Room for more action in the London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

Sustainable drainage systems, or SuDS, are nothing new. The conventional method of managing stormwater is to transport collect and transport rainwater off site as quickly as possible via hard infrastructure systems. The rainwater is either discharged into the nearest receiving waters or sewage treatment plant, in the case of combined drainage systems.

SuDS, meanwhile, mimic natural systems to slow down, treat and use the water before or instead of sending it into sewers or directly to open water bodies. These systems can have additional benefits beyond managing quantities of water, including biodiversity enhancement, water treatment, reduced air pollution, amenity creation, reduction of the urban heat island effect and more.

Thanks to the multitude of benefits, SuDS are being used increasingly around the world. But in the face of increasing storm intensity, and an overburdened sewer system, how does London start incorporating these systems more quickly and reliably? This past October, the Greater London Authority released their London Sustainable Drainage Action Plan (LSDAP) for consultation. KLH Sustainability submitted comments on the plan, some of our observations are discussed below.

The vision set out in the plan is that: “By 2040, London will manage its rainwater sustainably to reduce flood risk and improve water security, maximising the benefits for people, the environment and the economy.” It outlines actions and a timeframe divided by sector to begin integrating SuDS into business as usual. The plan does a great job covering realistic and necessary actions that should be 100% achievable in the given time frame. However, as a plan, it is not very ambitious and is really only the first step towards making sustainable drainage part of the mainstream.

The key to implementing more sustainable practices is investment. In a very pragmatic way, the current plan relies on existing processes and funding streams as entry points to incorporate SuDS in to planned maintenance, replacement work and planned new projects. This is very important as it is the cheapest and easiest way to ensure this planned work is implemented correctly.

To move beyond incremental changes, there needs to be commitment to new sources of financial support and partnering. The LSDAP mentions Thames Water’s twenty4twenty £20m funding programme, which helps to identify other relevant parties interested in SUDs investment. Many programmes in the US have been successful in the increased implementation of SUDs through the use of demonstration projects, partnerships and incentives funded by central government, increased water management fees or partnership with the private sector.

Additional investment is also required to enforce the adoption of flood-related planning policies by local authorities.  This leads to the second key observation: a lack of support to implement new and existing planning policies.

Last spring, SuDS were written into the National Planning Policy Framework, requiring most development to incorporate SuDS. At that time, the capacity within local authority was raised as a barrier to enforcement and it is not yet clear if the new London Action Plan has resolved this resource issue. The LSDAP should highlight how local authorities will be supported, whether through funding, expertise or enforcement. The LSDAP should use the forthcoming Sustainable Drainage Opportunity Model to identify high-risk geographic areas that are in particularly need of robust drainage requirements and enforcement.

There are additional aspects that could be included in the LSDAP, including:

The LSDAP target is “to achieve a 1% reduction in surface water flows in the sewer network each year for 25 years, resulting in a 25% reduction in flows by 2040.” The final piece of the puzzle is for the LSDAP to identify what financial benefits could be accrued through the delivery of that target using wide-spread, small-scale SuDS solutions rather than relying on expensive, single-purpose hard infrastructure solutions to handle storm flows. By articulating the long-term value of SuDS adoption across London, the LSDAP can demonstrate how sustainable drainage scheme can really contribute to a world-class, sustainable city.

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Hands on design: sustainable LEGO homes

I was recently back in Chicago for the holidays and while searching for something warm to do downtown with my family, I took them to see the city model and exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Before we could make our way from that to the Chicago Biennial, we stumbled into one of CAF’s LEGO Build Workshops and before you know it, three+ hours had past and we were all creating architectural masterpieces.

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My sister built a bright, airy modern school building. Her partner built a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired party house. My partner built the tallest skyscraper he could (earning envious stares from nearby children). What did I build? Ultra-realist me built three UK-style terraced houses.

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But wait, there’s more! They were not just any terraced houses, they were sustainable terraced houses! Perhaps I’d spent too many hours focused on my work project the week before, but I decided to bring back a little bit of London to Chicago.

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Features you’ll find in these sustainable terraced houses:

  • Simple building form, resulting in improved fabric energy efficiency
  • Front and back gardens, providing ample private outdoor space

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  • Shallow plot with dual or triple aspects, meaning lots of daylight
  • Space for waste, recyclables and food waste/compost bins

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  • Rain barrels/water butts collecting water for use in the back gardens for the middle and one of the end terraces

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  • A greywater recycling system on the other end terrace
  • Shared roof terrace with biodiverse roof elements (ok…there were no landscaping legos, so pretend there are plants & log piles and substrates for holding water and whatnot)

Obviously I don’t win any points for originality, but for my structured mind, it was a nice creative outlet and who doesn’t like to play with Legos?

