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:

Forward Motion

Weather here in Central Oregon changes on a whim. Several days of near 90 degree days last week make it difficult to remember the downpours of rain we had a few short weeks ago. The Desert Rain site was awash with puddles and mud when Barb and Tom arrived to give a tour.  Last night we had a frost. Change represents motion. Desert Rain is seeing significant changes as the project moves forward.

Barb in rain 2

Through rain and shine, challenges, frustrations, rewards, and successes – Barb and Tom and the Desert Rain team keep moving forward.


Water – essential to Desert Rain meeting the goals of the Living Building Challenge.

Rain is good for Desert Rain. To meet the criteria for the Water Petal of the Living Building Challenge, water must be collected on site for all domestic and irrigations use, including drinking water. Desert Rain is outfitted with rainwater collection systems on all of the buildings. The water will be harvested and stored in a 35,000 gallon cistern. Wastewater must also be processed on site. Good news came today in the form of permit approval from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for a composting toilet facility. There will also be a bio-reactive, constructed wetland to treat the graywater for use in irrigation.  The water permit is still pending with the City of Bend.

Juan, with Elite Plastering working on the second coat on the garage.

Juan, with Elite Plastering working on the second coat on the garage.

The base coat and second coat of plaster have been applied. A third and final, colored, finish coat will be added soon. The exterior of the structures are under wraps during the plastering process so the curing can be controlled.

house in wraps

Still under wraps. There will be much excitement when the final coat of plaster is complete and the exterior revealed.

What is happening under all the wrapping?

Tile in guest bathroom

Jason is tenacious with the tedious job of tiling all of the shower walls with the crushed glass tiles from FireClay. Doug Cahail is working diligently in the master bathroom.



Tilers, Doug Cahail and Jason have been diligently working on installing the FireClay ‘Crush’ tiles in the bathrooms of both the ADU and main house. ‘Debris’ tile from FireClay was used for the backsplashes and shower in the ADU. ‘Debris’ is comprised of more than 70% recycled waste, including recycled toilets.



High Desert Hardwood Flooring crew, Sonny and John, have installed the salvaged myrtlewood floors in both the ADU and the main house. In the ADU they have been sanded and finished with, OSMO, a green, wood- wax product.

myrtlewood finished

Oregon Myrtlewood flooring – the picture says it all!











Gabriel Dansky and crew with Dansky Handcrafted of Bend, have been installing more cabinet bases in the dining and laundry areas. Installation of the doors on the kitchen cabinets is also underway. The cabinet doors are made from Forest Stewardship certified wood and finished with OSMO wood-wax.

cabinet doors

The beauty of all the elements blending together; reclaimed wood on the ceiling, FSC wood on the cabinets, American Clay plaster on the walls, recycled FireClay tile for the backsplash, and cement countertops from Cement Elegance.

OLLI tour

A group from the Osher Lifelong Learning Center listen to an introduction from Tom about the project before they make their way up the ‘mail trail’ to the house.

Meanwhile, tours have been ongoing with groups and individuals interested in green building and the cutting edge elements of Desert Rain. Recently a group from the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, partnered with the University of Oregon, visited Desert Rain. A notable visitor, Denis Hayes and his wife, Gail Boyer-Hayes also toured the site. Hayes was the coordinator for the first Earth Day Celebration in 1970. He is currently the president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation based in Seattle.  The Bullitt Foundation opened a new center in Seattle this Earth Day in 2013. The facility was built to meet the standards of the Living Building Challenge. Hayes and his wife hope to build a LBC home of their own.

tour with Denis Hayes

Denis Hayes, coordinator of the very first Earth Day, tours Desert Rain with his wife Gail Boyer-Hayes. Tom, Barb, and James Fagan, DR builder, talk about the elements of the extreme, green project.

Back outside – Keith Krewson with Central Oregon Construction Contractors has returned to lay and pour the forms for the ‘Miro’ wall. The curved wall begins on the exterior, west end of the house, continues through the structure, emerges from the east end and will eventually, gracefully encircle a courtyard.  A wall in flowing motion – a project in motion – flowing forward!


Keith Krewson and crew have been involved with the Desert Rain project since the early phase of construction. They have done all the concrete work; the foundation, the cistern, the interior, cement slab floor, and now the exterior ‘Miro’ wall.

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.






Tom’s Talk – Join the Tour

Oregon Institute of Technology field trip listening to Tom’s tour in a warm and cozy living space, amidst the on-going construction.

Last week a group from Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls toured Desert Rain with Tom.  Tom’s tours are chock full of information about the project, the house, materials, the process, and the Living Building Challenge. For those of you that have not yet visited Desert Rain, you are invited to come along here for a condensed version focusing on the Seven Petals of the Living Building Challenge.

