary and out of the comfort level of current codes and regulations.  While doing their jobs, some people in the regulatory agencies are embracing the idea of change, others are resistant.  A simple altering of language sometimes makes the difference. Changing the name of a system in one instance brought immediate approval from the city – with a different name the process may have taken weeks.  In April 2012 the DEQ implemented  regulations to allow the resuse of graywater for irrigation.  Desert Rain’s graywater system is the first in the State of Oregon to actually be built, go through the whole process and receive approval.   Tom believes everybody will be watching closely to make sure it has been done right. He said, ‘Regulatory agencies have a responsibility.  They are accountable if they approve something that doesn’t work out.  Certainly this is modeling something.  We hope there will be many more graywater systems installed and rain water catchment systems. The next one will have a much easier path from a regulatory position. ‘

In the high desert climate of Bend, any snow melt or rainfall is crucial to recharging the water in the cistern.

The water and wastewater systems have been an ongoing struggle since the design process began. It has been frustrating and expensive causing delays and concern for the unknown. What if they say, ‘no’ to the current plan, to Desert Throne, the composter, and the evaporation system? The city code requires Desert Rain to be tied to the city water and sewer system for safety purposes. That system is in place and could be used.  The Living Building Challenge requires tha Desert Rain  process all wastewater on site and does not allow any wastewater or stormwater to leave the site via city systems. That is a very obvious conflict of requirements and poses a looming question about certification for the LBC Water Petal.  Barb Scott, co-owner with Tom Elliott, said,  ‘ This has been a tough and frustrating issue. We are holding our breath.’   Desert Rain has been and continues to be, a demonstration project for the future of the built environment.  Hopefully, the awareness created by pushing the regulatory envelope will bring change. Then breathing over water will become a little easier for all of us.






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