Pushed by the cost of stormwater management mandates and pulled by environmental responsibility, two Blacksburg developments have adopted “rainwater reuse.”
Far from impeding innovation, town stormwater engineers are embracing this new system and Blacksburg may be witnessing a new wave of water management.
Main & Henry Extended Stay (1309 N Main St.) is three stories of modernity from its podium parking to its red and green Mondrian color design— which are hip among N. Main’s auto repair shops and dowdy mid-century ranches.
And Main & Henry isn’t just style, it’s substance, too since its flat roof, chunky white downspouts, garages and native grass landscaping are all part of a rainwater reuse system that may be changing the way the town of Blacksburg chooses to develop.
As towns like Blacksburg grow, they pave and roof over forest and fields that naturally absorb and slow rain water. Communities struggle to manage run-off that pours off roofs and parking lots flooding property, damaging streams and rivers.
To protect water quality, towns require new buildings and renovations to install expensive retention ponds and tanks to mimic the natural systems that are lost under pavement and roofs, but taxpayers, small businesses and investors complain about the expense.
Standing in the Main & Henry parking lot above a depression filled with grapefruit-sized rocks and ornamental grasses, local developer Mike Beck recalls struggling with the stormwater management decisions and costs the builders faced two years ago.
“This is all required now,” he said of the rocky basin, “but this system would have had to have been twice the size if we didn’t catch the water off the roof,” Beck said.
Even though the parking lot is not large, the engineered basin that catches water from it was expensive he said.
“It has special media in it, liners, the big tank. It’s all very expensive. If one can reduce its size by catching the rainwater, that’s an immediate savings because you pay by the square foot.”
The builders had few choices to cut down the size of the building’s impervious footprint beyond building a taller or just a smaller building Beck said.
“There was nothing really satisfactory. Then somebody said, ‘Why don’t we just catch the water coming off the roof?’” he said.
Working with a Salem-based company, Beck’s group installed a plug-and-play kit system that catches rain from the roof for use in the building’s 22 toilets and 6 washing machines, piping it into tanks tucked in the back of the garage beneath the building.
Rainwater reuse at Main & Henry was the first place this innovation was used in Blacksburg.
“The Salem company works on projects all over the country, but nobody knew about them in town,” Beck said.
Unlike traditional stormwater management that treats the significant increase in runoff from a building by slowing or filtering the runoff, rainwater reuse takes the increase of water and just removes it from the system entirely.
“In many cases, there is no runoff at all,” said Beck, pointing up at the building’s flat roof. “This is truly a win-win situation for the developer and for the community.”
Conventional stormwater regulation is built on complex considerations of engineering, hydrology, environmental and public health and stormwater catchment regulations are real advancements in how municipalities try to reduce damage from impervious development.
But, while regulation is often thought to be the bung in the barrel of innovation, both town and the state level engineers see the win-win too.
“Adoption of rainwater reuse requires a little bit of a culture shift and additional training for engineering professionals and local reviewers.” Kafi Howard, Blacksburg’s stormwater engineer said. “I had to take some time just to educate myself to be able to effectively review these submittals. The developer, in this case, was very flexible and met with us early-on regarding his design intentions and allowed us to have plenty of time to familiarize ourselves with his project.”
Howard, who reviews and oversees all the stormwater management plans for the town says that, while the technology for rainwater reuse has been around for a while, it takes a little more upfront planning and coordination with the site drainage and the internal plumbing of the buildings.
And, walking around the building among its patios and landscaping, modifications are hardly noticeable. Its gabled roofs are metal rather than asphalt singles, rain runs off its flat roof into the chunky downspouts into tanks in the podium parking garages under the building.
Beck is standing among native grasses pointing at one of several downspouts coming off the gently canted roof disappearing a larger pipe.
“Roofs are already sloped. Main & Henry was just sloped slightly toward the back, so we have all the downspouts and installed the gutters to feed to a central pipe. Not really rocket science,” Beck said. “We have 5000 square feet of roof area. The parking lot water doesn’t go into the tanks – that’s all handled by traditional stormwater catchment systems.”
Following that pipe to a closet tucked in the back of the garage, Beck unscrews the top of one of two 500-gallon plastic tanks reservoirs that serve the building’s 22 toilets and 13 washers.
After several rainy days, the tank were full of very clear water.
“The filtration system is patented out of Germany and very low-maintenance and comes as a kit.”
He explains how the rainwater from the roof swirls down the pipe, dropping any leaf or gravel filtering through a fine-mesh screen. While he talks, the sump-like pump kicks on.
A valve can switch the water between rainwater and town water. Water pressure is not lost.
Early-adopters of innovations often pay a premium, but the installation of rainwater reuse at Main & Henry was significantly cheaper than traditional stormwater management measures. Because the greater portion of Blacksburg’s water fees are based on how much the town buys from the water authority, removing water – and fees – from the larger system does not hurt town and may not cause concern to the water authority either.
“People will always need water for cooking and drinking,” town engineer Howard said.
Rainwater reuse, a ‘win-win’ for developers and town, seems to be seeping in. Beck and his development group plan to implement another rainwater reuse system in renovations of the Hearthstone Apartments (120 Hearthstone Drive, Blacksburg) scheduled to begin this year.
Reviewing the rezoning proposal, the town engineers are supportive.
“I personally get really excited with developments that use these types of rainwater reuse systems in their designs,” town stormwater engineer Howard said. “They support our belief that there are many ways to tackle a problem. They also take responsibility for their environmental impacts immediately, instead of treating it somewhere else downstream.”
John Neel, president of Blacksburg engineering firm, Gay and Neel, who is working on the Hearthstone project is excited too.
“Tremendously creative way to mitigate the large stormwater cost developers are seeing. We’re excited. It’s an opportunity to implement these creative solutions,” Neel said.
Beck hopes it catches on.
“It makes sense for the town and town residents to do this,” Beck said. “Let’s say three-quarters of all new development were to have a rainwater catchment like this. The town does not have to worry about expanding its rainwater system. Because any new run off created by new impervious surfaces would be taken up.”
The Hearthstone Apartments renovation is planned to be run-off neutral.