Q&A with Brook Muller on Water Sustainability and Architectural Design

Water Sustainability and Architectural Design: Q&A with Brook Muller, author of Blue Architecture

How beauty, water sustainability, and architectural design connect

Water. All life needs it, and as the climate crisis grows, we will begin to feel its importance increasingly sharply. And yet, in our cities and our buildings, designers fail to consider water in early design stages.

In this Q&A, Brook Muller, author of Blue Architecture: Water, Design, and Environmental Futures, discusses the relationship between urban water systems and architecture, his thoughts on working through a climate crisis, and a potential future for sustainable design.

In Blue Architecture, you propose a shift in architectural conversations, away from viewing water as a potentially destructive force or a luxury element, and foregrounding instead the importance of water for sense of place, culture, and health. How do you anticipate this change influencing architectural practice and design?

Architects give little credence to water in the early, conceptual – and highly consequential – phases of design in a process that may be characterized as “architects make space, engineers add water.” Not unrelated to this, urban water systems figure minimally in our cultural consciousness. And yet endeavoring to understand broader hydrological systems allows designers to make better decisions at the project scale and even leads to notions of “architecture as ecological infrastructure.”

Every city I visit these days has a water crisis: poor quality, flooding associated with increasingly severe weather events in a time of climate change, downstream ecological impacts, scarcity, or some combination of these. If the first generation of sustainable architecture focused on energy, and for very good reason, we now add water.

I seek to convince a next generation of designers to take the lead in advancing resourceful and ecologically responsive water systems as integral to urban architecture. [I see this advancement] as both the proper thing to do from an equity and environmental quality standpoint, and as an incredibly rich source of design meaning.

What does it mean for architecture to be climate-adapted rather than simply minimizing harm?

In sustainable architectural discourse and practice, the building envelope and the performance of systems within that envelope command the designer’s attention. Architects tend to think less of the interactions between buildings and surrounding (urban) landscapes, and so for example we might design a building clad in zinc or copper that achieves a high environmental performance certification standard, and yet, ironically, rain events deliver particulates from these facades to urban water bodies with devastating impacts on aquatic species.

A both/and approach – that we concern ourselves with both the building proper and its relationship with the parent ecosystem in which it is situated – can result in buildings delivering a net positive watershed impact.

So much is broken about the built environment, especially in urban centers. What is the biggest obstacle to constructing genuinely climate-adapted urban landscapes?

We must confront the environmental impacts of having for so long designed cities to move water away from urban landscapes as quickly as possible. We have in effect converted “soft” forest and meadow landscapes to “hard,” rocky, cliff-like landscapes; in this new urban watershed, or “pipe-shed,” water from rainstorms picks up pollutants that have settled on roadways and building surfaces and directs them to urban water bodies such as rivers and lakes with significant ecotoxicological impacts to fish and other aquatic species.

As we retrofit cities so they are more habitat friendly, we confront the pressures of trying to achieve greater value and functionality in increasingly limited urban space. When I lived in Oregon, the state Department of Environmental Quality developed regulations for increased on-site treatment and retention of stormwater so as to prevent flooding and water quality issues downstream. Meanwhile, the City of Portland developed policies supportive of compact growth and Transit Oriented Development (TOD) to address goals of affordability and sustainable mobility (light rail, other). Here we find a conflict: one mandate supports greater porosity in the urban landscape, and one supports increased impermeability. I believe designers, adept as they are with three dimensional puzzles, are well suited to help resolve such tensions.

In your work as an architecture theorist engaging with water ecology, what has most surprised you as your understanding of water sustainability and architectural design has grown?

Consideration of water and hydrological and ecological factors at the outset of design investigations never fails in shaping better, more resourceful, and more thoroughly integrated design outcomes. By more integrated I mean that water can serve as the connective medium between sustainable architectures and climate adaptive urban landscapes. I felt I was onto a grossly underappreciated topic and approach, that a gap in the literature existed, and yet I had no idea how transformative a water-centric approach could be for architectural design.

What has also surprised me, as someone who entered higher education as a design theorist, is the value of a systems-based approach, that we commence a design investigation by developing a water schematic (a basic understanding of how the water flows in a project) and only afterward do we consider the physical, aesthetic, and experiential implications. This “form follows flows” approach inverts the typical sequence, and to very good effect.

The climate crisis is an inescapable force behind your work and research. Do you ever find yourself overwhelmed by the urgency and depth of the problem?  How do you keep a productive mindset, embracing the creative opportunity to design better systems?

Reading alarming news articles every day and witnessing more and more extreme weather events that indicate this is spiraling out of control faster than we thought it would? It can get downright existential. Add to that the fact that those with the smallest carbon footprints will experience the greatest impacts, and those with the greatest footprints and greatest capacity to combat climate change seem to lack the will and ethical common ground to lead the way. It is shameful and sad. That said, I take inspiration from ecological designers such as John Todd who show us how we can co-create with natural systems, learning and listening all the while, and achieve projects that are responsive, responsible, and beautiful and that bestow a legacy of care for future generations despite the wanton destruction that surrounds us.

In the book, you draw attention to many successful projects that incorporate water in holistic and transformative ways. Is there one that comes to mind as offering particularly exciting design solutions for the future? What stands out about it?

Hyphae Design Laboratory’s amazing work as water and ecological design consultant on the Palomar Hospital stands out for a process best described as “form follows chemistry.”

The building includes a lower, two-story surgery wing and a taller patient wing. The client quite understandably asked for a green roof for the surgery wing so that recuperating patients looking down upon its roof would have something attractive and calming to look at. The City of Escondido understandably required the use of drought tolerant native plantings to conserve water given Southern California’s hot, arid climate.

Hyphae’s Brent Bucknum surprised everyone by suggesting that they use water loving plants for the green roof, ones adapted to brackish (salty) conditions. Huh? Brent recommended capturing the “blowdown” of the cooling towers on the roof of the surgery wing as the water source. Blowdown is the somewhat salty condensate collected in the building’s HVAC system from the respiration and sweat of building occupants (!). Fortuitously, there happens to be more blowdown in the summer when plants need more water. Using plant species adapted to this water chemistry that also have high rates of evapotranspiration (water vapor from the transpiration of plants transferred to the atmosphere) produces a significant cooling effect for the interior spaces underneath the roof and results in a 30 percent reduction in cooling energy consumption (for free!). It is a great example of what can happen if water, in this case water considered to be “waste,” is introduced as a design protagonist.

Typically, an architect dreams up a green roof and then someone has to figure out where the water will come from. Brent does the opposite: what water sources are available (plenty in this instance, for a hospital is a “water hub”), what’s the chemical composition, etc.?

I live by the words “aesthetics” and “beauty,” and I am here to say that new avenues of compelling design expression open up when we allow water to enter in.

Brook Muller is the dean of the College of Arts and Architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Also a design practitioner, he has worked for Behnisch & Partners Architects in Stuttgart, among others, and has designed projects across the globe. He is the author of Ecology and the Architectural Imagination.