By Mandy Burrell Booth, photos by Emily Cikanek
The Ryerson Woods Welcome Center not only greets visitors to the 500-acre Ryerson Conservation Area in unincorporated Lake County – one of the best examples of a northern flatwoods forest, a rare northern Illinois landscape – it also introduces them to development practices that save money, energy – and water.
“We were excited about making it a real showplace, but in simple ways that are commercially available to people,” says Nan Buckardt, director of environmental education and public affairs, Lake County Forest Preserve District. “It doesn’t look high-tech and ‘gee-whiz’ the way people might think a highly efficient building would look.”
Indeed, Buckardt says the Lake County Forest Preserve District planned the Welcome Center, which opened in 2006, to look like a typical nature center but function as a teaching tool for visitors. Nearly 10,000 people have toured the building to learn how to achieve energy and water efficiency.
The Platinum LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building uses geothermal heating and cooling, recycled drywall and carpet, natural lighting, and even limestone pavers sourced from local mines. “We didn’t want to let any of our site’s stormwater into the floodplain,” says Buckardt, so they installed rain gardens and a porous parking lot to allow rain to infiltrate into the ground, rather than run off into the sewer. “Regular asphalt is like a dense brownie, and porous asphalt is like a Rice Krispie treat,” Buckardt explains, wearing her educator hat.
Perhaps most notable is the center’s system for funneling rainwater from the roof through downspouts and pipes into a 60,000 gallon cistern, or underground cement storage tank. Through a glass wall inside, visitors can watch how water is channeled from the roof into the cistern. The water in the cistern then can be used to sprinkle the building in case of a fire, irrigate newly planted shrubs, flowers and rain gardens, and flush the building’s low-flow toilets. There are relatively few of these systems in Illinois, despite their clear benefits.
By employing all of these innovative features, the Lake County Forest Preserve hopes to impress upon visitors that they, too, can make changes to their home to conserve and protect water. Communities across metropolitan Chicago are making similar changes to public buildings and spaces to educate the public, manage flooding, reduce contamination, and curb the need for expensive infrastructure maintenance and expansion projects. Yet for these types of projects to become widespread, rather than curiosities, incentives and policy changes are needed.
Historically, public funding has favored heavy gray infrastructure – sewers, pipes, etc. – over green, when in reality they are complementary approaches. For instance, green infrastructure projects do not tend to fare well in the competitive allocation of Clean Water and Drinking Water State Revolving Loan Funds (SRF), through which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) provides funding assistance to states and communities to repair, maintain or install wastewater treatment and drinking water infrastructure.
The old philosophy, which is starting to change, is that supporting green infrastructure projects in communities detracts from their ability to replace or build pipes and treatment systems that are crucial for human health. There is a growing recognition that green infrastructure solutions not only cumulatively pull their own weight, but that they regionally reduce stress on grey systems, and offer an economic alternative to expensive expansion projects. For instance, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago recently invested its first $1 million into a new green infrastructure program, calling these solutions its “Fourth Reservoir” for controlling stormwater throughout the region.
Groups such as the Metropolitan Planning Council, Openlands, Center for Neighborhood Technology, and other partner organizations are encouraging the Illinois EPA to address this imbalance of green versus grey by reforming Illinois’ SRF review criteria. In combination with its smaller $5 million Green Infrastructure Grants program, Illinois EPA has the ability to assist communities with infrastructure projects through the SRF, putting the agency in a unique position to incentivize green solutions to manage stormwater runoff.
With federal and state budgets under constant strain, solutions that are not contingent on available funding are also increasingly attractive. One such idea is to update the outdated Illinois Plumbing Code to make it easier to install rainwater harvesting systems such as the one at Ryerson Woods. Currently, property owners and developers must go through a time-consuming variance process with the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), a major deterrent for many people. Illinois’ plumbing regulations have not changed much in the past decade despite improvements in technology and a growing demand for LEED-certified construction.
Model code language already exists – the International Plumbing Code, Uniform Plumbing Code, and International Association of Plumbing and Mechanical Officials’ Green Supplement all include the kind of baseline standards that IDPH and Illinois communities need in order to streamline installation of rainwater harvesting systems (as well as graywater systems and other water conservation measures). Updating the Illinois Plumbing Code would open up the market for these systems, provide consistency to local governments, and cost the state relatively little. In the end, residents, business owners, and Buckardt’s colleagues and visitors at Ryerson Woods would have greater flexibility and choice in how to save money while protecting water resources. After all, rain is the only truly free water.
Anyone who needs further convincing that this shift toward green infrastructure and modern codes deserves encouragement need only consider how the Ryerson Woods Welcome Center is saving dollars and cents, in addition to water and energy:
- The center’s total utility bill is a fraction of the cost of that of buildings of a comparable scale.
- Because the water won’t puddle, the center’s porous asphalt parking lot should weather longer than standard paving.
- After just eight years, the center’s geoexchange system will have paid for itself in energy savings.
Buckardt invites everyone to visit the Ryerson Woods Welcome Center and see for themselves how to design an efficient building. Visit www.lfpcd.org for hours and events. You can also view a photo tour of the center’s green infrastructure features.
- Learn from Ryerson Woods… or Chicago’s 41st Street Beach House, Valley Forge Fieldhouse, or Harold Washington Social Security Center, all public facilities where harvested rainwater is used for toilet flushing.
- Disconnect a downspout and install a rain barrel. Managed correctly, a rain barrel will keep about 55 gallons of water out of the sewer when it rains, and then save you 55 gallons of tap water for watering your lawn and garden.
- Don’t forget the garage. In denser communities like Blue Island or Evanston, about 25 percent of the stormwater runoff from a residential property can come from the garage’s roof. Make sure to pick up an extra rain barrel!
- Choose native plants. They need less water and have long roots which help water infiltrate into the ground, saving you time and money – and preserving the region’s water supply.
The WOWW factor
Europe is way ahead of us, installing 100,000+ rainwater harvesting systems in 2005-’06 alone.
Texas waives the state sales tax on rainwater harvesting systems.
That’s how many times you’ll likely flush a toilet in your lifetime.
Older toilets (bought before 1994) often use 5 gallons per flush, or more, while newer standard toilets use 1.6 gallons, and WaterSense toilets only 1.28.
That’s roughly how much of your home’s water consumption is flushed down the toilet.
- Water Reuse Handbook, Public Buildings Commission of Chicago
- Water 2050 (esp. Chapter 4, pages 131-140) Northeastern Illinois Regional Water Supply/Demand Plan, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning