Bioneers 2011

After at least a dozen times participating in the annual Bioneers Conference, I am inspired to see a new structure with both an ecological design and an education track articulated. Rapid integration of ecological values into main stream academia is critical to the success of cultural and social sustainability efforts. Education must incorporate and scale ideas for radical change if we are to enjoy political, economic, and environmental stability into the future. In the absence of such integration, we will continue to see the dis-integration of these three critical elements of society.

Sadly, it has become obvious to every American that the stability we have come to expect is not guaranteed and not necessarily the primary agenda of our leadership - regardless of rhetoric to that effect. Political, Economic, and Environmental stability. So how do we identify ways to move forward with radical change in a stable way? These are the questions I am bringing to the Education for Action sessions Friday and Sunday at Bioneers:

The Map, from Bioneers as articulated by Scott Span: Vision without Implementation is fantasizing. When you understand the necessary change, you have a better idea how to implement. If you understand the challenge, you have a better idea how to implement. If you understand change you also have a better understanding of the opportunity before us. Understanding change and opportunity provides a better understanding of the challenge before us. Understanding the challenge informs both the vision and the ability to implement.

Let’s engage designers with a vision that is implementable - local readiness and strategic readiness - that targets the design community with a set of tools to help us understand the change, the opportunity, and the challenge before us.

LID and Beyond

Finding ways to increase biological filtration and habitat while creating a pleasing urban environment.

Human development that minimally disturbs the flow of water in the landscape is nothing new. Think of cave dwellings or tee-pees on the plains, for instance. However, as urban and suburban areas expand and more of the Earth’s surface is graded and paved, our impact on natural water systems has become increasingly problematic. Water continues to fall on the landscape as precipitation, but where and how it flows after it lands can be vastly different for a drop of water that falls on a developed landscape.

This parking lot channels runoff directly and efficiently into the stormdrain, to be transported offsite underground.  Meanwhile, the ornamental plantings must be irrigated...

Urbanized areas are typically designed and engineered to transport water away from buildings and people as swiftly and efficiently as possible. Water that falls on a city lot flows either directly to the sewer or storm drain system from the roof or landscape via a drain, or it runs into the street. Streets act as water conveyance systems that collect all runoff water in gutters and distribute it to storm drains. Usually this water is transported to the edge of the city in a separate storm sewer system, and then dumped into a water body such as a creek, river, wetland, lake, or the ocean.

Coming soon to a water body near you... no room for natural filtration and infiltration on this runoff's short journey to the stormdrain.

When runoff water enters these water bodies, it does so in a different way than it would in a natural system. For one, it is carrying pollution that it picked up on the way, including volatile organic compounds and heavy metals from automobiles and fertilizers, as well as debris and fecal matter. Unlike natural watershed systems, the storm drain system does not provide an opportunity for such pollutants to be filtered in the landscape. Stormwater from storm drains also enters water bodies more rapidly and in greater volume than it naturally would. This results in increased flooding downstream, as well as erosion and siltation problems. Furthermore, valuable ecological habitat and ecosystem services are lost as natural creeks are buried underground to become storm drains, rivers are channelized, and wetland areas are paved over and marginalized.

Image of Green Infrastructure example from EPA website.

Low Impact Development (LID) is a response to these conditions of development, seeking to create a new development regime that preserves natural hydrologic function as much as possible. Instead of trying to mitigate affected water bodies downstream, LID treats water in the landscape close to where it falls. In LID, according to Coffman (2000), “Hydrologic functions of storage, infiltration, and ground water recharge, as well as the volume and frequency of discharges are maintained through the use of integrated and distributed micro-scale stormwater retention and detention areas, reduction of impervious surfaces, and the lengthening of flow paths and runoff time.” LID also incorporates preservation for high-value and sensitive ecological site features such as riparian buffers, wetlands, steep slopes, mature trees, flood plains, woodlands and highly permeable soils (EPA 2000). Typical components of LID include: vegetation, including trees, living roofs, and vegetated swales; permeable pavements; bioretention systems such as rain gardens, bioswales, buffer strips, dry wells, etc.; and stormwater capture for later use, such as with rain barrels, tanks, or cisterns (EPA 2000).

