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William J. Worthen Foundation Practice Guide Looks at Adaptive Water Reuse in the Built Environment

Seattle, The William J. Worthen Foundation, Urban Fabrick, adaptive water reuse, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, AIA California Council
Image courtesy of Onsite Non-Potable Water Reuse Practice Guide

By Jack Stubbs

As environmental issues around sustainability in the built environment gain added importance in the current climate, various organizations are looking at ways to disseminate information around sustainable design to the wider AEC community.

The William J. Worthen Foundation, a design, policy and practice resource for people working in the AEC community, is an organization that conducts research and creates various outreach initiatives about sustainability issues in the built environment.

Among other goals, the Foundation aims to continue the legacy of William Worthen, former CEO and co-founder of San Francisco-based Urban Fabrick, a company that seeks to bridge the gap between policy initiatives, building codes and policies, applied research and the development of commercial and residential projects. Ultimately, through the William J. Worthen Foundation, Urban Fabrick seeks to encourage climate-positive development and collaborative design across all scales of the built environment.

In one of the most recent chapters for the organization, on January 19th, 2018, the company released its “Onsite Non-Potable Water Reuse Practice Guide.” The resource helps its sponsors—some of whom include the Charles Pankow Foundation, AIA California Council and Magnusson Klemencic Associates—become better informed about the issues and benefits surrounding adaptive reuse of water in residential and commercial projects.

According to Kyle Pickett, COO and co-founder of Urban Fabrick, the hope is that the information will address a gap in knowledge about water reuse in the AEC community. “Architects and those within the segmented elements of the AEC industry just don’t have a sense for how early to engage with clients and others about peripheral issues like on-site water reuse…the goal of the guide was to address project pitch, design scope definitions, system specifications, permitting and operations of on-site non-potable water use…for both residential and non-residential application,” he said.

The blueprint explores various topics relating to non-potable water reuse in projects, including determining whether non-potable water reuse is appropriate for specific process; how the issue of non-potable reuse specifically impacts the design process for the AEC community; and how to navigate the permitting for and application of non-potable water reuse in projects.

According to Pickett, one of the primary strengths of the manual is how it helps professionals to break down the technical information around non-potable water reuse in projects. “There’s a lot of really great information that’s out there, but there really hasn’t been anything that takes the full scope of incorporating on-site water re-use into a building project to break down the highly technical information to digestible chunks of text,” he said.

Additionally, the manual helps AEC professionals to bridge the gap between technical language and practical application of on-site water reuse. “The biggest challenge to being able to disseminate and assimilate this knowledge was the approach…it [is aimed at allowing] people to have the conversations with internal stakeholders or external stakeholders in a purpose-driven way,” he said.

Along these lines, the resource articulates the top ten reasons why the AEC community should care about the issue of on-site non-potable water reuse, as well as explaining how architects and other design professionals can successfully implement this energy-saving into their design processes. “The Foundation hopes to address water stewardship and scarcity issues [of water] through awareness and education,” Pickett said.

Through its innovative approach, the initiative also strives to expand upon other recognized precedents in the industry that relate to designing sustainably in the built environment, such as LEED and the Living Building Challenge. However, the Practice Guide hopes to add another voice to the conversation regarding sustainability. “LBC and LEED allows you to check the boxes to say that there are water conservation strategies that are part of the design process or the overall sustainability outlook of the building,” Pickett said. “It is [allowing] everyone, not just those within the AEC industry, but also those involved in permitting or regulatory issues, like the Department of Health…to become better informed,” he said.

The origins of the practice give some idea about its intended scope. At the time of its drafting, it was specifically targeted towards California, which was very much influenced by the draught at the time. The Worthen Foundation worked with the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in order to begin the conversation about how the wider AEC community should be working with their local regulatory agencies to address issues surrounding water reuse.

According to Pickett, awareness around non-potable water reuse in development projects is more widespread throughout the Bay Area than in other regions. “As far as the design process goes, we see it more here in the Bay Area…because there are mechanisms in place that allow us to implement on-site non-potable water reuse,” he said.

However, the scope of the manual—and the wider community that it could subsequently reach—quickly expanded as water conversation issues came to light. “The guide started out as California-specific with the drought, but it quickly blossomed into something [more]…we wanted to illuminate issues with water stress throughout the U.S.,” Pickett said. And while the primary downloads of it have been in North America, there have also been downloads in Europe, the Middle East, South Africa, China and Australia.

According to Pickett, the U.S. might benefit from a change of mentality regarding adaptive reuse of water—the issue of water waste is not just an issue relevant to the AEC community in its approach to project design but also impacts the wider community. “Australia and Israel have really led the way in incorporating on-site water reuse,” he said. “In the U.S., we are just used to turning on our taps and letting that dirty water go down the drain. We don’t really have a mentality towards the limited supply.”

Nationally, issues around water reuse are only becoming more pressing. Across the country, the price of water has been rising, and the median increase was 3.5 percent in 2016—the increase in price reflects investment in new infrastructure and a response to declining water sales. According to Circle of Blue’s 2015 annual survey of 30 major U.S. cities, Seattle ($310) and Atlanta ($326) had the highest total monthly water bills (accounting for water, sewer and stormwater) for households. And the amount that Americans pay for water resources is rising faster than U.S. inflation and faster than the amount paid to any other utility service (including gas, electricity or telephone), according to the Institute of Public Utilities.

And on the broader scale, Pickett thinks that these issues around water conservation will only become more pronounced as time goes on and will eventually extend beyond the AEC community. “From a broader context, beyond the AEC industry to regular people, I think what we’re going to see is that as water scarcity issues become more of a global concern…we’ll see people becoming more aware, which is the first step [in the process].”