“About 6 years ago we started thinking about building a home here in Bend.  We wanted to build a green home.  Well into the design we were driving in Utah to go backpacking and we were listening to the radio and heard a presentation of a Bioneers conference by Jason McLennan, the founder of the LBC. We both just knew, right there – that’s what we wanted. We realized we were really drawn to the LBC for a number of reasons. One, it is about a living building. It is not about getting points and putting a plaque on the wall. It is very much a performance based standard.  We really wanted our home to perform that way, not just to look nice and have green products in it. We were excited about that aspect of it and the community aspect of it, and the equity aspect.  All the various pieces of the Living Building Challenge excited us and challenged us. “

The Living Building Challenge is based on Seven Petals. Tom talked with the group about each of the petals.


Desert Rain meets the site petal requirements by using an existing building site, being walkable to amenities, and being part of the neighborhood and community.

“The Site petal is very much focused on limiting growth and building on existing land or renovating in place, rather than expanding and contributing to urban sprawl.  Site issues revolve around accessibility and minimizing the use of the automobile. We particularly picked this site because it is in a diverse neighborhood, very easy access to everything – library, stores, and recreation. We like to bicycle and walk so it is very easy here. It is also a place we thought we could age in place.  The other piece is a living building fits into the community.  There’s a certain sense of engagement that invites participation in the neighborhood and not just isolating ourselves. That was something that really attracted us about the Living Building Challenge – the site piece of it. “

“The Water Petal has two components. The first is net zero water in terms of where the water comes from. We won’t use any city water. All of our water will be from the water that falls on the site, the rainfall.  We have a very extensive rain water collecting/harvesting system.  All the roofs that you see on all the five different structures here – all that water feeds into a single cistern – a 35,000 gallon cistern. We get to charge that cistern once to start.  So net zero water in terms of source and also, what they call ecological water flow. That is, all the water that falls on the site needs to remain on the site.  Storm water needs to remain on the site. After it has run thru the house, the discharged water has to remain on the site. Nothing will go in the sewer. Water has actually been our largest challenge here because we’re in the city limits. If we were in the country we could put in a septic system for wastewater and the problem is solved.”

The 35,000 gallon cistern will store collected rainwater for all of the domestic water use making Desert Rain Net Zero water.


“The other side of the ecological water course is handling our wastewater. The original intention was to build an underground bio-constructed wetland that would handle both the greywater and the blackwater.  Current regulations won’t allow us to that. We’re still going to build one.  The only thing that will run through our constructed wetland is greywater.  The greywater will travel from the various buildings into a collection tank that basically separates any solids. From there it goes into a small constructed wetland where it is processed using a natural process through gravel and plant root systems.  At that point the DEQ qualifies it as Type ll greywater.  It will go to a holding tank by the side of the garage and can be used for irrigation and water features.  Basically it will be used as irrigation water or evaporated.  It will be sub-surface irrigation. We are relying on the constructed wetland to purify the water.

Then we have the blackwater. That’s been particularly challenging.  Early on we had some indication from the city that they were going to allow us to use the constructed wetland for that purpose.  So we designed the home that way. We didn’t design the home based on the idea of having a composting toilet.  So we had to go to plan B and C as we worked our way through that issue. What we’ve come up with is a using a hybrid system. The sewage will go from the homes to what we’re calling, ‘The Desert Throne’.  It will be a separate building.  Solids will go through a commercial scale composting unit and the liquids will go to what we are fondly calling, the ‘evapatron ‘.  Basically it is a large scale evaporator system. That is a dead end. Once it gets there it will be composted or it will be evaporated.  That takes care of the blackwater and everything stays on site. We are required by code to be connected to city water and sewer for safety purposes.”


Infloor radiant heat is powered by the solar thermal system.

“Then we move to the Energy part of it. The imperative there is net zero energy. We want to be not only net zero in the home, but we also wanted to provide enough energy for two electric vehicles so that our transportation is also net zero energy. Our first approach was to have as efficient building envelope as possible.  Our intention is to be net zero energy or maybe overall, surplus energy producing. We’d like to be a power plant too and provide enough energy to be on the positive side. I think it’s likely. We’ll be grid connected so we’ll be net metering with the power company.  We’ll use the grid as our storage device for now.  The house will be heated, in fact is currently being heated, with a solar, atmospheric hot water system with infloor radiant heat. When I say atmospheric, it is not pressurized. When there is no demand all of the water drains back to the storage tanks in the corner of the house so there is no risk of freezing. There is also a super efficient therma-monoblock heat pump that is tied into that system if there is not enough solar heat and we need a little boost.”   Jim Fagan, General Contractor with Timberline entered the conversation, “ It is an extremely efficient, electric, air to water heat pump. Also the domestic hot water is tied into the system.”  An interesting side note: Bobcat and Sun the contractor that installed the solar thermal system said that normally on a home here in Bend, based on efficiency of the building envelope, at least 26% of the homes’ energy could be met with the solar system. The calculations on Desert Rain are somewhere in the 86 to 90% range that will be met by solar.