LID has only been around for a short while in the United States, but momentum is growing rapidly. The early adopter of LID in the US was Prince George’s County, Maryland, who pioneered techniques and implemented test projects during the 1990’s. Over the last 15 years LID has spread to other parts of the country, including California. Local governments have begun to incorporate LID into their Stormwater Management Plans (SWMP) which are required along with NPDES (National Pollution Discharge Elimination System) permits by the EPA for cities and counties with municipal separate storm sewer systems (MS4). SWMP’s are required to address pollution levels in water bodies and establish total maximum daily loads (TMDL’s) for pollutants, but the means of enforcement by which these water quality improvements are achieved are largely up to local governments. LID, when incorporated into new developments and retrofits, can be a cost effective and sustainable way to accomplish water quality goals. Additionally, the EPA is encouraging communities to use Green Infrastructure, which overlaps with LID in application, to meet Clean Water Act requirements such as NPDES permits, and has issued a Strategic Agenda to that end. The EPA hopes to have a final ruling to enforce green infrastructure by the end of 2012.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a forum put on by Wholly H20 entitled “Incorporating Low Impact Development (LID) into Municipal Stormwater Management.” The forum had a panel of speakers that included city, county, nonprofit, and federal stormwater policy experts from the Bay Area. I got to see a number of examples of LID projects in the Bay Area, as well as hear about various policy strategies. Governmental forerunners in the Bay Area include San Mateo City and County Association of Governments (C/CAG) and San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC), both of which have worked hard to encourage LID through publishing guidelines, creating regulations and implementing demonstration projects. San Mateo County has a provision that enforces LID through NPDES permitting, with checklist categories that include site design, stormwater treatment, and hydromodification controls. The requirements for including these features are based on the proposed change in impervious area of a development. Additionally, any small project must include at least one LID measure. C/CAG has been able to fund numerous LID projects through a countywide vehicle registration fee that funnels money to stormwater management. Similarly, San Francisco has a Stormwater Management Ordinance (2010) that ensures that any development that disturbs over 5,000 square feet must incorporate LID-style stormwater management. In addition, numerous other sustainable stormwater management projects, such as Doyle Hollis Park in Emeryville, have been implemented throughout the Bay Area with the help of nonprofit organizations.

Cross section of proposed LID rain garden feature

Design Ecology strives to be at the cutting edge of low impact development and green infrastructure. By retrofitting buildings with living roofs, we are demonstrating integrated ways that development can contribute to reduced runoff and cleaner stormwater. Other benefits of an integrated green infrastructure approach include reduced energy costs, reduced water demand, providing habitat for native species, reducing the heat island effect, and a more beautiful and inviting urban environment.  We are currently working with the Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) to create a demonstration of LID in action at their offices. SCWA has recently published their Water Smart Development Guidebook, which includes LID practices. The City of Santa Rosa also has an LID Technical Design Manual, which provides more specific tools to meed NPDES requirements. The SCWA campus looks to demonstrate principles of these guidebooks by capturing, treating, and infiltrating as much stormwater onsite as possible. Some strategies might include rain gardens, bioretention swales, permeable paving, and water storage.

Water should be treated as a valuable resource rather than a nuisance. By designing with LID principles we can contribute to changing the pattern of development and its impact on natural water cycles. Not only that, but designing this way allows us to tap into a free and abundant resource that can enhance our lives and contribute to sustainability in our built environment. By taking full advantage of water resources on-site, our structures and landscapes can become more productive, more efficient, more beautiful, and more integral to the ecological systems that surround and support us. In this way, we hope the nature of human development will soon surpass even “low impact”, to become “high benefit”.

Biofiltration treatment chain in downtown Oakland.