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Go big or go home: new and challenging projects to keep busy

EWS modelHappy holidays and happy new year! I’ve really not spent as much time on this blog as I’d like to (believe me, I have so many posts waiting in the wings until I have a few minutes to catch my breath!), but largely it’s because I’ve jumped head first into several new projects.

You may have seen in KLH Sustainability’s Christmas message, but the main project I’m working on is the redevelopment of the London Olympic Park! The stars aligned and I was at the right place at the right time saying the right things about the right skills and talking to the right person to get to work on this exciting project. The project is to create out of what was part of the former park lands and prior to that, derelict industrial lands, into a massive (though…from an American urban perspective, arguably not large enough) residential/mixed-use development. The two new neighbourhoods, one in the area surrounding the former media center/new Here East building and the other south of the Copper Box Arena and west of the Olympic Stadium, will have 1500 new homes and lots of commercial/non-residential development.

There’s a ton happening with the development to make it more inclusive and sustainable:

  • housing will be mixed-tenure (social rent, affordable rent, shared ownership, private rent & for sale);
  • commercial space is hoping to attract small, independent businesses;
  • all the housing is being built to Lifetime Homes standard and a significant percentage are having additional accessibility modifications made to them;
  • multi-ethnic considerations are being taken into account, including allowing for provision of BAME-oriented bathroom fittings and kitchen layouts (more on that acronym in another post…);
  • significant thought put into public realm, placemaking, context-sensitive design and more;
  • “smart city” innovation considerations and integration with the park and beyond (more on the whole smart cities concept in another post…);
  • and of course, what I’m spending a huge chunk of my life on, more ambitious sustainability aspirations than you can shake a stick at, including but not at all limited to zero carbon homes, Code for Sustainable Homes Level 4+, BREEAM Excellent and so so so so so so much more. I’d love to go into more detail, but the perils of working in the private sector (as I am painfully learning) is that you really can’t be as open as you want to be…at least, not without approval, so more details will have to wait.

The project is still in planning and going through consultation. I’m really excited to be working on this project and wanted to share a bit of what’s been keeping me away from being as active outside of work as I’d like to be.

Read more about the project on the KLH website.

In addition to this project, I’m also working on the final stage of the Olympic Stadium Transformation (is anyone interested in massive numbers of seats from the stadium???), some smaller sustainability projects, just became a qualified Code for Sustainable Homes assessor (and the future Home Quality Mark), recently presented at the International Water Association (IWA) World Water Congress, kicking off a project with my IWA Specialist Group on digital engagement and water and been trying to get increasingly more active with Urbanistas London, several UK water groups, some local community groups in my home neighbourhood and more!

I don’t really do new year’s resolutions, but I do hope this year to be able to spend more time on here exploring new ideas and projects. Thanks for following!

Could Home Quality Mark redefine what it means to have a sustainable home?

This post originally appeared in the KLH Sustainability blog.

How can we make sustainable homes more relevant, desirable and beneficial to those who will actually live in them? This is question that has been on my mind for a while, but it was brought to the fore as I undertook the initial training for the BRE’s new Home Quality Mark (HQM) voluntary housing certification scheme. It appears that, at least in principle, the HQM rises above expectations.

HQM was developed as a replacement scheme for the Code for Sustainable Homes (CfSH), the government housing sustainability scheme withdrawn earlier this year. While many of the CfSH requirements have yet to be incorporated into building regulations, the BRE has stepped in to fill the gap with their new voluntary scheme.

HQM attempts to do more than just replace or even simply update CfSH, it attempts to redress the sustainability balance, moving away from a purely environmental focus with the ambition of making sustainability relevant to real people.

It is interesting to note that BRE chose to use the word “quality” instead of “sustainability” in part to get past that environmental focus. Some worry that taking sustainability out of the name means undervaluing the environmental impacts of development, but the scheme still considers the environmental aspects, albeit framing them in terms that the average person cares about such as health, comfort and cost.