Then there is the Materials Petal : The red list is very stringent. There are 14 chemicals or materials that are not allowed. “That’s probably been our second biggest hurdle – just vetting through materials. We have a very comprehensive process. We maintain a spreadsheet with all these questions that would have to be answered for that material. We’ve had to reject a lot of materials for various reasons. PVC is on the Red List. It is very difficult to build a home without PVC.  There are a couple of instances where we’ve had to get a minor exemption because there is just nothing but PVC – like some of the wiring in the house has a PVC coating.  Jim Fagan comments,  “there is really no other code material we can get. Another one is that there is a fire retardant in this foam that is on the red list but there is no alternative.”  In order to mitigate that, we found that if you only put on 4” at a time it off gasses very thoroughly. Where as, if you put on 8” at one time it sort of traps the gas and it takes years to off gas.

The materials spreadsheet; EVERY material considered for use on the project has to be ‘vetted’ through this extensive list of questions and approved.

We’ve tried to stay with local materials as much as possible. Part of the materials requirement is that heavier items come within 350 miles. That would be stone, cement products, aggregates – the heavy materials. Then you can step out as the weight range shifts, you can go within 500 mile. As you get a little lighter you can go 1000miles. It is basically intended to minimize the carbon footprint. There is so much CF associated with the transportation of materials and that is always externalized.  Basically, society pays for it rather than the person actually using the material. The LBC feels that needs to change.  We need to pay the current dollars for those things or minimize them.”

Jim adds, “One of the things that is required when we do get an exception, like the PVC on the wire or the fire retardant; the LBC requires us to write a letter to the manufacturer. We let them know that yes, we are using this because it is the only thing that will make our envelope what it is. But we tell them we’re not happy about it and we want them to figure out a different way to do it.  It is pretty comprehensive -covering all those bases.  Our stucco contractor has developed his own Oregon mix. Most of those products, at least part of them come from California or Mexico.  He found all the aggregates and parts and pieces to create a stucco product that is all Oregon.  That is kind of cool.”  That is  part of the Living Building Challenge intention, to be pro -active that way and push change, not just exemplify it but push the envelope with manufacturers and sub -contractors.

“There’s lots of interesting stories about materials. Every material that has gone in the house has a story. Interestingly we know the story a lot more than on a normal house because of this process and the qualifications of that material. We’ll see that even more as we get into the finish work. One example of that is there is a fair amount of walnut on some of the surfaces, counters and built-ins. All the walnut in this house comes from one tree that was harvested when a parking lot was being constructed in Portland at Concordia College. We got that whole tree. Everything has a story and that’s awesome. For me it adds a lot of interest and connectivity to the house. When we look at that walnut – the rest of our lives we’ll feel a special connection with that walnut knowing where it came from or where the tile came from or the story with the rocks or whatever. I think that is an attribute of the Living Building Challenge.”

Reclaimed lumber is used on exterior soffits and all the interior ceilings.

“Health is the next petal. Having a civilized environment basically means, light and fresh air.  And what is calld biophilia, basically mimicking nature in some way. It is pretty well documented that humans respond to natural settings and natural dimensions. We wanted to build a supertight container and have controlled air through an air exchange. We’ll be required to measure air quality after the house is constructed, for VOCs and particulates.  We’ll have to measure it again, nine months later to demonstrate that the house has exceptional air quality.”

Jim tells,  ‘We did a preliminary blower door test. We were at .65 air changes per hour. That is almost at the Passive House standards. We did that pre -sheetrock and actually don’t even have the spray foam in the sub- floor or under floor yet so we’re pretty happy with that.”

“Then we move to the Equity part – that is making things human scale and accessible. All of our homes are wheel chair accessible. We did that for a few reasons. One, we already have a couple of friends in wheelchairs and we know as part of the aging process people are in wheelchairs. Also equity refers to terms of production of materials. All the lumber in the house is either reclaimed or Forest Stewardship Certified.  They certify all the way back to source, and that the labor was treated properly, and the material is treated properly.  Awareness and that consciousness – we need to embody more and more. I think a lot of times we feel like we don’t have any individual power. But certainly we make a choice. I think collectively we have an enormous amount of power to make important choices and that really applies in this materials and manufacturing.

Finally Beauty. We hope we’ve designed something beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We’re confident that the space and form, and when the terraces are in and the landscaping, the courtyard, the interior finishes – it will be a beautiful home. Certainly it will be beautiful in our eyes.”

This dialogue is a glimpse of the information to be gleaned from a tour.  Tom and Barb very much see Desert Rain as a demonstration project and an educational tool. Tours are part of that process. Many groups have been through the site at various stages of the building process. Are you interested in learning more about Desert Rain?  Send us an e-mail or or subscribe to our e-mail newsletter at the bottom of this blog page.

Tom Elliott receives a thank you gift from C.J. Riley OIT faculty – a pint of Klamath Basin Water to help ‘charge’ the cistern.