Cradle To Cradle Day in SF


What an honor it was to share a table with Michael Braungart and William McDonough at the recent Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute fund-raising dinner at the San Francisco Intercontinental Hotel. This was their first time together on the west coast in six years (and the first time Braungart has worn a bowtie apparently). There was much discussion of China, C2C certification, sustainable design, and what you do when a foreign diplomat calls on your cell phone — over a delicious meal, after which Bill and Michael took the stage for a fantastic dialogue. It was well noted that nearly every phrase was an essay topic, and it was quickly evident why these guys have started this institute, here in San Francisco, at this point in time. We need strong solutions and we need them quickly.

Having heard Bill speak more formally on several occasions, it was wonderful to hear Michael’s first hand approach to the subject matter, including great humor, sharp intellect, and a deep wisdom. I particularly enjoyed his analysis of whether it is the way men dress or the way women dress that are the real energy problem (it turns out if women wore ties they would lose less body heat, but men would have to wear skirts in summer to make up for it — and even then we would all need to switch to bow-ties, which have a smaller footprint due to less fabric).

It was a packed house and not only was it the successful launch date of the institute’s new website, but the city of San Francisco also announced it was “Cradle to Cradle Day.” Shout out to Celery Design for a great job on the website.

I have much appreciation for a certification system that can address product and supply chain both backward in terms of where it came from and forward, in that there is rigorous consideration into the upcycling and reusability potential. Couple this with a rigorous assessment of toxicity, and there is a good formula for assessing products for long term sustainability.

I’m quite certain we will see great things come from this process, inspiring new product and highlighting those that are produced responsibly. The north star remains environmentally regenerative products, which are part of an industrial ecology process that reuses waste products, sequesters carbon, and filters air and water.

There is no consolation prize in sustainability at the end of the day. We will either succeed in discovering, choosing, and implementing systems that are compatible with the earth’s ecology, or we will not. Either a failure to do so completely, or to do so in a timely way, will put us face to face with catastrophic consequences. C2C is one way we can understand whether we are succeeding or failing in this most important endeavor.

Living Cities Kathmandu

The recent collaboration with Eco Cities International to submit a Living Cities design was inspiring, even as it brought the many challenges of infrastructure in developing countries to the fore. Any opportunity to work with EcoCities, Architect Geoff Holton, and Landscape Architect Walter Hood is in itself a reward. The early sessions brought up numerous philosophical conversations about scale, seasonal change, local customs, modernization as westernization, the role of natural systems in municipal infrastructure, and the role of religious and cultural movements to change behavior.

With a critically polluted river flowing through the center of town, water issues quickly became a driving factor. Raw sewage flows into the city untreated, often directly from the street or via direct piping. There is generally little or no buffer zone between urban streets and the river channel itself, and unreliable power systems have been the achilles heel of a treatment system that is showing signs of decay even as it is only partially finished. Today, there is little or no biological life in the river and yet people bath, wash, and even drink from the polluted waterway. Upstream diversions and industrial discharges contribute to the malais.

Even so, issues such as energy, food, transportation, housing, and economy cannot be ignored in a mountain expected to double or even triple in size in the coming decades. We worked closely with the team to establish metrics for ecological benefits; living roofs and walls for food production and flood control, rainwater harvesting for bathing, washing and irrigation, embedded biofiltration planters to remove toxins in runoff, possible benefits of aquaponics to produce fish within housing density. These metrics were tuned using a GIS platform, to produce measurable benefits and assist in applying a matrix of uses to generate passive ecological benefits. As predicted, this is a multi-year project, not to be solved in a short 3 month competition. However, we were building on work from Josiah’s senior studio at UCDavis and the goal was to validate the approach rather than expect a complete solution.

Modern development interests were directed to areas of the city enduring the worst polluted runoff, with zoning requiring such structure to be regenerative to the river. The foundations contain large passive water filtration systems designed to intercept polluted flows, remove toxins, and spread the water parallel to the river for infiltration, allowed to reach the river itself only via subsurface percolation. Modern building as biofilter, providing a utility for condos to exist along the river, where they seek to enjoy the views and open space.