The HQM training and consultation emphasises cross-sector coordination in an attempt to address the most common problems associated with delivering sustainable housing. There is an entire section of the scheme devoted to “Knowledge Sharing,” which focuses not only on measures to communicate with occupants, but also improving communication between industries to help address the performance gap. Even the implication on the financial sector was discussed, including what a “quality home” could mean for reducing insurance and mortgage interest rates.

One interesting opportunity is whether this new emphasis could stimulate broader investment by third parties in engagement-based services. Could more new businesses or social enterprises develop and professionalise resident services like building management, resident hotlines, post-occupancy evaluation, maintenance packages modelled after service warranties and web portals or apps? Similarly, BRE is considering pre-approval for certain aspects under HQM that may overlap existing processes. For example, prefabricated manufacturers could pre-certify their modules under the My Home section of HQM or developments participating in BREEAM Communities could pre-certify under the Our Surroundings section.

On the assessor’s end, there was welcome news about streamlining evidence collection and data entry. HQM aligns with BIM and SAP outputs and allows measurements taken for one credit to be cross-referenced in another, simplifying the amount and type of data collected. And there are now multiple levels of robustness for evidence, allowing partial credit for having at least some evidence.

Of course, it remains to be seen how easily the HQM’s well-intentioned ambitions can be implemented. How will this increased intention on consumer interaction be enforced and at what cost? Many of the additional issues being assessed are relatively new and untested, so the evidence required for compliance is flexible at this point. That’s good for early adopters of the assessment, but not so good for quality control. In addition HQM will be a voluntary scheme, carrying less weight than the government’s CfSH. Who will end up using it and would the energy required to get people to use the scheme be better spent trying to embed some of these issues into regulations?

Finally, it is still a certification scheme, which means it still has to make compromises between robustness and flexibility, cost and marketability. It will never be a replacement for the engagement, discussion and practical innovation that is central to sustainable development, but it is certainly trying to improve how the benchmark is set.

HQM should be out at the of November for beta testing and officially released at the beginning of 2016. We are looking forward to seeing the final scheme and how this broader focus could influence changes in the industry.

Finding the balance between experimentation and certainty

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Having moved from a role that consisted mainly of policy and high level concepts for government to an implementation role working mainly with the private sector on actual construction sites, it’s been an interesting opportunity to see both sides of how policy works or doesn’t work and what fosters progress and innovation. It’s been an interesting change to work on the ground on development after having worked in policy for so long. Mostly, it’s been great to get real world, practical experience; the side of me who likes to cut through the fluff and get things done is quite happy. But on the other side, it has been disappointing to see the stagnation and conservative, profit-oriented (or, orientated, for the Brits) thinking that prevents innovation and trying interesting new things.

I had an opportunity to opine a bit on the challenge of balancing experimentation and certainty inherent to private-sector driven investment and projects in the latest KLH Sustainability newsletter. The post can be read here and is reprinted below.

Development is a complicated business. Almost all projects arrive on the desks at KLH with a complex web of performance indicators, planning requirements and profit margins. It is an interesting challenge to make sure the many moving pieces stay on track to meet targets, while ensuring there is space for creativity, knowledge advancement, capacity building and innovation. Though these things are never mutually exclusive, in the name of certainty and simplicity, it can be easier to reduce sustainability to tick boxes and nice-to-haves, missing the big picture and the real opportunity for improvement.

In recent weeks, the media has been abuzz with news of the downfall of Volkswagen after they admitted to creating technology in their diesel cars to dupe emissions tests in the U.S. No one knows for sure their reasons for cheating as opposed to investing in research that could actually make their cars less harmful to the environment and society as a whole. They ran the numbers and somehow decided that covering up their failure was better for business than actually improving their cars. We can learn from Volkswagen; business myopia which leads to poor decision-making and rewards immediate profit over long-term value, will always back-fire…often sooner than expected.

Like corporations, new developments have many competing priorities to balance: regulatory compliance, engineering, saleability, creative design, placemaking, buildability, liability, sustainability, safety, public perception, technology, profitability, the list goes on. Each of those issues is complex on its own, but what often happens in the name of manageability, ease of implementation and certainty is that they are translated as budget line items.

Sustainability gets reduced to products, technology and accreditation schemes. In this way, they can be compared and assessed as apples to apples, which in turn can make it easier to make decisions and track progress, but also to miss nuances and lead to unintended consequences or failures of implementation.

What might this reliance on simplified definitions look like?

