Water Reuse as a Design Opportunity

By Kyle Pickett

Kyle Pickett is co-founder & COO of Urban Fabrick, Inc., and co-founder & Executive Director of The William J. Worthen Foundation.

May 31, 2018 | Resources, Society | 7 comments

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All too frequently, news of water scarcity, contamination and overstressed infrastructure makes global headlines. Cape Town South Africa, with a population of nearly 4 million, is navigating a water scarcity crisis and it is estimated that they’ll run out of their potable supply this year. Flint Michigan continues to struggle with lead contamination brought on by a shift in their municipal supply strategy. It was the wrong answer and the people of Flint are physically suffering the consequences of their City and State’s poor planning. In addition to these circumstances, unprecedented growth in urban areas and the risks associated with overstressed infrastructure are on the radar of local utilities.

History tells us issues of scarcity and contamination contribute to poverty, migration, civil unrest and famine. The Romans understood the importance of a fresh water supply as far back as 312 B.C. when Appius Claudius Caecus built the first aqueduct. Rome’s first aqueduct was built in response to the burgeoning city population and major sanitary issues which affected their existing water supplies. The Aqua Appia fed the City with approximately 73,000 cubic meters (approx 19 million gallons) of water per day. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe objected to the construction of an oil line across their land and waterway, proclaiming that Water is Life. In six months of operation, the Dakota Access Pipeline has suffered five oil spills. While minor, these failures validate the concerns of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Here in California, this year’s water supply is looking increasingly meager. In April, experts found that the Sierra Nevada snowpack is one half what would be measured during a “typical” year. The Sierra Nevada snowpack accounts for a third of the state’s fresh water supplies, making reliable snowfall critical to the needs of the urban environments and to one of the most productive agriculture regions in the United States. Additionally, this reduction in snowpack has collateral effects such as an increased risk for wildfires and mudslides.

Why do we continue to undervalue our finite fresh water supplies? Culturally, we have developed the expectation that when we turn on the tap, water will be there in perpetuity, yet water has been priced lower than the cost of its capture and delivery. “It (water) is a human right,” said Kevin McGovern, chairman of the Water Initiative, “but you can’t have it for free.”  It is estimated that the world needs $22 trillion in water investments to ensure adequate supplies in the years ahead. While this global perspective is important, we have to ask ourselves what we can do here and now with the available potable and non-potable supply.

The William J. Worthen Foundation (WJWF) and its collaborative of practitioners recognized the need to embrace onsite water reuse and demystify the technology, design process and regulatory hurdles for developers, designers, and policy makers alike. With generous funding from The Charles Pankow Foundation, Google, AIA California Council, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, the City of Santa Monica, Water Reuse Foundation, Crescent Heights, and Urban Fabrick, Inc, WJWF assembled subject matter and industry experts from around the world to produce A Design Professional’s Guide to Onsite Water Use and Reuse. The goal was to create a document that disseminates highly technical and complex information into easily digestible bites of content with concise infographics to help inform everyone about onsite water reuse.




“The challenge for most architects is to understand how to better engage in a water discussion much earlier in the design process. If the first time you seriously discuss water with your client and plumbing engineer is at the time of bathroom and kitchen fixture selection, or when running the calculations to confirm how many LEED credits you get, you are very likely missing some interesting opportunities to collaborate and engage with your client and project team on the subject of water,” said Bill Worthen FAIA, LEED Fellow, GPR, co-founder of Urban Fabrick Inc. (deceased January 2017)

The Water Reuse Practice Guide (WRPG) addresses the entire life cycle of water reuse systems including project pitch, design, scope definition, system specification, permitting and operation. Additionally, the guide emphasizes onsite treatment strategies and conservation measures, the value of a more collaborative and integrated design process to ensure the success of sustainable water reuse systems, the water-energy nexus, and strategies for communicating the value of future water reuse projects.

Water is a precious resource. Let’s face it, flushing toilets and urinals with potable water IS waste and we have an opportunity to shift the conversation towards one of water stewardship. As the “yuck factor” begins to subside, we are seeing a growing interest in water reuse strategies. However, the long slog isn’t over. Educating the design community, communicating the benefits of water conservation to clients, and working with regulatory and health officials to develop effective policy is core to the mission of Urban Fabrick Inc. and The William J. Worthen Foundation.

The rapidly evolving field of green building and climate positive development require holistic, multidisciplinary systems thinking and teams. This is a new way of working and The Foundation is helping to facilitate the change. By sharing our individual knowledge and experiences, we can be an educational resource for clients and funders, helping them to better understand how to get what they want, improve the design process for all involved, and to make a difference.


The Water Reuse Practice Guide is available as a free download on the Foundation’s website: collaborativedesign.org


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  1. Another nice resource for info on what you can install is Reusing the Resource: Adventures in Ecological Wastewater Recycling. I use it in my classes. Makes it easy to envision what can be used.