Temples and interior semi-private walkways were envisioned as pervious surfaces with vegetation, providing shade, water filtration, air filtration, and a connection that could be made to the river culturally.

It was a wonderful collaboration with many new and exciting ideas. Winners will be selected at the upcoming Living Futures (un)Conference in Vancouver. I wish I could be there, but I hope we learn we will have the opportunity to continue our work with the people of Kathmandu to make these ideas come to life!


J. Mayer H. and the intersection of architecture and technology.

21st Century Aesthetic?I had the pleasure of attending a lecture held last week in downtown LA at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The lecture was held by the Otis College of Art and Design. It’s an annual lecture series featuring cutting edge designers and topics.

I was very impressed with some of the work I saw, and feel compelled to share. J. Mayer H. is an architect. His office is in Berlin and his work can be seen worldwide. I had not heard of J. Mayer H. before the lecture but probably should have. His work ranges from materials, products and patterns to buildings, public spaces and what he calls “nation building.” He has an obsession with the rhyme and rhythm of patterns, especially those tiny patterns that come on envelopes to code information that we want kept a secret. He takes those patterns and gives them life. Or he pulls the life out of them. He uses these patterns in the design of buildings, furniture and custom materials. His work creates futuristic looking forms that somehow seem to blend seamlessly with their surroundings, no matter how drastically unusual in materials and design. He is pioneering innovative materials research. Looking at his “buildings without corners” you can’t distinguish where the floor starts and wall begins, or if it’s not a wall but actually the ceiling. He’s constructing enormous structures with timber. By using a highly compressed laminated wood and polyurethane coating, the details seal the structure within a panelized system. The prefabricated pieces enable the construction of amazing rounded, organic structures for a fraction of the cost of steel and concrete. These buildings are more energy efficient due to highly effective envelope sealing strategies.

Especially impressive is his work in Eastern Europe, including Georgia. Here the government has hired his firm to help reinvigorate the urban core of the city. Buildings include a town hall, gas stations, rest stops, an airport, community center and park. The iconic structures are tourist destinations themselves, in a way resembling something you would see from Gaudi. Amoebic, cellular forms and fluid movements through structure with keen attention to detail.

Looking at the renderings these structures look like they came from space. Actual photos show that, despite contrasting styles, the buildings somehow harmoniously fit into the surrounding landscape, almost mimicking the forms of nature. The most interesting elements are in his innovation in materials and detail. I can only imagine the set of construction details that goes along with a building that has no corners, where ceiling blends to wall, to floor. This truly is architecture of the 21st century and gives us a glimpse at what I think we will be seeing a lot more of in the coming decades.

At the end of the lecture a woman asked J. Mayer what he thought her grandmother would say if she went to one of his buildings. Would she be able to identify with it? Would it be appealing to her? Or would she be unable to relate to or understand the futuristic style? He responded by saying “You would make a great politician.” Because of course, that is what they always say. But he made a good point when he countered that there is desire for the new and a desire for change in everybody. Projects like this can tap into this, as well as people’s imagination. They excite people. They make trends and create memorable places. I look forward to seeing more of J. Mayer and other designers with innovations of this level.

For more project photos check out:

Some of my personal favorites are the Mestia Airport in Georgia, Dupli Casa in Germany and Metropol Parasol.

Malibu Rainwater System Approved!

Part 1

Water use and reuse have become an integral piece of each project we find ourselves involved with. We have been pushing these concepts for years now, and are finally seeing a shift in attitude. Clients are coming to us and requesting fully integrated and holistic site water systems. It’s exciting to see a complete shift in the way water is viewed and being designed for. Instead of moving water downstream to it’s final destination as quickly as possible, it is now being retained and reused on-site, as the valuable resource it really is: slow it spread it sink it.