It might be sustainable homes that only ‘eco-warriors’ want to live in. Or the installation of grey water reuse technologies that reduce potable water use, but increase life-cycle energy consumption  and financial cost. It can be found in the post occupancy performance gap, or in the application of technology without considering the role of people, politics and society in gaining value from the technology.

In the case of Victoria, Australia, they rolled out smart meters claiming people would get energy savings, but didn’t communicate and work with residents to actually achieve those monetary or environmental benefits. When it comes to setting and reporting against performance requirements, it is easier to say “x number of smart meters were installed,” quietly ignoring whether the outcomes were as intended. This can lead to mistrust in both the technology and the implementer and can set back progress on innovation.

That is not to say breaking complex things into simple deliverables is the wrong thing to do.

Architects, engineers and developers need to progress with clarity, balancing priorities while making places that people will want to live and work. And they must do so in the face of all the uncertainty of the regulatory environment, future technology changes, price volatility and the ambiguity of working with and marketing to fickle and often unpredictable human beings.

But too much certainty may mean stifling innovation or processes that have not been tested or are too difficult to count or monetise, such as capacity and relationship-building. Like the smart meters in Victoria, many of the gains to be made in sustainability have as much to do with management and mentality as with technology. But it is harder to pin a number down on paper and put it out to bid on that alone, so we put a lot of effort and emphasis in technology, engineering solutions and countable things that can be easily pitched to investors, depicted in infographics, held up as benchmarks and subcontracted down into tiny parts.

Of course, we cannot throw out all the technologies and metrics and leave everyone to run experiments. It is not a matter of either/or. We can keep our risk management systems, but build in more contingencies and buffers to allow for flexibility or trial innovation. We can remember there are rarely simple solutions to anything and ask hard questions of anything that claims a cure all. We can value communication, including qualitative information that can add context to simple dashboards. We can make time to teach everyone from design to construction to sales how their efforts fit into the bigger picture of sustainability, rather than having them rely on a separate expert. And we can keep sight of goals and individual motives, remembering that numerical benchmarks are not themselves the goals, but the indicators for whether goals are being achieved.

As with most things, the trick is finding the balance between getting it right and getting it done.

Part of why we simplify things is to make it easier to act on, but we need to balance this with making sure that what is done is still worthwhile. Something is not always better than nothing. Doing it the right way is usually harder than ticking off boxes. We are keenly aware of this at KLH, so we approach each project with a strategy bespoke to the needs of that project and the people working on it. We pair number crunching with discussion, data analysis with data gathering, all in an attempt to continually work to reconcile certainty and simplicity with flexibility and complexity.

Starting a conversation on technology and social media for engaging water users

In a few weeks, I am flying off to the Dead Sea in Jordan for this year’s International Water Association‘s (IWA) Jordan Water and Development Congress. I’ve been involved with the IWA for a couple years now, at first attending conferences, but more recently as part of the leadership team for the Public & Customer Communications Specialist Group, as well as a presenter at conferences, including the Efficient Urban Water Conference in Cincinnati earlier this year.

At the Congress in Jordan, I will be rapporteur for a few sessions under the Turning the Tide on Water Resources theme; co-leading the Specialist Group annual meeting; and, most interestingly, leading a workshop on information and communications technologies (ICT) and social media for the purpose of engaging water users and customers. It’s all part of a project we as a Specialist Group are kicking off to help provide resources to water professionals interesting in using technology for engagement, but unsure of where to start.

I was given the opportunity to write in more detail about the project for the IWA’s blog, which you can read in full here and see an excerpt of below.

Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) can improve interaction between those who manage water and those who use it, even in rural areas or resource poor settings that lack consistent internet access. But, which technology is the right one for each community or region? With the vast array of tools available—from social media to apps and SMS to smart devices and more—water professionals need help navigating the options.

A Twitter campaign to map and respond to water leaks may be a useful tool for one community; while another community may need remote sensors that provide information to users to manage their own water use; and yet another in a rural area might gain the most from an SMS platform that allows people to understand and monitor water availability.

For those of you attending the IWA Jordan Congress, please attend the session or get in touch with me! For those of you not attending the Congress or involved with IWA, we’d still love to hear your thoughts. Put them down in the comments or contact me directly.

The end of Zero Carbon Homes means more than the loss of sustainable housing

This post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

Over the last decade the UK, local governments and private sector industries connected to development have been working toward common definitions, workable requirements, innovative products and new processes to make “Zero Carbon Homes by 2016” a reality. This month, those efforts were tossed aside under the guise of easing regulatory burdens to speed up the construction of new homes.

