Robert Adair, Steering Committee Chair, Houston Land/Water Sustainability Forum

Often thought of as an example of urban sprawl, Houston now is seen by many at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a model for moving rapidly toward sustainable development.

“[Houston] just implemented an amazing, consciousness-raising process that has at least hundreds of developers, civil engineers, architects, landscape architects … thinking differently about stormwater,” said Dov Weitman, chief of EPA’s Nonpoint Source Control Division. “And the way they did it seems to me to be replicable in cities across the country.”

Houston started its journey toward low-impact development (LID) from the same place that most communities do. Many within the engineering community thought sustainable development would never work in Houston because the city’s soil composition, topography, and rainfall patterns differ from typical LID sites. More to the point, LID’s decentralized, microscale controls, and extended time of concentration methodology meant embracing a 180-degree shift from the city’s current drainage model.

However, a visionary group — the Houston Land/Water Sustainability Forum (HLWSF) — took charge and promoted the cause. The group’s consensus was that LID could be adapted for Houston and there were overwhelming reasons to do so.

The HLWSF Steering Committee represents local organizations with both a vested interest in Houston’s development and the combined expertise to make the call on LID. For almost 2 years, the HLWSF offered educational programming aimed at local design, construction, and regulatory communities. This was not, however, enough to convince communities to try sustainable rather than standard designs and projects, especially during a recession. Engineers meeting with prospective clients were unlikely to propose innovative projects they had never done themselves.

Therefore, the HLWSF conceived the LID Design Competition to match developers with projects that had actual site data, and connected developers with owners interested in LID. Integrated design teams were required to submit runoff curves below predevelopment levels for 5-, 10-, and 100-year storms, and cost comparisons between the team’s LID design and a traditional design. Some of Houston’s most conservative engineering firms participated in the competition.

Without significant local stormwater quality regulatory drivers in place, LID in Houston would be implemented only if it performed well economically. In fact, that is exactly what happened. Results reached by the 22 competing teams consistently showed that LID is not only environmentally sustainable, but also more marketable, more valuable, and less expensive to construct.

In the year and a half since the competition, the number of LID-based projects in Houston has grown exponentially. There were hurdles along the way — working around existing codes presented obstacles to permitting, for example, and there were construction and maintenance questions. Yet, the development culture in Houston is changing, and much as the city has provided leadership in LEED Green Building, it is poised to lead the nation into the new stormwater and sustainable development paradigm.

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