“It takes a village,” said Dr. Therese Peffer to a packed room at the 2023 Water Conservation Showcase on June 15. Therese, along with Craig Boman of Sherwood Design Engineers and Dr. Sandy Robertson, formerly of Stanford University, presented their talk, “EcoBlock: Creating an Urban Block-Scale Microgrid,” at the annual event, breaking down the water conservation and resilience strategies that will be deployed as part of the pilot research project.
A Multi-Pronged Approach Toward Resilience and Sustainability
For an effort that is deeply rooted in energy efficiency, EcoBlock has always embraced a holistic attitude toward resilience and sustainability. Therese noted that the original EcoBlock concept stemmed from an urban design studio at UC Berkeley, where students developed principles and prototypes for high-density, transit-oriented developments in China based on a triple net-zero approach targeting water, energy, and carbon neutrality. While EcoBlock’s focus has shifted from new construction to existing buildings, this multi-pronged approach persists: Both water- and energy-efficient retrofits will be conducted as part of the current design-build phase of the project, with the goal of reducing carbon emissions and strengthening urban resilience.
Unlike energy, where “each electron is indistinguishable,” Sandy positioned water as a finite resource within a circular economy. Compared to the traditional “take-make-dispose” model of production and consumption, this approach aims to maximize the value of water and minimize its overall waste and pollution. Drawing from the energy sector’s “Negawatt Revolution,” Sandy espoused the benefits of “negawater” in which the amount of water that is not used is as valuable as the amount of water that is produced. Instead of selling more water to meet increased consumer demand, water consumption can be reduced through conservation or efficiency measures without compromising overall performance. When considering the “local, regional, and large scales and . . . how water and energy interact,” he continued, executing multi-purpose projects “may be the only way [these principles] pencil out.”
In general, water-related retrofits are more expensive than their energy-based counterparts due to additional concerns around piping, storage, and available space. During the initial research phase of the project, the team found both potable and non-potable water reuse schemes to be of limited financial value for urban residences. However, water-based improvements can provide unforeseen benefits besides the financial. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the EcoBlock team held a laundry-to-landscape (L2L) workshop on the block, which proved to not only be an educational experience for the residents but a meaningful community-building event for them as well. With the help of Greywater Action, a local non-profit, EcoBlock renters and homeowners dug trenches and installed piping at one of the participating homes, building a system that allows their neighbors to use greywater from their clothes washer to irrigate their plants.
Iteration, Coordination, and Communication
Shifting gears to the neighborhood block scale, Craig detailed the unique considerations that arise when implementing stormwater retrofits in the public right-of-way. From developing design proposals with the community to navigating permitting processes with the city, the EcoBlock team serves as a convergence point for multiple stakeholders, balancing often-competing needs and interests to realize the project’s goals.
However, EcoBlock’s technical, water-driven aspirations don’t necessarily define its success. “The ultimate success is the neighborhood’s success,” stated Craig. Stressing the importance of sustained community engagement in all aspects of the project—design, funding, and implementation—he shared some recent highlights. Of particular note was the EcoBlock community’s unanimous approval of an end-of-block bioretention design through a “vote-by-mutual-consent” decision-making process that was developed by the team. More recently, the project was awarded a grant by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which will support stormwater flow monitoring and street planting efforts on the block.
“People really want to make these things happen,” said Craig. From grassroots efforts such as the Oakland EcoBlock to municipally-driven initiatives in San Mateo and Los Angeles, he cited examples of how California can deploy water-resilient systems and strategies across scales. The pathways have been identified to “do what we need to do with stormwater,” he explained. “If you can get the community behind it, it’s amazing how people will turn the corner.”
The Water Conservation Showcase is a partnership between the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), Northern California Chapter; Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E); the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC); the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD); San Jose Water; and the American Institute of Architects (AIA) San Francisco Committee on the Environment.
View a recording of the presentation on the Pacific Energy Center website
Cover image credit: Haixin Guo