But putting these ambitions into practice can, in reality be much more difficult than one would think. At Design Ecology we are constantly coming up against obstacles on the path to Net Zero Water Use. One of the biggest hurdles has been in regulatory processes and permitting. Many cities do not have legislation in-place that makes permitting these innovative, and sometimes first of a kind systems reasonably possible.

We especially encounter obstacles when it comes to reusing rainwater or treated, very clean water indoors for things like flushing toilets and washing clothes. This water does not pose any threat to the health and safety of people and can easily be treated to a very high level. But without standards in place, regulators are hesitant to sign off on something that has not been done in their city before (understandably).

This has all been said to preface the exciting news of the approval  of a 20,000 gallon rainwater catchment and reuse system for a LEED Platinum residence in the hills of Malibu. 100% of runoff from the roof and decks is directed to the storage system. Water is to be reused for irrigation, fountain supply and to top off the swimming pool.  This system has been approved by the plumbing department and will be built in the coming months.

We are also proposing a septic water treatment system for the reuse of combined toilet and graywater for irrigation. The septic water is treated to a very high quality and reused via sub-surface drip irrigation. It is our hope that between rainwater and septic we will be able to supply nearly all of the site’s irrigation demand, saving over 60,000 gallons of water from being used annually!

It has been an interesting process to say the least. Initially we looked at a combination graywater/rainwater system but after meetings with city officials decided it would actually be more feasible to get permits for treated septic and rainwater. We were happy to hear this, since septic water will generate a larger volume of water for reuse. However, blackwater limited our reuse to outdoor only. It would be nearly impossible, at this time, to get a permit for a blackwater system for indoor reuse. We were pleased with this option but it did come with one hitch. We had to get a geotechnical engineer to the site for additional soil infiltration testing. It’s a lengthy and relatively costly test to prove something we already knew: water needs to infiltrate the ground at a very slow rate to avoid puddling or saturation of soils. Admittedly, the soils are poor and the slope is steep but with our very low-flow, ultra-efficient subsurface irrigation system, water will not be applied in excess of plant demand (using WUCOLS and an application rate of 0.3 gallons per hour/sq. ft.).

Treated septic water being used for irrigation is an exciting and growing trend and we are seeing it more often in our residential projects. Currently, it is more commonly seen for large-scale agricultural use or for city-wide reclaimed water systems. But thanks to innovative new technologies in packaged wastewater treatment we are now able to implement these strategies on a small scale residential basis, enabling water independence on a localized level.

Stay tuned for updates on this process and future permitting adventures! Also, please share any experiences you may have had with your water reuse projects.

Building ENPIRS

With the “financial crisis” lingering on, it has been interesting getting into high level dialog about the future of, well, the World! But more specifically, what lies ahead for the design and construction professions. Never mind that Green Building is really the only piece of the AEC world still logging positive numbers; the rest of the building industry has pretty much shut down. A San Francisco building official  recently told me 100% of new building applications in the SOMA district of that city are proposed as LEED buildings. That’s a good thing, to be sure, but what does it suggest for the future of our planet and our economy?

Financial Crisis aside, all construction starting now could be done to LEED Platinum standards and yet we would not be solving the environmental crises before us. I love LEED, and at Design Ecology we like to say we can produce 14 credits, so the goal is not to criticize but frankly to be realistic about the task at hand. LEED is a tremendous tool, but we need to do more.

What we’ve been exploring at Design Eco, and what we are quite certain about at this point is that the AEC trades are in posession of the technology necessary to create regenerative projects. This means not only Net Zero or “sustainable,” but actually reversing environmental damage; generating energy, filtering air and water, providing habitat, producing food, sequestering carbon. Those who work with us know we are always looking for ways to do these things, and to give ourselves some credit, we do them successfully.

