5 Clever Architectural Strategies For Conserving Water

The AIA recognized these five buildings for their water-wise approach.

It’s been a soggy spring on the West Coast, as El Nino rainstorms have recharged many of the reservoirs. But experts say it’s not enough to wash away the specter of drought on this perpetually parched region of the country. While the water cycle is a complex system of supply and demand–the agriculture industry uses a whopping 80% of California’s water, for example–architecture can help establish a smarter relationship with the resource, both in reducing how much water we consume and restoring natural systems.


For its Top 10 Green Projects of 2016, the AIA recognized structures that employ environmentally sensitive design details. And in honor of Earth Day, we take a look at five buildings that take an aggressive approach to conserving resources.

Denmarsh Photography Inc.

Center for Sustainable Landscapes

With a mission to demonstrate living in harmony with nature, the Center for Sustainable Landscapes in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, emphasized both energy- and water-efficiency principles. It’s net-positive for energy, meaning it creates more power than it consumes, and net-zero for water, meaning it captures and treats all of the rainwater that falls on the site. All of the non-potable water that the building uses comes from the site. Moreover, it treats all of its sanitary discharge. Here’s how the system–masterminded by the Design Alliance Architects–works: rooftops collect and capture rainwater, which is then held in cisterns for human use and in lagoons and constructed wetlands for stormwater management. Pervious surfaces let water absorb into the earth. Subsurface sand filters help purify wastewater as does a solar distillation system and settlement tanks. No potable water is used for irrigation

Casey Dunn


The Dixon Water Foundation Josey Pavilion

In Decatur, Texas, Lake Flato designed a building that has no active heating or cooling systems. Composed of two buildings, the complex is capped by gabled roofs that directs rainwater to a shared gutter. Since raising ecological awareness is an important part of the organization, the water flows into a large trough for birds and animals to use and to a cistern. A constructed wetland lets water flow into the ground and recharge the shrinking Trinity aquifer.

Bruce Damonte


The Exploratorium

Located on top of the San Francisco Bay, the Exploratorium–a science museum–interacts with water a few different ways. It conserves potable water through low-flow fixtures, but actually leverages its site by harvesting ocean water for a radiant cooling system. Rainwater is harvested and stored in a 27,000-gallon cistern and used for flushing toilets. Lastly, the architects, local firm EHDD, carefully selected robust building cladding materials, like copper, that wouldn’t leach into the bay after rainstorms.

Casey Dunn


H-E-B At Mueller

Suburban grocery stores come with parking lots, there’s no avoiding them. The problem with large expanses of concrete is that they funnel excess runoff into stormwater systems, taking all of the oil, dirt, and grit that’s on the pavement with it. To help alleviate runoff, HEB–a grocery store by Lake Flato that’s about two miles away from the University of Texas at Austin–uses a rain garden to filter all stormwater runoff it generates. The city of Austin’s reclaimed water system provides 82 percent of the store’s total water consumption, which is 75 percent cheaper than potable water.

© David Wakely Photography


West Berkeley Public Library

Because the library, designed by Harvey Ellis Devereaux, covers 82 percent of its site, it was a tall order to balance landscape restoration, stormwater treatment, and accessibility needs. Roof runoff is collected in planters filled with sand and vegetation that filters the water. The planters hold what water they can and treat it so that the volume of water that makes it into the municipal runoff system is reduced and cleansed. Drought-tolerant plantings reduce the need for irrigation and low-flow fixtures curb potable water consumption.

All Images: courtesy AIA Communications


About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.