April 10, 2003

Celebrating sustainable water systems

  • Two projects model wise water use and conservation in the Northwest
    The Berger Partnership

    living machine
    Photo courtesy The Berger Partnership
    The “living machine” at IslandWood.

    The design community in the Northwest is in the midst of an environmental renaissance. Landscape architects, architects, engineers and clients are increasingly aware of the importance of not only preserving, but integrating and promoting our most revered and omnipresent natural resource: water.

    Increasingly, landscape designers and architects deliberately maximize the efficiency of irrigation delivery systems, reclaiming rain or ground water and using innovative storm water management techniques to reduce long-term consumptive water use. New systems and techniques not only provide countless environmental and cost benefits but provide a wealth of interpretive and educational opportunities which raise awareness among users about the concepts of sustainability.

    Two projects designed to exemplify the regional commitment to sustainable design and innovative treatment of water are IslandWood, formerly Puget Sound Environmental Learning Center, and The Center for Urban Horticulture’s Merrill Hall Reconstruction Project at the University of Washington.

    IslandWood, an award-winning project located on Bainbridge Island adjacent to Blakely Harbor, is an interactive campus built around sustainable design, resource conservation and education. The campus demonstrates how water and ecology work and the symbiotic relationships that users can create with them.

    All wastewater is treated onsite using a combination of constructed wetlands and a “living machine” for regenerating and reclaiming raw sewage. Both types of systems utilize a natural bioremediation process in which aquatic plants, microorganisms and snails consume the organic matter and produce highly treated and cleansed effluent that can be re-used or re-introduced into the natural water cycle even as it allows visitors and users to understand these processes.

    The living machine uses uncovered pipes to expose the flow of the system and allow individuals to interact with and learn from it through observation and the use of all five senses.

    An “organic garden” demonstrates how rainwater harvesting and storage can irrigate vegetables and crops without the use of potable water. Throughout the site, the existing forest biomass has been retained, and plantings indigenous to the Puget Sound Basin eliminate the need for landscape irrigation. As students and community members take part in programs, while immersed in the conservation-minded environment, they are able to see how their actions, however small, affect larger natural systems.

     storm water feature
    Rendering courtesy The Berger Partnership
    The storm water feature at Merrill Hall.

    The Center for Urban Horticulture’s Merrill Hall at the University of Washington is slated to begin construction later this summer. The site lies in a unique ecotone between Seattle’s street grid of the Laurelhurst neighborhood and the Union Bay Natural Area adjacent to Lake Washington. A major challenge of the design has been to integrate site water flow from the existing built environment and the proposed project as it flows towards Lake Washington.

    The proposed storm water feature at Merrill Hall will be an evolving demonstration opportunity for interpretation about collection, conveyance, treatment and re-use of water. Water from adjacent roofs will free-fall from a roof scupper or flow via underground pipes, making its way to an underground tank. Once the tank reaches capacity, storm water runoff will bypass the full tank and flow through a series of open troughs, rain barrels and spill basins before joining an open bioswale flowing towards the Union Bay Natural Area.

    The feature will provide interest and promote awareness throughout the seasons — alive and flowing when rain is falling, parched and empty during the hottest, driest months of the year. Emphasis is being placed on use of natural processes and native vegetation to provide storm water conveyance and treatment to enhance the environment of the Center for Urban Horticulture and support the center’s goal of providing opportunities for research, education and outreach about plants in the urban environment.

    The challenges of funding, designing and building these projects are far outweighed by the environmental and educational benefits. As opportunities for reducing consumptive water use are embraced and integrated into site design, the design community can in turn transfer this knowledge to the public, so that sustainability becomes nothing more and nothing less than common sense.

    Jonathon Morley is an associate with the Berger Partnership and Brent Chastain is a project manager for the firm.

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