The Kitchen Sink Faucet

Living On Rain: Water Collection and Conservation

Water collection, conservation, and treatment is a part of daily life at Desert Rain. it plays a profound role at Desert Rain- influencing not only the design of the home, but the site development as well. Tom and Barb have prepared and practiced mindful water usage for some time – even before moving in to Desert Rain. And now they want to share and inspire that same thoughtful conservation.

The Kitchen Sink Faucet

The faucet in the Desert Rain kitchen pours delicious rainwater.

The Living Building Challenge Water Petal

Earning the LBC Water Petal poses a very real challenge for Barb and Tom. It requires that they use only water that has fallen as precipitation on the property, and that the site retain all of the water collected and used. Doing so requires large cisterns and onsite water treatment facilities for gray water and black water. The limited nature of this resource is especially apparent and easily measurable for Tom and Barb. Living on rain means the couple and their guests will have all of their water needs met by the 11.2 inches of precipitation that falls each year in Bend.

A Shared Acumen: Water is a Precious Resource

Desert Rain Bathtub

Taking a bath is a very special treat.

All of the appliances and fixtures at Desert Rain have been selected for their water efficiency, yet the most important component of water conservation is the person with their hand on the tap. From rinsing dishes in the sink and running the tap to get the desired temp, to brushing teeth and taking a shower, each of us is ultimately in control over the water we use.

As welcoming hosts, Barb and Tom want to share their mindfulness about water conservation with their guests. And their guests are very enthusiastic about learning more and doing their part. But how do we waste water and what does personal water conservation truly look like?

How much water does is take for a person to live a healthy and prosperous life? The answers vary widely. The Average American uses 400 gallons of water per day, while the average African uses 5 gallons of water per day. Some US municipalities have set goals of 140-170 gallons per person, per day. Barb and Tom have set a goal of 30 gallons per person, per day.

Typical Home Water Usage

By living within this goal, Desert Rain will collect and recycle enough water for Tom and Barb and their guests to be graciously hydrated, clean, and surrounded by beautiful vegetation.

Life on the Blue Planet

We live on a planet made of water. Why bother? Because all the water that will ever be is, right now.

While the thought of all the water in the world is unfathomable, water is an intensely precious resource. Three quarters of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, 98% of that is salt water and not fit for human consumption.  What’s more, of the 2% that is fresh water, about 70 percent is locked in glacial ice and 30 percent in soil, leaving under 1% readily accessible for human use. Each drop is irreplaceable.

We invite you to read more about Water on the Desert Rain compound.

Additional Water facts via:

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.






Putting a Lid On It

The slab begins to take shape.

When I arrived on site at 7:20am on June 6, 2012, the concrete pump truck was backed up in the alley with the pump arm looming high above the cistern.  The concrete crew was finalizing the prep work. The 9” thick concrete slab is the lid of the 35,000 gallon cistern that will hold the collected rainwater for all the domestic water use at Desert Rain. The lid also serves as the parking floor for the garage.

 The concrete started to spew from the large pump hose. The crew efficiently began screeding the concrete. In this process, straightedges are used to remove excess concrete and bring the top surface of the concrete to the proper, previously marked grade line  This slab is level on the west end of the cistern where there are intake and mechanical hatches, then slopes gently on the east end. During the screeding process, the crew used a concrete vibrator. Right after placement, concrete contains up to 20% trapped air. The amount varies according to the mix of the ‘slump’, the placement method, size of the form and the amount of reinforcing steel used.  Concrete vibration consolidates the concrete by moving the concrete particles, then removing entrapped air.  Vibration helps settle the concrete and allow it to flow more readily into corners and around the rebar.  This eliminates voids or ‘honeycombs’ and brings more of the paste to the surface to assist in finishing. Since concrete flows better with vibration, the mix can contain less water, providing greater structural integrity in the finished product.  The screeding and vibrating crew were followed by Keith with a concrete float. The float forces the aggregate down and raises the cream (the gravel-free concrete) to the surface for finishing. The slab would be firm enough to walk on in a few hours when Keith would make cuts in the slab to relieve stress in the concrete and help control cracking.

The cistern now has a lid.

Keith and his crew (Jeff, Chris and David) demonstrated their experience as the 90,000 pounds of concrete arrived in three, consecutive trucks and was pumped into the slab. In a little over an hour, the forms were filled, screeded and floated.  The cistern, now has a lid and the garage, now has a floor. Nice work guys!



Rain by Any Other Name

This morning there is light rain falling, a sky full of gray, and the prominent fragrance of wet, washed sage.  With 90% chance of rain in the forecast, ‘Desert Rain’ is aptly living up to the name.

