Rainwater and Rocket Science

11 September 2013 on Musings by admin

Considering a rainwater harvesting/collection system is basically comprised of the following steps:

Step 1: calculate collection area/surface.  Step 2: determine annual rainfall averages. Step 3: calculate usage loads/demands. Step 4: determine storage requirements/capacity. Step 5: conclude that you could just about buy a new car for the cost of the system. Step 6: rethink the process.

We seem to be hardwired with a tremendous capacity to make things really complicated and/or difficult. And if no one else can figure it out or make sense of it, it must be really valuable and costly.

We don’t buy that.

Recently, after months of research and design for a collection/reuse system for a project, we realized that from all the amassed diagrams, charts, calculations, information and knowledge that our drawings and sketches looked more like space shuttle parts than the simple system we had originally imagined. How did we get here? The process, going “by the books”, revealed that we needed to basically park a school bus size container on the side of the building for storage. The design and aesthetics of the project was being strong-armed. Common sense was being usurped.

We wanted to make a simple statement about green technologies to showcase the possibilities and the practicality of incorporating sensible systems such as a rainwater collection and reuse. Everything that we had, all the calculations, components, and costs did exactly the opposite of simple; we had an over- priced, overly complicated system that could never be a teaching tool. It was a burden.

What did we do? Well, the information and knowledge gained and collected was put in a safe storage place and we went to Step 6.

One of the first decisions we made was to minimize and reduce the system to its basic elements and components (diagram 1). This step was primarily a shift from studying commercial/engineered systems back to simple, “do-it-your- self” information. Included in this simplification was also an intent focus on the aesthetics and “architecture” of what we wanted to do and how the system was to look.


Secondly, we gathered all the information, cost, sizes and images of available commercial storage containers. Since the rainwater system was to be fully exposed on the exterior of the building, the majority of the containers, both fiberglass and plastic, were instantly eliminated. The available metal containers were simultaneously both not the right size – we wanted tall and skinny – and were too expensive. So, with all our storage containers thrown out, we proceeded to our local metal fabricator:

Us: “Can you roll us steel tanks?”

Fabricator: “Sure can.”

Us: “Can you make them this diameter and this height?”

Fabricator: “Sure can.”

Us: “Can you fabricate, deliver, and install for this price?”

Fabricator: “Sure can. I’ll paint the insides and weld all the fitting connections to the tanks as well.”

Us: “We love you, Mr. Fabricator.”

Well, we really didn’t tell our fabricator that we loved him (that might have been a little awkward), but we are incredibly thankful to have relationships and craftsman like him to work with.

With these decisions in place, we got to consider things like how to mount the tanks to their reinforced concrete pedestals, what color to paint the system, and “do the lids want to be an accent color?”

As designers, we can either follow blindly down the high tech path, one where technology begets technology, or we can be intentional about simplicity. And that is exactly what we did; re-imagine the parts, pieces, and connections. How simple and basic can they be and yet perform and be dependable and durable. And more importantly, we designed a system that both participates with and contributes to the architecture instead of having to be hidden, or worse, be an exposed eyesore.

In the end, we got our simple system on a budget that seemed impossible, a happy client, and an awful lot of satisfaction (image 1).

Rainwater collection and reuse is not rocket science.


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