  2. Reuse is an expensive high health risk way to approach water for drinking. Reuse is great for a golf course where only old men play but a hazard for children’s playgrounds. There are better solutions for safe water that are fault tolerant. One O-ring tear and you could kill hundreds. Biological testing the expensive treated water takes several days and the tested water is already delivered to the public by the time the pathogen colonies show up. Reuse treated water would need to be quarantined for a week in a huge sanitary tank. This is not done because that would cost millions. Best to capture abundant rainwater where it falls for free from the sky and before the ignorance of mankind fouls it. Upstream water transported downstream and across continents is cheaper and safe.

    • Thanks for your comment but we are advocating for matching up non potable supply with non potable uses. Potable reuse was not addressed in the Guide.

      • Hello Kyle,
        Nancy Connery a colleague I’ve worked with for over 25 years forwarded “Water Reuse as Design Opportunities”. I’m delighted with what you are presenting especially as this relates to an aspect of my work and the work my studio has been engaged in over the past 30 years. You can have an overview of the varieties of my work at Michael Singer Studio http://www.michaelsinger.com/.

        Specifically I’d like to bring to your attention two projects (of several) that I believe may be helpful to you and your supporters, providing well-documented built examples addressing water re-use and treatment. Please note that water conservation, treatment, preservation, and public understanding has been integrated with my projects addressing infrastructure, urban planning and design, landscape design, architecture, and public art as a key aspect of many of my Studio’s projects for decades. Most recently the US Water Alliance (uswateralliance.org) asked me to join their advisory committee and they will be highlighting Michael Singer Studio’s work in the public art realm related to water issues in an upcoming “blueprint”. You may be interested in knowing more about their One Water Summit taking place July 10-12 in the Twin Cities.

        The following are web connections to view the two projects I’ve mentioned above and a portion from their “descriptions”. Please let me know if you’d like more information on either of these or other Singer Studio work. I hope knowing about this can be helpful as you and your supporters move forward with Water Reuse as Design Opportunities…
        Thank you,
        Michael Singer

        Alterra Institute for Environmental Research, Wageningen, The Netherlands (1998)
        The Alterra Atria Gardens function as the “lungs and kidneys” of the building complex, cleaning air and gray water as well as providing comfortable climate control. The process begins with stormwater, filtered through an exterior retention pond and constructed wetlands, which is then conveyed into the atria spaces. In the first atrium adjacent to the library the water moves through a series of pools and weirs with a range of aquatic and emergent vegetation and fish that continue the filtration process. Below the water’s surface these pools have a variety of sculpted layers and forms that provide shelter for fish and support vegetation requiring different depths of water. Water then flows into another smaller clarifying pool only slightly recessed below grade and composed of concrete elements connected to an adjacent sculpted garden shelter. From the first atrium the water is then conveyed into the second atrium for final cleansing. The sculpted pool in the second atrium has a large shallow-patterned concrete plate with water plants growing on its surface. The water slowly overtops the pool and drips into a deep cistern for storage and recycling in the building’s irrigation system and toilets. Singer’s design also provides research and experimentation sites within the garden for environmental scientists working for the institute.

        Seminole Sculptural Bio-filtration Wall (2011)
        The project is comprised of a 40 foot tall sculptural wall and a multi-level aquatic garden located in a courtyard adjacent to a new 7 storey parking structure. The Sculptural Biofiltration Wall was conceived as a living system designed to regenerate the surrounding environment by improving water quality, enhancing habitat viability, as well as informing and inspiring the public about ecological systems. The project filters approximately 150,000 gallons of water a day through mechanical and biological systems, improving the water quality of the adjacent retention ponds. The retention pond water is used for irrigating all of the vegetation on site including the parking structure green walls, and may be used for future plaza water elements, reducing the use of potable water. Harvested rainwater supplements the water system with 10,000 gallons of water storage capacity. The rainwater is filtered and stored within four tanks along the east wall of the parking structure and is planned for use in a future valet car wash.

      • The use of residential rooftop collection for agricultural and firefighting uses is very safe. It will be bolstered by the new residential water storage referendum on the current California ballot. It states such expenditures will not count against property tax assessment until the sale of the property. It is similar to solar energy tax rules.

        Converting raw sewage to drinking water is expensive, risky and highly unpopular.

        The majority of the non-potable reuse opportunity is before the grey water hits the sewage stream.

  3. Climate change does not give us much time. I shall be visiting two solar aquatic systems this next week in Massachusetts that have been operating for close to a decade. That means that the design phase of the design build is ready itself for reuse. All they need is an appropriate volume of waste water, say respectively 10,000 and 25,000 GPD, to feed the hungry plants in the system. On the drinking water aspect, UV, or boiling, the old fashioned way, should handle the toilet to tap concerns, but ecologically sustainable closed water cycling systems are here for the asking. Urban farming, growing fish, eco-villages … we need to reread Natural Capitalism and Eco-cities to Living Machines and get on with this current industrial revolution and finish off the old one, its done its work paid for by narural systems. The Natural system needs to be repaid.


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