Bill Worthen

Bill Worthen of the WaterBuild Advisory Group shares his thoughts on water reuse.

Where does your water come from? If your first response was "the tap," then you are probably living in a place where fresh, drinkable water is something you have come to see as part of your daily life. Access to water has become something most Americans take for granted, but times are changing.

We all saw the tragic contamination of the water supply in Flint, Michigan, we’ve seen continuous drought across the American West and we’re starting to realize the challenges of maintaining and expanding our massive centralized water systems. Limits of scale and population growth are beginning to outpace our ability to simply supply more. The time has come to start thinking differently about our water and how we use it each day. 

Water is a design problem

Let me be clear—there is plenty of water across the United States. But much of the water we need is not where we want it; we can’t always access it on demand and in the form we need. The opportunities for water reuse at the building and district scale can go a long way to solving our water challenges.

As an architect, I’ve had the benefit of working on some of the first projects in California to include onsite gray water and black water systems. I’ve seen that there’s no magic behind water reuse technology. If you can replace a boiler or chiller in your building, you’ve got the basic tools to install a water reuse system. Yes, the technology used to filter water and make it safe for toilet flushing, irrigation, cooling tower make-up and washing laundry have complex names, but the fact is that all these systems are simply mimicking natural processes that have been happening on Earth for millennia. All we are doing is speeding up these processes so that our water supplies aren’t strictly based on the flux of rain and snowfall. 

Addressing the yuck factor

When we bring up water reuse with many of our clients, the first question we most often get is: “Does it smell?” Often, “I don’t want that in my building,” comes soon after. It’s a classic response to what we call the "yuck factor"seeing grey water, black water and sewer mining as dirty, unhealthy processes. 

Photo credit: J.S. Guest

But this perception is not reality. Over the past five years, I‘ve been working closely with reuse systems to better understand how each of these technologies and their respective vendors are working at scale, and have been doing so for quite for some time across the globe. Remember, water reuse is fairly normal in many other places around the world. It’s only new in the United States because, until recently, we didn’t consider it a serious issue.  

Safe, effective and almost beautiful

Water reuse systems can be safe, effective and beautiful, adding practical and aesthetic value to the buildings and people they serve. I recently spent a week in Israel to explore how that country faces water scarcity at scale. Across the nation, water reuse is built at large, regenerative scales, both at the utility level and beyond. For Israelis, doing so is a matter of national security.

Two years ago, I spent a week in Australia on a similar trip and witnessed how that country’s recent long-lasting drought has inspired a new growth of building scale water reuse systems, some in the most architecturally stunning buildings I have ever seen. We are now simply trying to bring these proven technologies, which work at scale, to the U.S. The new part for these proven vendors is understanding the mechanics of our domestic regulatory environment and our design and construction industry. 

Water reuse as a key foundation of our sustainable future  

Although both Israel and Australia have addressed the issue of water reuse in different ways, they show us that where there is a will, there is most definitely a way. When we come to understand that all water—regardless of whether it comes from a lake, your tap or your toilet—is a resource, the limits of what we can do to ensure our water future expands astronomically. But these systems do require more consistent and active management and care. 

That required attention sets us on an exciting path. It means that we have to expand the numbers of those trained to operate these systems. We have to grow a new jobs sector, crafting a viable new marketplace of people knowledgeable in managing these necessary systems.

We can also use water as the foundation for a new energy sector. More and more, we’re discovering ways to mine human waste for energy, energy that can be used to power water reuse systems and provide energy, heating and cooling.

The Urban Fabrick Collaborative is currently developing a Water Reuse Practice Guide intended to help teach architects and engineers about water reuse at the building and district scale. Photo credit: The Urban Fabrick Collaborative.

Finding ways to solve our water problems and understanding how water reuse can also be a power source for our zero net energy goals is a key step in learning how to live more sustainability in our unpredictable world. Shifting our perceptions on water reuse is crucial in getting there. It’s why I’m proud to be a member of the WaterBuild Advisory Group, which supported the programming design of the WaterBuild Summit at Greenbuild earlier this month in Los Angeles. It was exciting to see so many of us convene and advance the conversation on evolving our water policies and design practices, and I look forward to the progress we’ll make in the coming years, with WaterBuilds in future Greenbuild conferences in Boston and Chicago.