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North Hills Monthly

Conserving Water with Showers

Feb 28, 2018 05:06PM ● By Matthew Schlueb

Now that my two sons are teenagers, like most kids their age they have made the switch from baths to showers. Since a typical-sized bathtub holds about 100 gallons of water when filled and the maximum flow rate for a showerhead permitted by code is two and a half gallons per minute, in theory, taking a shower conserves water by up to 75 percent. However, when it comes to teenagers, all bets are off.

That fact, combined with multiple people in a household showering in succession on a weekday morning, means that it becomes a huge advantage to have an endless supply of hot water from a tankless water heater like the one we installed when our house was built. Some may say this is enabling teenagers to take long showers, doing nothing to encourage water conservation. This may be true, but is it water we are trying to conserve or are we really trying to conserve the energy it takes to purify and heat the water? 

If the purification and heating could be done naturally, wouldn't water conservation be a nonissue in places like southwestern Pennsylvania, where we have water in abundance? This is the thinking behind showers supplied by solar water heaters and rooftop collection. 

The showerhead in my own house is made by a German plumbing manufacturer with a propensity for engineering a design to the point of absolute simplicity. Elegance is achieved in the puzzling of parts to overcome obstacles otherwise satisfied by other manufacturers with multiple redundancies of fittings and fasteners.

For example, the fixture in our shower has an exposed riser pipe that fits into a horizontal showerhead pipe without a threaded connection. Rather, the mere weight of the showerhead cantilevered out from the connection holds the horizontal pipe down onto the riser, resisting the force of water pressure flowing through. Pure brilliance—no threads to machine or strip. Poetic simplicity in the belief that fewer parts means fewer things to go wrong.

When I was a graduate student, my materials and methods instructor would have our class recite a daily mantra of three things necessary in any structure exposed to the natural elements: weep holes, thermal breaks and expansion joints. As an architect, an omission of any one of these in the design of a building would most certainly contribute to premature deterioration and more importantly, and be the source of architectural failures and potential liabilities. Needless to say, we paid close attention to detailing these things into every design.

After two decades of practice, I have come to realize the common thread in these three things is water. For a showering teenager, the primary concern about water may be that it is hot and endless, but for an architect, I look at every house through the perspective of water. Whether it is the freeze/thaw cycle breaking down materials that have absorbed and trapped moisture or as a vapor transmitting heat loss through an exterior envelope, water is the single biggest factor to manage because it can impact a building in so many ways.

Ever since we moved indoors as a species removing ourselves from the natural world, we have taken shelter from the rain. Water was something to be kept out, brought in only when we wanted, contained in tanks, pipes and fixtures. Faucets do more constricting than flow. The history of architecture has been a progression of tighter and tighter enclosures, sealing off infiltration, deserted.

Vegetation in the wild, on the other hand, speaks to the clouds when thirsty. Nurturing water saturates the soil, freeing nutrients and minerals to be absorbed by roots, drawn up stems, photosynthesized by leaves in balance with sunlight and air. What if our homes gathered and filtered water like this? Imagine the simplicity of such a method—no roofs to patch, no pipes to keep clean, only the flow of pure water as natural as a stream.

Would we pollute our waterways less if our homes understood their cycles? Would we waste less if we felt the life water sustains? 

I suppose these are the things my clients are thinking about when they ask for an outdoor shower in the house I am designing for them. A shower for them offers sensations as if caught in a rejuvenating rain shower. Just don't expect to find my teenage sons using an outdoor shower. Then again, forcing them to do so would likely reduce water consumption.

Matthew Schlueb is a registered architect and owner of SCHLUEBarchitecture. For questions or comments, contact Matthew at nhm@finalmove.com. This article is part of an ongoing series addressing architectural issues for homeowners.