Category Archives: water storage

Eco-Design Saved “The Rouge”

Editor’s Note: This is a regular column that appears in our city’s newspaper, The Wanganui Chronicle.


I always get a kick out of walking down Victoria Avenue or riding my bike on Puriri Street and seeing someone wearing a basketball jersey of the Boston Celtics or Los Angeles Lakers. I picture in my mind the reverse: youths in Boston and Los Angeles sporting their Warriors or Crusaders kit. It is good for a chuckle.

I am especially impressed on the rare occasion of passing someone on the streets of our River City supporting my hometown Detroit Pistons. So you will understand my pleasure upon opening last Saturday’s Chronicle to find a full-page story on the Motor City.

Appropriately placed at the top of the page was a photograph of a group of students sitting in front of a massive Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Institute of Arts. I remember all those decades ago taking a school trip to the DIA and being completely overwhelmed by the Rivera murals that depict the Ford Motor Company’s River Rouge manufacturing plant at the time of their painting in the early 1930s. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.14.57 AM

 On the 2,000 acre site, 93 buildings covered 1.5 million square metres and had 150 kilometres of conveyors. Iron ore went in one end and finished cars came out the other. 100,000 men worked at the plant while Rivera painted his murals. “The Rouge” had a fully staffed hospital, a fire department and a police force. It was the largest single industrial complex in the world.

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.16.40 AM

By the time I visited the DIA in the late 1970s the Rouge itself was on hard times. The work force had plummeted to under 10,000 and drug use was rampant among them. The quality of Ford vehicles had declines and Japanese imports were in the ascendant. My family was unlucky enough to have purchased a Ford Pinto that was plagued with mechanical problems.

By the early 1990s the plant was on the brink of closure. And then something amazing happened: Eco-design saved the Rouge.

In 1999, Architect William McDonough (the subject of last week’s column) entered into an agreement with Ford Motor Company for a major eco-thrifty renovation of the aged facility. The cornerstone of the renovation was a 10-acre (four hectare) living roof planted mostly to low-growing sedum, which retains and cleans rainwater while buffering the temperature inside the plant in both winter and summer. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.19.22 AM

While the living roof saves Ford on both heating and cooling costs, the major savings were realized by the role it plays as part of an $18 million storm water system designed to handle 76 million cubic metres of water annually. This innovative system also includes a series of swales, reconstructed wetlands, the world’s largest porous parking lot, and hundreds of newly planted trees.

From day one, this eco-design option for treating rainwater saved Ford $32 million because the mainstream option of mechanical treatment would have cost $50 million.

Another role that re-vegetation efforts play on the site is through phytoremediation – a process by which plants and soil microbes break down contaminants and render them harmless. This approach is much cheaper than the other option Ford was facing of trucking contaminated soils off to landfill. Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.22.07 AM

Finally, McDonough has worked with Ford to improve the natural day lighting, ventilation, and energy efficiency of the plant while saving them even more money. This from

“Ford’s approach, often referred to as sustainable design, might also be described as high-performance design. A high performance building will:

– Lower annual energy costs

– Lower long-term maintenance costs

– Use non-toxic, easily recycled materials

– Create healthier work environments

– Improve employee productivity

– Attract talented recruits

– Improve market image

– Help protect the environment

“The Rouge is not only being rebuilt, it’s being re-imagined as a model of sustainable manufacturing – a workplace that helps protect the environment for future generations while it inspires a new paradigm.”

Screen shot 2015-01-09 at 11.29.16 AM

To me this is inspiring stuff, and I can see its application throughout our city. As yet we have not been able to get into gear, but here’s hoping one day these types of ideas will get traction and with the engagement of a broad cross-section of our community we can get the pistons humming.


