At Is­sue

Just how much wa­ter are Van­cou­ver homes wast­ing?

Vancouver Magazine - - News - BY Tyee Bridge

While hun­dreds of gal­lons of rain­wa­ter go to waste each year, Van­cou­ver’s world-class drink­ing wa­ter is be­ing used to wa­ter plants, wash drive­ways and fill toi­lets. Can de­vel­op­ers and city plan­ners work to­gether to get wa­ter smart?

TAKE A STROLL PAST the newly built cus­tom home on the cor­ner of West 21st and Ques­nel—de­signed by ar­chi­tects Bat­ters­by­howat and built by Nat­u­ral Bal­ance Homes— and you’d see a sleek vari­ant on West Coast mod­ernism. What you wouldn’t no­tice is the at­ten­tion paid to some­thing not of­ten con­sid­ered by builders and ar­chi­tects: wa­ter.

“On this project we’ve re­ally dived deeply into wa­ter con­ser­va­tion and wa­ter pol­lu­tion is­sues,” says Nick Ker­chum, head of Nat­u­ral Bal­ance, who’s been build­ing homes that min­i­mize en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pacts for 10 years. “In the past we’d used low-’ow sys­tems and ef­fi­cient ap­pli­ances, among other wa­ter man­age­ment strate­gies, but on this one we took it much fur­ther.”

The prop­erty not only has a green roof and na­tive drought-re­sis­tant plants but it also man­ages all its stormwa­ter on-site. That means that all rain that lands on the prop­erty is cap­tured in an un­der­ground re­ten­tion tank, where it’s ei­ther used for wa­ter­ing the plants or al­lowed to slowly per­co­late back into the wa­ter ta­ble. No city wa­ter is used to keep grasses or plants alive, and no rain ends up go­ing down the city’s stormwa­ter drains.

Why? Ker­chum and Bat­ters­by­Howat’s an­swer might be summed up in one word: waste. They did their re­search be­fore build­ing the West 21st house, and they got rad­i­cal­ized by what they learned.

Take the wa­ter that comes out of your tap, hose or show­er­head. Ac­cord­ing to their rough cal­cu­la­tions, only a very small per­cent­age of the highly ‘ltered wa­ter that en­ters homes and busi­nesses in Metro Van­cou­ver—pro­duced by a re­cently com­pleted ‘ltra­tion sys­tem that cost, at last count, over $800 mil­lion—is ac­tu­ally used for drink­ing or food prepa­ra­tion. Ker­chum be­lieves that well over 90 per­cent of what the City of Van­cou­ver calls “world-class drink­ing wa­ter” ends up wa­ter­ing lawns or do­ing laun­dry.

“In Metro Van­cou­ver, there’s no de­lin­eation be­tween drink­ing wa­ter or wa­ter used for food and all the other wa­ter that we use for other pur­poses,” says Ker­chum. In­stead of us­ing a mas­sive net­work of pipes to de­liver all our wa­ter from three North Shore reser­voirs (Capi­lano, Sey­mour and Co­quit­lam), says Ker­chum, we should be de­sign­ing homes and build­ings to uti­lize our leg­endary amount of rain.

“In or­der to build a condo build­ing or com­mer­cial space in the city of Van­cou­ver, you have to cap­ture rain­wa­ter any­way, but in­stead of us­ing it we’re shoot­ing it down the storm drain. All we need to do in­stead is store it and put it to use.”

Use it how? To wa­ter lawns. Flush toi­lets. Ker­chum be­lieves we could even ‘lter rain­wa­ter on-site—it’s a heck of a lot cleaner than the wa­ter that comes through an ag­ing net­work of pipes—and drink it.

But there are bu­reau­cratic road­blocks—some of them bizarre. “The City of Van­cou­ver will al­low you to cap­ture rain­wa­ter for ir­ri­gation, but they won’t let you use rain­wa­ter in­side the house. It’s com­mon in other parts of the world,” says Ker­chum with some ex­as­per­a­tion. “The City told us, ‘We won’t al­low the use of rain­wa­ter in our toi­lets be­cause we’re wor­ried that some­body might drink from the toi­let and get sick.’ That’s pretty much ver­ba­tim.”