The cistern ready and waiting for the concrete to arrive.


The anticipated concrete pour for the lid of the 35,000 gallon cistern has been bumped due to the weather forecast.  One must appreciate the irony that rain, is holding up the progress of the building of the cistern that will be most dependent on rain when it is completed.  The cistern will store the rainwater and snowmelt that will be collected through a system of gutters, screens, and filtration systems.  The water will be collected for domestic use, including drinking water. Water stored in the cistern will not be used for irrigation.

Supporting structure inside the cistern

Last week, Keith and his concrete crew were continuing to build the form, secure re-bar, and frame the support structure for the cistern lid. The concrete lid serves a dual purpose as the slab floor of the parking garage that will be built on top of the cistern.  The estimated 90,000 pounds of concrete in the 9” thick slab will not contain a mixture of fly ash.  The concrete formula for the foundations of the other structures at Desert Rain contains 40% fly ash.  Fly ash is a bi-product of the coal industry that would normally be waste.  According to Jim Fagan, the General Contractor for Desert Rain, concrete that contains fly ash is ‘compressively stronger’  but slightly more brittle than regular concrete. This caused some concern about potential cracking in the heavily engineered cistern.

Support posts placed to hold the 90,000 pound concrete lid as it cures.

The pump truck is now scheduled to arrive on site this Wednesday at 7:30am.

Re-bar placed and tied

Wednesday’s forecast: 60 degrees, partly sunny, slight westerly winds – a good day to pour; concrete that is, not rain.



Water Wisdom

What makes Desert Rain unique is the standard to which it is being built. The Living Building Challenge is both a philosophy and set of principles that guide us toward true sustainability. Living Buildings are designed and constructed to work as efficiently as possible on the resources available in a given space. As stated by the International Living Building Institute, “The underlying principle of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) is that the built environment should regard nature as the ultimate measuring stick for performance.”

LBC puts forth seven performance areas—called Petals:

• Site

• Water

• Energy

• Health

• Material

• Equity

• Beauty

Petals are subdivided into 20 imperatives that focus on a specific sphere of influence. We’ll discuss all of these over time, and you can explore them at, but given that Desert Rain’s cistern is taking shape I’d thought we’d touch on one imperative under the Water Petal: net zero water.

Petal: Water • Imperative 05: Net Zero Water

Net zero water means that 100% of Desert Rain’s water use must be supplied by precipitation at the home site. Bend’s high desert climate averages just over 11 inches of annual precipitation (average based on weather data collected from 1981 to 2010 for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). That’s just enough for small family home. That precipitation will be gathered from the various roof tops on the property—the home itself, as well as the accessory dwelling unit and the two garages—and piped down for storage in the 35,000 gallon cistern.

To meet LBC standards, Tom and Barbara are allowed one initial fill-up of the cistern from city water. After that, to meet LBC, they must be able to live within their water means. That is, they can only use what the skies give. If an average family of four needs about 73,000 gallons of water a year, and the roofs at Desert Rain can collect roughly 30,000 to 40,000 gallons, efficiency with water is will be key. Every water fixture in the home will be highly efficient, and Tom and Barbara themselves are already living within a water budget that will be similar to what they’ll need to live under once they move into Desert Rain. Landscaping, of course, is also designed to fit within the area’s water means.

Placing forms for the cistern's walls. March 13, 2012.

The Desert Rain cistern will be located under the home’s main garage. The hole for this concrete structure is so massive that workers need a ladder to get in and out of it. The digging was a long, arduous process—weeks of hammering away at rock with a hydraulic excavator. Last week the footings were poured and set. This week they’re placing the forms for the walls and pouring that concrete as well.

While cisterns are more common in outlying areas dependent on wells, and in areas where water is scarcer, you rarely find them in the middle of a mid-size town. Which is perhaps why I’m so fascinated by this aspect of the project. Imagine—not using water from your municipality. Using only what the environment provides.

Working in the large hole where the cistern is taking shape.

This basic concept could have huge ramifications if it took hold. Think of the lawns we water, the cars we wash, the long showers we take—all the things that take up so much more that what nature provides in many cases and places. It certainly provides food for thought.

 The intent of the Water Petal is to realign how people use water and redefine ‘waste’ in the built environment, so that water is respected as a precious resource. Scarcity of potable water is quickly becoming a serious issue as many countries around the world face severe shortages and compromised water quality. Even regions that have avoided the majority of these problems to date due to a historical presence of abundant fresh water are at risk: the impacts of climate change, highly unsustainable water use patterns, and the continued drawdown of major aquifers portent significant problems ahead.

–          From the Living Building Challenge standards



Footings in place for the 35,000 gallon cistern. March 11, 2012.