Every great concept needs an acronym, and we’ve got one: ENPIRS. It stands for Ecologically Net Positive Inhabited Restoration Site, and we intend to build ENPIRS as fast as possible. The beauty of this approach is that it opens the gate to unchecked development without damage to the Earth’s ecosystem. If every new project could be Ecologically Net Positive, the tension between economic growth and environmental sanity would relax and we could all get behind the idea of rebuilding our cities and our economy as quickly as possible. Every new development project would be mitigating climate change, protecting species, and otherwise restoring the global ecosystem. From a practical standpoint, to meet that lofty goal suggests turning our focus to urban infill sites while preserving intact ecosystems — but then that’s just common sense at this point.

Help us build ENPIRS, and stay tuned here for examples of such projects as well as more information about specific tools. Better yet, get in touch with us to discuss how we can bring this approach to your project right now, today, actually.

Edible Living Walls at organic salad bar

Mixt Greens is an organization whose philosophy is rooted in environmentally conscious and equitable business practices. Restaurants are being built in newly renovated buildings with a cradle to cradle design, construction and business model approach. Serving local, organic and healthy meals these entrepreneurs recognized the value in visually conveying a message to their customers about the importance of healthy and sustainable consumption. These edible hydroponic living walls convey that message and serve as the company brand.  They are growing their own produce from seed to be served to customers. The walls act as art pieces attracting customers and media attention. Four of these walls are currently built and provide fresh, year round veggies in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.

More living walls photos…

Here are some more photos of our living walls we had on display at the Water Conservation Showcase. We have been experimenting with many species of native and edible plants in vertical applications. At our main office in Petaluma we have a 55 acre ranch and native plant nursery. The space and access to plants and nursery facilities enables us to create mock-ups and demonstration projects to test the new and innovative systems we are working with. Currently most living walls designed and built are using a pretty typical palette of plants that are extremely common and used throughout the country and the world. These plants include things like wandering jew, clivia, ivy, liriope, boston fern, philodendrons and flax. These plants are consider “no fail” options and designers are using the same palette regardless of location. At Design Ecology we use the natural systems specific to each project location as our guide in  all our projects. Looking at “reference ecosystems” in nature we can determine how to design our built ecosystems. We have been studying naturally occurring living walls to try and determine some of the best native plants to use. We also use the characteristics of these native plants as a guide in finding other natives with similar characteristics that will be successful in vertical systems. I have included some images within these blogs of those natural systems I’m talking about.

We have had some very surprising results from tests in our nursery. Plants that we never thought would make it are doing great (like ceanothus) and other plants (like asarum) that we thought would be a sure bet, are not adapting. The walls are a hydroponic system (there is  no soil). The growing media is an ultra-light weight foam. Water is applied through drip irrigation and so the system always remains a bit moist. But the constant wet conditions makes it a challenging environment for some CA native plants. That is why we were surprised at the happiness of the ceanothus, it’s a very drought tolerant plant that doesn’t need much water. Although we do think the constant water might shorten the life-span of the plant.

Through this experimentation we hope to compile a list of our own “no fail” natives, we already have some shoe ins! This will enable us to build walls that not only look amazing  but also create small habitat islands for all types of birds, butterflies, native bees and more. We’re using some great habitat species, like the hummingbird sage and penstemon. We are also very excited about the potential for growing food. We’ve had success with a variety of perennial herbs and are looking forward to testing more edible plants in the system.

Lastly, the most common question I answered at the showcase, was “how is this living wall considered water conserving, doesn’t it actually use a lot of extra water?” Of course, I was ready for this question. Yes, the living wall needs water. But the hydroponic media acts a lot like a sponge, minimal water is applied and absorbed evenly throughout each modular panel. We dial in the irrigation system so that it only runs long enough to just soak each panel. Very little runoff, if any, actually occurs. It is much more water efficient that any of the other systems I have seen or experimented with.

Water Conservation Showcase

Come check out the 7th Annual Water Conservation Showcase tomorrow! Design Ecology will be showcasing native plants in a water efficient, light weight living wall system. It’s at the Pacific Energy Center in downtown SF, hosted by the USGBC We have plants for shade and sun, beautiful succulents, herbs, blooming irises, coral bells and more…

Living Architecture