Professional Practice

Sustainable Residential Design: Improving Water Efficiency

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ASLA 2013 Professional Residential Design Honor Award. Catalina Foothills / D. A. Horchner / Design Workshop, Inc.

Due to reoccurring drought conditions worldwide, using potable (drinkable) water for landscapes is increasingly unviable. Homeowners often wastefully irrigate their lawns with water than should be reserved for human consumption. According to the Sustainable Sites Initiative, irrigation of unsustainable residential landscapes accounts for more than a third of residential water use—more than seven billion gallons of potable water per day in the U.S.

Sustainable residential landscape architecture—if part of a broader "integrated site design," a comprehensive approach to sustainable building and site design—can dramatically reduce water usage over the long term while creating a healthy residential environment.

Integrated site design is a framework for increasing the quality of the built environment, and involves maximizing existing natural systems to minimize water use. These types of designs leverage the many benefits of natural systems, thereby significantly cutting down the need for centrally distributed water. Decreased water usage also means homes are more resilient to shifts in the availability of water and climate change.

Homeowners can promote the infiltration, storing and recycling of water, and limit the use of valuable potable water for landscapes. Bioswales / bioretention ponds, rainwater gardens, and local sustainable water recycling and drip irrigation systems can all be used to efficiently conserve water. Homeowners can use these systems to recycle and reuse greywater (and even blackwater) for landscape maintenance, car washing, and toilet flushing.

Homes that include natural stormwater management technologies, such as a bioswales or bio-retention ponds, which infiltrate and remove pollutants, not only better manage stormwater runoff, but also reduce the massive energy costs associated with running complex stormwater management systems. Water utilities' centralized stormwater management infrastructure are heavy users of energy in local areas.

Local governments are also partnering with non-profit organizations to increase public awareness about using sustainable residential design practices for improving water efficiency.

Bioswales and Bioretention Ponds
Rain Gardens
Rain Water Harvesting
Water Recycling
Drip Irrigation


American Water Works Association

Clean Water Network

Renewable Natural Resources Foundation

Sustainable Sites Initiative


Water Conserve

Water Infrastructure Network

Water Resources, Natural Resources Defense Council


"Cities of the Future: Towards Integrated Sustainable Water and Landscape Management," Vladimir Novotny and Paul Brown (editors), IWA Publishing, 2007

"Water Consciousness," Tara Lohan, Alternet books, 2008

"When the Rivers Run Dry: Water: The Defining Crisis of the 21st Century," Beacon Press, 2007

"Handook of Water Use and Conservation: Homes, Landscapes, Industries, Businesses, Farm," Amy Vickers, WaterPlow Press, 2001

Government Resources

Cases in Water Conservation, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Landscape Watering by the Numbers, City of Phoenix, Arizona

Sustainable Infrastructure for Water & Wastewater, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Water Conservation, City of Vancouver

Water Efficiency, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, U.S. Department of Energy
Water Resources Plan, City of Phoenix, Arizona

WaterSense, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Ways to Save Water, New York Department of Environmental Protection


Victoria Garden Mews
Santa Barbara, CA

Woody Creek Garden, Pitkin County, Colorado
Design Workshop, Inc., Aspen, Colorado


If you know of useful resources we've missed, please send your recommendations to:


Carolyn Mitchell

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