Saturday, November 28, 2009

BD&C White Paper - Water Performance

A building industry newsletter, Building Design and Construction, has come out with another white paper in its excellent series on sustainability in construction and development.

Prefacing the introduction to the water issue, the statement is made that "the U.S. will be adding another 100 million to its population over the next three decades, adding further to water stress". This kind of single-line projection is not substantiated or connected to public policy which will likely change with respect to immigration, the single biggest factor in US population change. Like California's RHNA numbers, these assumptions are generated by paid consultants based upon a pro-growth scenario which is unsustainable in the face of the directly related impact of the carbon dumped into the environment at this scale. This is what happens when financial equities are generated by construction growth for profit rather than need or actual integration within the allowable natural scale of the environment; the disconnect happens both financially and ecologically. That ubiquitous yardstick of profit, GDP growth, relies on the production of more and more "stuff" regardless of the systemic risks that approach creates, driving unsustainable consumption for the benefit of corporations.

California, especially, is construction-dependent for its own GDP, which informs all of its regulation. To cite John Mauldin's latest financial newsletter (pdf format) about the Dubai meltdown, "
Construction and real estate were as much as 25% of the economy. Let's see. Large leverage with maybe $5 billion in interest in a $50 billion economy that is 25% construction? A construction and real estate-driven economy. A real estate bubble. Sound like California, Florida, Spain? How can this be a surprise, except that everyone expected big brother Abu Dhabi to pick up the check?"

Having said that, here are the Principal Findings of the Water Performance White Paper:

1. Virtually every region of the U.S. and parts of most states likely will experience water shortages in the next 10 years. Some are already feeling the effects of water scarcity.
2. More water is consumed outside buildings and homes—for landscape irrigation and cooling towers—than is used inside for toilets, faucets, showers, and the like.
3. Somewhere between 15% and 20% of the nation’s water never makes it from the filtration plant to the property line, thanks to our decaying infrastructure.
4. Manufacturers have significantly improved the efficiency of plumbing, irrigation, and water reuse technologies in recent years, but long-term conservation also depends heavily on how people use these products.
5. There may be limits to water efficiency. In some cases, saving water can lead to “unintended consequences,” such as pipeline drainage problems, health and safety concerns, and negative impacts on the environment.
6. Improvements in water performance can have a bonus: reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.
7. The reuse of water may be “the next big thing” in water conservation, efficiency, and performance.

The direction the building industry is taking at the moment is to capitalize on conservation and infrastructure reconstruction. As it stands right now, it's still a brute-force engineering approach that focuses on existing practices rather than taking a long view of watershed management and incorporation, the means of obtaining the water sources in each state, and the potential for the design of projects that create more energy and water than they consume.

I think if we were able put a man on the moon forty years ago within eight years of making the commitment, we can design urban environments that don't consume natural resources the old way. Industrial society needs to give way to a synergistic approach that includes population management and far more return of resources to the natural environment. That presupposition that the human race has a right to devour everything in sight will necessarily need to be reversed, since that only leads to a dead end.