George Osborn’s Productivity Plan, Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, promotes the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy sector, yet states:

“The government does not intend to proceed with the zero carbon Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards, but will keep energy efficiency standards under review, recognising that existing measures to increase energy efficiency of new buildings should be allowed time to become established” (p. 46).

This disappointing decision has very real long and short-term consequences.

  • Money down the drain. Responsible builders have been preparing for the 2016 target for years, so backing down from it means a waste of not only effort on their part, but also money. As stated in an open letter response from more than 200 businesses, this type of abrupt change undermines “industry confidence in Government and will now curtail investment in British innovation and manufacturing.” Having no or unclear benchmarks means uncertainty, which means even more cost.
  • Squashing innovation. All of this uncertainty means confusion about what standards industry research should be working toward, which means fewer businesses are capable of investing in innovation. No standards also means no incentive to improve and no reward for delivering what used to be labelled as an achievement.
  • Pervasive fuel poverty. House building is not just about the quantity, but also about quality. Standards like Zero Carbon are more than just feel-good sustainability add-ons. Energy inefficient housing may be cheaper for builders, but it ultimately pushes the cost to occupants who will have to pay more for power and heating. In the UK, 19.2% of the population lives in fuel poverty, the worst among 12 EU peer countries, and more than 31,000 deaths in the winter of 2012-13 have been at least partially attributed to fuel poverty and poor insulation. This was the stroke of genius in the previous ‘allowable solutions’ – it offered an opportunity for the UK to improve its existing stock as well as investing in new.
  • Favouring unsustainable housing. Lower standards for energy performance mean lower standards for homes overall. People do not want to spend more of their income on ever-increasing fuel costs, and savvy consumers have come to expect improvement in building technology over time, particularly in sustainability and health.
  • Threatening the UK’s ability to meet Climate Change Act obligations. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK has a statutory target to reduce emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels. Just last month, the Committee on Climate Change released a report on the UK’s progress and recommended actions, stating that to ensure that the UK continues to meet the long-term targets and complies with the requirement to show all new buildings are nearly zero-energy after 2020, the “zero carbon home standard must be implemented without further weakening.”
  • Increasing carbon emissions from buildings. Let’s not forget the point of the Zero Carbon Homes standard: to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and their contribution to the UK’s emissions. A Parliamentary environmental audit found that without significant measures, the contribution of the housing sector to the UK’s 2050 carbon emissions target could rise from 30% to 55%.

All of this erodes the UK’s position as a leader on regulation for, and products to meet, energy and carbon targets. The Zero Carbon Home standard was far from perfect, but it was a defined, common goal for the industry to work towards. It was also a vehicle to showcase the UK’s leadership and innovation potential.

Not all is lost. The progress achieved so far and the learning that has been integrated into standard practice means that the momentum toward energy sustainability will not stop dead. Many of our clients are continuing to maintain strong standards, even in the face of the uncertainty, because they know as well as we do that sustainability is more than just standards, it’s part of the long game.

Does London really care about cyclists?

A hopeful message posted by woman-run bicycle accessory shop Po Campo.

A hopeful message posted by woman-run bicycle accessory shop Po Campo.

Who has a right to the road? With all the news lately about air pollution, roads overcrowded with buses and cyclist deaths, it’s clear not everyone does in London.

I desperately want to cycle in this city. As I expounded on profusely a couple years ago as a new regular rider, there are so many benefits to cycling and I miss them dearly. When I lived in Chicago, bike share was my primary mode of transportation–for commuting, for socialising, for errands, spontaneously and in any season. I do not by any means consider myself a hardcore cyclist, nor is Chicago any sort of cycling utopia a la Copenhagen or Amsterdam. But Chicago has gone through considerable investment to make the city cycle friendly for more people; and it’s their investment in physically protected bike lanes and inexpensive, well-managed bike share that propelled me into being a committed rider. And the beauty of these types of cycle infrastructure is that they’re not reserved for only the hardcore lycra-clad road cyclists (MAMIL-middle aged man in lycra, as they’re called in Norway) or the hipster fixie set, they’re meant for me and all the other regular people out there who just want a faster, cheaper, healthier way to get around.

