S.O.S.-Save Our Septic® Volume 19: Thirsty for Solutions
Synopsis: Developers can struggle to build homes that balance efficient water use with a comfortable way of life, especially in areas without much water.
Application: The BioBarrier® Membrane Bioreactor is a proven water reuse technology that treats both greywater and blackwater to a high enough quality for nonpotable household uses.
The light from James Birk’s trailer office was a solitary beacon in the night sky on the outskirts of Noblesse. It was past midnight but—just as he had done for too many nights in a row—he kept staring at the spreadsheets and projections on his computer screen and the printouts in front of him.
Scowling, he closed his laptop, turned out the lights, locked the door, and walked toward his truck parked near the locked gate at the entry to the development.
The buzz about the Oasis residential development began long before ground was ever broken. Much of the hype was due to the developer himself, James Birk, who’d acquired near cult status in the industry and was usually referred to as simply Birk. Regarded as a bit of a renegade among conventional builders, he had a reputation for being intense, inventive, and iconoclastic.
A Birk development wasn’t particularly ostentatious or showy. Birk maintained they were just sensible alternative living environments for today’s world, emphasizing efficient and sustainable construction. But because of their equally smart design and Birk’s unique ability to “give good interview,” they were often showcased in architectural magazines and on lifestyle cable channel programming.
His choice of Noblesse for his newest project wasn’t because it kept popping up on trending lists like “best places to retire,” “best views from your backyard,” “most livable places in the country,” and such, which Birk suspected might be inventions of the city’s publicity machine to counter the area’s water challenges.
As an area in water crisis, Noblesse was the real deal. This was precisely the reason Birk had chosen to build there. Birk wanted to prove to his detractors—and even to himself—that you could create affordable, comfortable and, especially, efficient living spaces even in areas severely tested by a capricious weather pattern and water supply.
Birk had reams of research on the area: weather data, water usage stats, groundwater maps. Most of the yearly rainfall occurred in five months of the year and most of that in significant rain events with much runoff and flash flooding. Birk knew his challenge was to build in ways for residents to reduce their day-to-day water usage enough to make a significant difference in their overall usage without compromising their quality of life, a tricky balance anywhere but especially in Noblesse.
He specified low-flow faucets and showerheads, and high-efficiency appliances for laundry and kitchen. He studied methods to reduce outdoor water use, consulting university horticulture services to assure that the landscaping utilized hardy indigenous plantings with deep root systems to thrive in the native (and evolving) climate. He explored emerging construction technologies as proactive and preemptive measures to counter the potential of water restrictions to slow housing startups.
His checklist of water-smart choices was abundant with proven technologies, but when he ran the numbers on projected usage for occupied homes, his brow furrowed. The bottom line, while better than most residential developments, was still not the benchmark he was hoping for Oasis. So he’d brought progress at Oasis to a near standstill, prompting industry tweets to conjecture: “Has Birk gone off the grid in Noblesse?”
“Time to bring in a ringer,” he said to himself. “And I think I know just where to find one.” He reached for his phone.
“Better water, better world! This is Aerobe, how may I help you?”
“Hi, Aerobe, James Birk here.”
“Birk! Good to hear from you. How are things going over at Oasis? You know, the whole industry is speculating what you’re going to unveil over there.”
“Yeah, no pressure,” he laughed. “Think you could do an on-site consult?”
“Sure, I’d love to see it. I hear you have that area secured tighter than a fortress.”
“We were getting overrun with onlookers and media. The fence was for everyone’s protection. I can meet you at the gate and let you in.”
“Birk,” Aerobe chided, “You know there’s not a fence I can’t fly over, but I’ll play by your rules and meet you at the gate.”
Birk was waiting as Aerobe arrived, a blue and silver flash reflecting the morning sun. He led her through the gate and toward his trailer office. He unfurled a roll of plans across the long beech wood table that served as his desk and said, “Here’s the big picture. It’s obviously a work in progress, but you’ll be able to get a sense of things.”
Aerobe studied the drawings, occasionally pointing to certain features and offering punctuating comments. “Dual flush … low flow … great! … xeriscaping irrigation … excellent! … HD screen windows …”
Birk watched her until he couldn’t contain himself. “Aerobe, what am I missing here?” he demanded.
She didn’t hesitate. “A water reuse system.”
“You mean, uh, what’s its name? Purplexus?” he asked. “I looked at that, but I just don’t think the technology is there yet.”
He added, in characteristic Birk fashion, “I mean, I don’t think the technology is up to my standards yet.”