It’s enough to drive a pro­gres­sive builder crazy. Pa­trick Condon, a pro­fes­sor of ur­ban de­sign at UBC’S Cen­tre for In­ter­ac­tive Re­search on Sus­tain­abil­ity (CIRS), knows Ker­chum’s pain. Condon has spent decades try­ing to ac­cel­er­ate adop­tion of new build­ing tech­nolo­gies, and helped de­sign wa­ter-smart neigh­bour­hoods in Sur­rey at East Clay­ton and Am­ble Greene.

“The East Clay­ton project was built in the mid-’90s. That’s over 20 years ago, and I had ex­pected the stan­dards of wa­ter man­age­ment we set there to be uni­ver­sal by now. But it didn’t hap­pen, and it’s a shame.”

As to why wa­ter-smart build­ings and neigh­bour­hoods aren’t al­ready the stan­dard, Condon be­lieves much of the re­sis­tance lies with en­gi­neer­ing and per­mit­ting de­part­ments that are afraid of back­lash. “When we build pieces of the city, it’s an enor­mously risky en­ter­prise, and peo­ple are very risk-averse. Peo­ple con­sider th­ese strate­gies untested.”

Even in a set­ting as pro­gres­sive as the CIRS build­ing, that con­ser­va­tive wari­ness lingers.

“CIRS is a sus­tain­able build­ing where they use rain­wa­ter col­lected from the roof to ’ush toi­lets, which is a great sys­tem, but on each one of the uri­nals they have a sign that says, ‘Do not drink wa­ter.’”

Stormwa­ter go­ing down the drain is one kind of wa­ter waste that builders like Ker­chum and de­sign­ers like Condon would like to ‘x. There’s an­other: waste­water.

In 2017, Metro Van­cou­ver dumped over 39 mil­lion cu­bic me­tres of un­treated sewage mixed with rain­wa­ter runoŒ into lo­cal wa­ter­ways. Due to E. coli bac­te­ria and other pol­lu­tants foul­ing lo­cal beaches and rivers, th­ese

Only a very small per­cent­age of the highly fil­tered wa­ter that en­ters homes and busi­nesses in Metro Van­cou­ver is ac­tu­ally used for drink­ing or food prepa­ra­tion.

over’ows have po­ten­tially se­ri­ous health con­se­quences for peo­ple across the city. And it’s a lot of over’ow: for a vis­ual com­par­i­son, the amount of un­treated sewage and runoŒ dumped into lo­cal wa­ters an­nu­ally in Metro Van­cou­ver is the same vol­ume as 37 Empire State Build­ings. This im­mense vol­ume has helped make B.C. the worst pro­vin­cial oŒen­der for raw sewage dump­ing in the coun­try, re­spon­si­ble for 40 per­cent of the na­tional to­tal.

Raw sewage ’ood­ing into the city’s wa­ter­ways is the re­sult of Van­cou­ver’s out­dated sys­tem for deal­ing with stormwa­ter runoŒ and sewage: in most neigh­bour­hoods, they both go into the same pipe. In heavy rains, mas­sive amounts of un­treated waste­water over’ow into Bur­rard In­let, False Creek and the Fraser River.

The City of Van­cou­ver knows this is a se­ri­ous is­sue and has been try­ing to mit­i­gate it for decades, sep­a­rat­ing sewage lines from pipes that carry stormwa­ter in neigh­bour­hoods like Mount Pleas­ant, Fairview, the West End and many oth­ers. They have plans to con­tinue sep­a­rat­ing stormwa­ter from sewage via sep­a­rated pipes, but it’s a mon­u­men­tal task that will cost bil­lions, with an es­ti­mated com­ple­tion date of 2050—over 30 years from now.

Ker­chum thinks that’s too long to wait. He notes the ma­jor gains made on en­ergy e£ciency through re­vised build­ing codes, and wants to see Metro Van­cou­ver do the same with wa­ter man­age­ment prac­tices. In­sti­tut­ing codes that re­quire not just cap­tur­ing rain­fall but also keep­ing it out of storm drains al­to­gether would re­duce the amount of sewage over’ow go­ing into Metro Van­cou­ver wa­ter­ways, he says. But get­ting there will take a push.

“It’s eas­ier to keep do­ing things the way we’ve al­ways done them. In or­der to do things diŒer­ently you have to go against the grain a lit­tle bit. Some­one has to stand up and be will­ing to do some ex­tra work to make some­thing bet­ter start to hap­pen.”

Per­fect Storm This cus­tom home has the most modern fea­ture of all: stormwa­ter man­age­ment.

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