Peace, Estwing

Swales and Rain Gardens for Water Management

It is encouraging to see the number of people engaging in meaningful dialogue about important local issues through the Letters page of the Chronicle. Sadly, too often these letters include references to failed attempts to work with Wanganui District Council on strategies that work with nature instead of against it.
For some reason, our Council appears stuck in the past on many issues of infrastructure and economic development. From most accounts, the 1950s were a great time to be alive, but in many cases ‘50s thinking no longer applies.
All of this makes it particularly significant that WDC Chief Water Engineer, Kritzo Venter, has been active and vocal about promoting progressive water management strategies that ‘mimic’ those that nature itself has developed over millions of years. (That is some investment in R&D, ain’t it?!?)
Small swale and rain garden. 
One of those water management strategies – swales – has been in use for decades in some places around the world. A swale is a long, narrow earthwork that runs perpendicular to slope. They slow the flow of surface runoff and facilitate infiltration into the ground. They are perfectly level, unlike ditches, which are sloped to drain water away like a river. Water in a swale soaks into the ground instead of running over it. A carefully constructed swale includes a level-sill spillway that gently allows it to be overtopped in a controlled manner in the event of extreme rain.
The use of swales is the type of win-win-win situation I write about in this column because it: 1) reduces stream and river levels during flood events; 2) increases groundwater reserves that can be called upon during periods of drought; and, 3) significantly reduces the overall cost of infrastructure. Eco-thrifty at its best.
For example, two years ago I was asked to consult on a proposed residential development in Kaiwhaiki that had significant drainage problems. I was told the 10-year-old quote to ‘solve’ the problem the ‘old way’ using pipes and culverts was for half a million dollars. After picking my jaw up off the floor, I told them that good eco-design, which would include cluster housing and the use of swales, would significantly slash that price. WDC Chief Planner, Jonathan Barrett, appeared supportive of those ideas during one meeting held at Council.
The other strategy promoted by Kritzo – and praised by Chronicle assistant editor, Anna Wallis – is the use of rain gardens. A common use of rain gardens is to absorb and filter runoff from new parking lots or other such impermeable surfaces. In this way, rain gardens function like wetlands: sponging up excess water and cleaning it through natural processes.
A series of mini-swales and vege gardens make up this garden.
I first learned about rain gardens in 2005 while taking a certificate programme in the States on Organic Land Care. Shortly thereafter I advised a school to install rain gardens in a number of locations where they had persistent drainage problems. This was particularly meaningful in the context of the school because it became a relevant learning experience for students.
In 2009, while living in Raglan, I built a small management system to control an excess of runoff coming from the roof of a newly built outdoor kitchen at a campground. The system consisted of a swale, a level-sill spillway, and a rain garden. We planted the swale with feijoa trees and the rain garden with plants that tolerate periods of wet and dry.
Swales and vege gardens soak up water and keep it from flooding this lawn.
While in Raglan, I also used swales as a metaphor for eco-design during a Pecha Kucha night, where artists and designers share their work through 20 slides with narration of 20 seconds per slide. That presentation, “Thinking Like a Swale,” became the inspiration for a programme I offered at the Josephite Retreat Centre earlier this year to acknowledge the UN year of water. Hopefully, when River Week 2014 comes around next year, I’ll get a chance to present it again to compliment and support the education efforts Kritzo has already made in the community.
Us ‘swale-thinkers’ gotta stick together. It’s a watershed out there.

Reactively Proactive

I had great hopes for the Copenhagen Climate Conference in December 2009…and then I was very disappointed. In the two years since, it has become clear that most governments worldwide no longer consider carbon reductions as an approach to dealing with climate change. Rather, the focus seems to have shifted to adaptation.

That saddens me because we are now essentially condemned to deal with the predicted extreme weather effects of climate change instead of trying to avoid them by reducing emissions.

I consider this a lack of will. It gives me little hope that humanity will have the will to deal with other pressing environmental, economic and social issues facing us.

We are feeling an increasing rate of extreme weather events in our community.

And out our back door.
January 1, 2012

We are on pure sand, and January is usually a dry month.

Yet we had standing water that remained for hours. Permaculture founder Bill Mollison is famous for saying, “The problem is the solution.” A partial solution to our flooding problem can be dealt to by collecting and storing some of the water.

This 1,000 liter water tank is not large enough to take all the excess water during a major rain event, but it will take some. And it will serve other functions too. A major principle of permaculture is redundancy. Currently we only have one water source: city mains. Yet if there is an earthquake like the ones in Christchurch, we would be left high and dry. By having the capacity to collect and store our own water we protect ourselves against natural disasters.
Additionally, we have had some extreme wind events lately which prompted us to put up wind netting last month.

But that was not enough. I recently purchased 20 more meters to install soon.

I have come to the conclusion that governments cannot be depended on to avoid disasters be they environmental or economic. Therefore, we need to protect ourselves. Investing in wind netting and water tanks are just two examples of protecting against weather extremes. Wind breaks and water storage are central to permaculture landscape design. Even on our 700 square meters we are designing for resiliency in these ways and others too. I’ll explain some of those another time.

Peace, Estwing