The Michigan Engineer News Center

Eliminating water bills: students develop a net -zero water home

In the West side of Ann Arbor there sits a 112-year-old Victorian home with an interesting feature – it consumes net-zero energy over the course of a year. A student group led by CEE doctoral student Devki Desai is ready to make the home even more sustainable by making it net-zero water as well.| Medium Read
EnlargeDevki Desai
IMAGE:  Devki Desai, Group Leader of the Living Building Challenge, a project of BLUElab, meets with other members to review their design in the GG Brown Building on March 20, 2013.

To become net-zero water, the team must create solutions for recycling greywater for cleaning or irrigation and find a way to capture and treat enough rainwater on site to supply the home with clean drinking water.

The group is the U-M Living Buildings Challenge Team; part of the BLUElab (Better Living Using Engineering Laboratory) student organization. The team formed in January 2013 after Matthew Grocoff, the home owner, and Dr. Steve Skerlos, BLUElab faculty advisor, approached BLUElab with the idea of making the net-zero energy home into a net-zero water home as well.

Desai was interested in getting involved because she is familiar with Living Buildings, which are buildings that can self-sustain within their site footprint. She learned about them during her undergraduate experience at Washington University in St. Louis, home to one of the first certified Living Buildings.  A Living Building must:

•    generate all of its own energy through clean, renewable resources;
•    capture and treat its own water through ecologically sound techniques;
•    incorporate only nontoxic, locally and equitably sourced materials; and
•    strengthen the integrity of the local ecosystem through careful site design

The International Living Building Institute certifies these buildings. With this understanding in mind, Desai thought the Living Buildings Challenge would be a good fit for the Grocoff home.  She pitched the project to the rest of BLUElab and sent a mass email to CEE students. Soon a team had formed of 13 students.

The project appeals to students who are systems level thinkers. Desai said the team members have a variety of skills – such as understanding soil properties, energy flows, fluid mechanics, ecology and historical preservation. They enjoy using an interdisciplinary approach to tackle the challenge.

Team member and fellow CEE doctoral student Emily Herbert was drawn to the project because of her love of preserving historic buildings. She became even more enthusiastic when she learned about the Living Buildings Challenge. She said an undergraduate CEE course on waste water and drinking water treatment has been vital in preparing her for this.

Derya Ayral, another CEE doctoral student, is leading the water quality and purification research for the team. She joined the team to apply the technical skills she learned from her environmental engineering courses towards a real life water treatment challenge. “I am really happy to be a part of living building project because it is very inspirational and provides a great opportunity to serve to the community,” Aryal said.

Herbert and Desai both plan to use what they’ve learned about concrete from Professor Victor Li to help with the challenge, perhaps by using pervious concrete on the driveway and sidewalk for sub-surface rainwater collection.

As they conclude the first semester of research and conceptual design on the rainwater harvesting and purification system, the team’s first priority is testing the runoff water from the roof, site and pavement so they can tailor the treatment system to the site. Other upcoming goals include prototyping runoff pre-treatment bioswales and a ceramic filter that could be used to treat greywater. The team plans to spend the next year creating test versions of their designs for proof of concept.

The Grocoff family has been a big help to the team, Desai said. The family manages to use an average of 64 gallons of water in-home a day, while the average U.S. three-person household uses 210 gallons, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency. Desai said it is inspiring to see a 112-year-old house function more efficiently than most new buildings.

If you would like to get involved, email

Devki Desai
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