But then I moved to London. Between the lack of a straightforward street grid and absolutely no space on narrow roads for legitimate cycle lanes (let alone protected ones), I was already wary. But so many people here cycle. All my colleagues do. Full lanes of streets on my commute are filled with cyclists. Mayor Boris Johnson is an avid cyclist and he and Transport for London recently unveiled plans for new “cycle superhighways.” But then there are near weekly headlines of cyclists dying under the wheels of lorries. Friends warn you to practice your commute on weekends (so much for spontaneous travel). You see daily others having near misses in front of you.

According to the London Evening Standard, 82% of women killed while cycling in London since 2009 have been by lorries.

A few weeks ago, the London Evening Standard featured a front page article trying to make sense of why most of this year’s cyclist deaths have been women and most of them have been at the hands of lorry drivers. The article states that “every woman who has died on a bike in the capital since August 2011 was hit by a truck — 16 in total.” It’s a startling statistic. Those women could have been me. In fact, I’m even more at risk, as most of them were seasoned London cyclists. Despite other commonalities such as the fact that most happened at major roundabouts and bridge approaches or that many of the lorry drivers were driving with violations, the article chose to focus on what the women cyclists were doing wrong. This level of victim blaming is not only wrong, but irresponsible.

It may be true that women cyclists may tend to be slower, more tentative or follow rules, all of which may make it easier for vehicle drivers to kill them, but a system that not only penalises, but kills people who follow rules or cycle conservatively is not a system that supports cycling, or frankly, people. There are different types of cyclists, just as there are different kinds of vehicle drivers. You wouldn’t expect a football mom in a minivan or pensioner in a station wagon to be able to navigate race car tracks and obstacle courses, nor should you. When you send your teenage child out to drive as a learner driver, you don’t expect them to die because they’re new or your grandmother to die because she drives slowly, why is that the expectation for cyclists? And does that mean children, slow riders, people who can’t afford fast cycles, new riders, tourists and other regular, rule abiding people like I am aren’t meant to be on the road? Because that’s what it feels like.

Research shows that when cyclists don’t wear helmets, cars tend to give them more space. This isn’t an argument not to wear helmets, but perhaps the London cyclist culture of aggressive, rule-breaking puts car drivers not in the mindset of sharing the road with vulnerable users, but instead competing for the road against equals. This might work for the subset of people willing to and physically capable of aggressive cycling, but leaves out the rest of us regular people. And if as a society we want to promote low carbon, sustainable modes of transport (which we must, for air pollution, climate change and other reasons), then building a cycle network for that small percentage won’t work.

Addressing Stormwater from the Comfort of my Back Yard

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I recently moved house and now that I have a garden, I’ve been thinking about the right way to manage the garden to do what’s best for local stormwater management by helping keep rainwater out of the sewer system and either saving it to water plants or letting it soak slowly into the ground. Of course, I do this type of thing for a living, but what about for people who don’t think about it everyday? How do people get information on how to do what’s right on their properties? Or when local governments or water utilities need private property owners’ help, how do they get people interested at all?

Last month, I had the honour of presenting some of the findings of the research I led in the US on just this question at the International Water Association’s Water Efficiency conference. The conference was a chance for industry leaders from around the world to discuss leading research on everything from water rates, water efficiency and drought to smart technology, water reuse and behaviour change.

As with most things having to do with behaviour change, successfully changing the way people manage their land to help improve the greater environment can take a lot of effort. The research I did was on how to encourage adoption of small-scale stormwater techniques, such as sustainable urban drainage systems (SuDS), on private properties, found that more work and investment in the fundamentals of behaviour change, programme management and building relationships is needed to get the scale of private property participation we need to address flooding and sewer overflows more broadly.

When local agencies want to involve private property owners in being part of stormwater solutions, they can generally resort to requirements or encourage voluntary measures. Much like the UK’s forthcoming standards for SuDS, requirements tend to focus only on new construction and large developments, whereas voluntary measures can reach retrofitting of existing properties and individual parcels. These programmes can include financial incentives, such as grant programmes, cost-share, discounts, and fee credits, as well as non-financial programmes, such as giveaways and award programmes.

The research looked at programmes across the US and Canada that use voluntary methods to encourage property owners to install SuDS on existing properties, and assessed these types of programmes by comparing their effectiveness, identifying the variables that affected success and ultimately establishing more nuanced ways of approaching private property stormwater solutions.

When it comes to working with local communities on becoming part of the stormwater solution, four key lessons rose to the top. These had less to do with specifics of the technology of SuDS or complicated financial mechanisms and more on how to better engage communities.