He continued, “Don’t get me wrong. I think treating greywater on site and reusing it is an idea long overdue. But I’d want to be able to specify a certain size. I’d want a system with a track record of reliable performance in actual use, not a newcomer. Something simple to maintain. Most of all, I’d want a company that would stand behind its product now and in the future. You know, I’m on the hook if the system fails and the manufacturer can’t make things right. So it just didn’t seem like the Purplexus offered the—”
He stopped speaking when Aerobe stood up—actually, levitating was a better description of what she was doing—and held a brochure out to him. He read the heading: BioBarrier® Membrane BioReactors ONSITE BLACKWATER/GREYWATER WATER RECYCLING SYSTEMS.
“Birk! You simply weren’t looking at the right system. Our BioBarrier MBR has all those things you were looking for. It’s been around since 1996. BioBarrier MBR has a real world operating history with more than 1,500 installations in service. It’s offered in a full range of model sizes for residential use, even more for commercial. We completed our testing long before some of the newcomers started theirs! And for a full year after installation, we test for greywater AND blackwater, so we’re certified for both.”
Birk interrupted again, “Wait! Blackwater? Aerobe, I don’t think homeowners are quite ready to reuse toilet water.”
“Maybe not—yet,” she admitted. “But the point is, we test longer than the competition and subject our system to a much tougher test. That means our system isn’t going to bind or clog if something more than soapy water goes down the sink.”
“And the BioBarrier system even—,” Aerobe enthusiastically continued.
Birk groaned, “Next thing you’re going to tell me is that your system even …”
“…costs less!” Aerobe finished his sentence. “Let’s go to your model home and I’ll show you where the BioBarrier MBR could go.”
“Remember, it’s barely a frame-in now”
“So much the better!”
Birk and Aerobe spent several hours at the model site, with Aerobe sharing additional specs, advantages, and details about the BioBarrier MBR with Birk and his building foreman Javier Montoya. Before she left, she contacted the nearest BioBarrier dealer and arranged a meeting with Birk and Javier.
Again that night, Birk stayed up late running the numbers Aerobe had provided in his projection models. This time, however, the scowl became a slowly widening smile. “Now this is what I’m talking about!” he exclaimed to himself.
After Birk and Javier met with the BioBarrier dealer, they plugged the anticipated delivery date into their fast track schedule. Fueled by newfound optimism, work at Oasis accelerated. Aerobe did an occasional flyover to check the model home’s progress.
An invitation to the Oasis open house event became the most coveted ticket in the industry. Architectural and shelter media planned special supplements and online coverage. A few enterprising media sources stealthily sent camera drones over the site, snapping images that went viral almost immediately. As usual, Birk would not grant any individual interviews or public appearances until after this event. He was a master of the big reveal and he wanted Oasis to be his biggest ever.
The crowd outside Oasis had begun growing hours before the gate swung open. Media and industry reps snapped up prepared press packets and fact sheets as eagerly as they gobbled hors d’oeuvres. They pored over specs and cost projections for efficient systems throughout the home.
But the biggest logjam was around demo stations set up to demonstrate the home’s greywater was processed through the BioBarrier MBR installation. Aerobe, who had promised Birk she’d be at the open house, was explaining how the filtered greywater could be routed to the drip irrigation system on plantings around the house and other landscaping, or diverted for washing a desert-dusty vehicle, or even for toilet flushing. Birk suspected Aerobe was as much an attraction as the BioBarrier MBR itself. It was well after dark when the Oasis gates closed after the last guests departed.
The days following the open house were especially busy for Birk, with streams of congratulatory messages from the industry, a steady barrage of media requests for Birk’s appearance on talk shows. Even the mayor of Noblesse made an impromptu visit, bringing chilled champagne from a grateful chamber of commerce. And the Oasis sales office phones were never silent.
Birk had just left his trailer office early one morning, heading to his usually daily meeting with Javier and his crew at the rapidly expanding Phase 1 section of Oasis when a slight shadow passed over him. In a carefully calculated trajectory, a magazine fell precisely at Birk’s feet and opened to a colorful spread of photos from the open house.
Grinning, Birk stooped to pick it up, noticing that Aerobe’s business card was wedged in the spine where the book had fallen open. He glanced at his photo on the cover and the banner headline, Birk Reigns at Oasis, and saw that this was an advance copy of the industry’s leading publication. It wasn’t even available on newsstands yet, which Birk’s staff checked daily.
“How in the world did she get ahold of this so soon?” he wondered. He glanced up, but the sky was empty except for a few high wispy clouds.
As his cell phone resumed its incessant buzz, he rolled up the tabloid and stuck it in his back pocket. Reading would have to wait.