First, there have to be clear goals behind the programme and they need to inform the approach to communicating with potential participants. For example, if counting the number of litres of water kept out of the sewer system is most important, then more work has to go into making private actions predictable, reliable, and consistent over time with clear design guidelines or performance-based requirements, long-term monitoring, maintenance, and inspections. If the goal is about education and awareness, those technical aspects may be less important and focus should be on reaching a broad audience with consistent information and developing strong communications tools like signage, educational literature and informational events.

Second, successful programmes include a personal, customized approach, which ideally comes through one-on-one interactions with property owners. Properties and conditions are different, so solutions can’t be one-size-fits-all and people don’t always know which solution is best for their property. Working together with property owners improves awareness of the problems and potential solutions, increases participation, encourages a sense of ownership and leads to stronger projects. A common way to do this is through property or site assessments, which allow for bespoke recommendations that can be more cost-effective, tailored to level of interest and knowledge and more professional applications, making for more successful projects. In some cases, this is all property owners need to go ahead and invest on their own, allowing programmes to focus financial assistance on those who don’t have the means.

Working individually with property owners takes a lot of people power, which local agencies may not have. The third key lesson has to do with partnering to spread impact. Partners can add capacity by specializing in particular topics, geographic areas, or parts of the process chain. They often have the advantage of being able to build local relationships, focus more on property owner goals rather than regulatory mandates, can be more flexible and less bureaucratic and have more freedom to experiment with innovative techniques. These partners can range from neighbourhood groups and local charities with established local relationships to social enterprises or environmental charities with expertise to private contractors or landscape designers with established businesses to even creating new jobs.

Finally, it’s important to learn from mistakes and improve programmes along the way. Successful programmes understand there isn’t one answer and use formal and informal feedback to improve. Few programmes do extensive data collection or program evaluation, but even informal feedback is helpful and those that listened to feedback, addressed problems and made changes got better outcomes.

For my garden, as a renter, I’ll probably end up with a water butt to save water for use on the plants. But for the rest of London’s gardens, advocates for SuDS, particularly as an alternative or supplement to costly hard infrastructure, can use the lessons from this research in the US to cost out and plan for approaches to scaling up local SuDS adoption and management.

Though SuDS technology is not quite ready to be sold as out of the box systems the way water efficient fixtures are, there is an opportunity to learn more from water and energy efficiency to more effectively address behaviour change in stormwater. To help people help the broader environment, we need to invest in the social side of stormwater management, including efforts on behaviour change, programme design and evaluation and improved outreach and communications.

Making time for big thinking

Green Sky Thinking @ Buro HappoldThis post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

It’s easy to get caught up in the details of our daily jobs and the problems immediately at hand, but thinking sustainably often means thinking holistically, which means finding the time and space to step back and look at the big picture. Green Sky Thinking Week, a week of events organised by Open-City in London highlighting innovative practice on how we ‘design in’ sustainability, provided a great opportunity to think outside our usual projects.

I attended Engineering the Futurehosted by BuroHappold Engineering—a sort of science fair for engineering professionals. Some of BuroHappold’s young engineers were given time and resources to put toward creative problem solving on an issue outside their daily work load. The event was a showcase of the preliminary work they were able to experiment with, to address some of London’s most pressing questions. Topics included:

  • Using real-time data to optimise the design of NHS waiting rooms
  • Ways of expanding the evidence base for supporting public use of parks
  • Developing a model for comparing multiple interrelated variables in sustainable building design
  • Modular building design for interior design, and
  • Many more.

The event was a chance for young engineers (who usually work as part of a larger team) to develop their own innovative ideas and get public exposure. The projects were great conversation starters and the format of the event allowed us to talk to each of the 10 project teams in small groups, to gain insight into their approaches and provide feedback on how to improve them.

One of the biggest things I noticed was that – perhaps due to the limited time they were able to devote to the projects – some of the groups did not seem to fully incorporate social factors—a critical part of designing sustainably—into their projects, such as how the method of data collection may not capture an even sample of London’s demographics, or how much personal space people in NHS waiting rooms might need, or the role of property prices and amenities as neighbourhood attractiveness parameters.

While the projects were only side projects (with clear limitations), the work they produced and the event as a whole was a great way to try applying creativity in problem solving and get conversations started. The event ended with attendees voting for what we thought were the most promising ideas. The theme of the projects that rose to the top was resource efficiency—one of KLH’s top priorities and something we are always working on to continue to creatively address.