Saturday, July 30, 2011

Purple pipes and the future of household water

Unfortunately, I don't have any purple pipes in my basement to photograph. Sorry.

We're either blessed or spoiled with all the drinkable, fresh water being so easily available in our houses.
Blessed because it's so important to our lives, and we really couldn't get by without it. Spoiled because the fresh water is so easily available, it's simple and easy to waste.
We use it for everything. Drinking and cooking certainly, but also watering the landscape, cleaning the house, washing and showering ourselves, not to mention the toilet water.
It's ridiculous that we poop into perfectly potable drinking water, but we've quit seeing it as odd thanks to the endless supply of fresh water.
At least it feels endless, but you wouldn't do it that way if you had to carry the water from somewhere. Water is really heavy, and if you had to bring six litres of water from the river a mile away every time you had to go number two, you'd come up with another system.
Using water efficiently in our houses could be automatic. All it takes is a little more plumbing and a little more thought on the front end.
Purple pipes are a part of the solution. They indicate reclaimed water, so that they won't accidentally be interconnected with the potable water system. For example, the water coming from the shower drain or from the washing machine is still pretty clean, and could easily be used in the landscape or to flush toilets without difficulty if houses were set up to make that possible.
Retrofitting existing houses for this sort of system would be difficult, but new houses could easily include this system, reducing the water requirements of the development.
Ensuring the development has adequate water is an important step in getting developments going, and this could allow additional development or reduce the water impact of developments that were already planned, so that more water can be left in the streams.
If you're building a home, build in a system to reclaim some of that water that could have a second life on your property. If you're a developer or a municipality, consider the purple pipe as a way of reducing the amount of treated potable water that the development will need. That will save you money down the road and help make sure there's enough drinking water for everybody.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011

Maintenance: Keeping your tools ready for action

Tools radically expand our capabilities and we're great at picking the right tool for the job. All too often we quietly neglect the step that allows us to continue using those tools: Maintenance.
The costs of maintenance are pretty easy to figure out. It takes time, effort, sometimes a trip to the mechanic, and all while the tool is still performing its job just fine.
If they find something wrong when you take your car or your teeth in for a checkup, it's usually an expensive, painful fix. One which you could have avoided in the short term by skipping the checkup.
It's a head in the sand approach to problem solving. Immature and ineffective. Like most things, ignoring the problem has consequences further down the road.
To care about maintenance, you need to care about the future. If you want to avoid breakdowns in the future, you need to maintain your car before it's broken.
If you sharpen your saw it will work better when you need to use it again, but sharpening the saw doesn't get wood cut. To bother, you need to think ahead to next time. An action now for a future benefit.
Another way to look at this is to consider the cost of maintenance now vs. the cost of maintenance later. Deferring maintenance means it will cost more to fix later, because things continue to degrade as time goes by.
If it's a choice of a small hit now or a big hit later, the small hit now is the more responsible choice, even though we're biased towards the here and now.
Some things, like skills and muscles, degrade not with use but with neglect. If you learned to speak French but never practice, the skill will have withered somewhat. A little maintenance, in the form of practicing, will help maintain it. The same goes for relationships. If you don't maintain them they'll disappear on you.
Whether it's your saw, your car, or your body, stick with the maintenance now, even if it's a little inconvenient. You'll be the one reaping the benefits down the road.
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Saturday, July 16, 2011

Conversation catalysts create community

When starting a conversation, it's much safer to talk about something else. Not you, not me, the third thing that's present, whatever that is. It's threatening to interact directly with someone in that context. Nobody wants to be on the spot. 
Can you believe these bugs? Nice car, how do you like it? Pretty hot out today eh?
Dogs and babies in particular grant you admission to the club where you can talk with people without having to talk about them, or about yourself. It allows conversations and relationships to develop in a non-threatening way.
The direct approach would put someone on the spot, but what's more likely is that the conversation would just never start. No catalyst, no conversation. This concept may explain golf's popularity. There's always something new and safe to talk about. Nice drive.
It's a little weird to be standing in the front yard talking to passers by. If instead you've got an obvious reason to be there, like a garden that's being tended or a garage sale, it's suddenly ok, and people are willing to chat.
If you're out and have a dog, a baby, or something obviously noteworthy with you, strangers can ask you about it safely. No conversation starter, no conversation, no real community.
The spontaneous connections are important to building community. Making the leap from stranger to acquaintance makes a difference to the neighbourhood and can help smooth over other problems if there's a bit of a relationship first.
For example, your neighbours would be less likely to complain about your dog barking if you'd built up the relationship with conversation and maybe shared some home grown tomatoes.
These conversations that build community are impossible behind the wheel, and far more likely in the dog parks, pathways, and play structures where people have an excuse to linger.
The structure of the city tends to confine us to our cars, so that many of these natural conversations are stopped before they ever start.
Being conscious about these accidental, even trivial conversations and their role in building the community is how you build and maintain that friendly small town feel.
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Saturday, July 9, 2011

The right tool for the job

Knives by SGT Blades.

If you're struggling, ask yourself if you're using the right tool for the job. If not, getting your hands on the right tool (even if it's expensive) is often the right move.
There's something almost magical about using the right tool for the job. This talent for tools makes us human.
Throughout history, if the tools didn't work or if they caused more problems than they solved, then they were discarded. The useful tools helped define cultures, which emerge as a way of life in a place.
Containers, fire and cutting edges are the major primitive tools. When combined with a culture and a supportive environment these tools can build a rich civilization.
Tools radically expand our capabilities. From hammers to banjos to smartphones, each allows us to do something that we would otherwise be incapable of.
But you can't build a house with a banjo. You need the right tool for the job.
And some tools are better than others. To get in touch with someone, do you send a letter, email, text, tweet, or call on the phone? Or… do you talk in person, just like in the olden days?
Normally, this would be the time for a rant about how we've mostly forgotten how to make tools. That ship has mostly sailed. Thanks to civilization, the tools we use today are pretty complicated. We can't do it alone anymore.
Take for example the story of Thomas Thwaites, an artist who took it upon himself to make a toaster from scratch, trying to copy the cheapest toaster he could find. The video is on TED.
His story throws into perspective the price, complexity and performance of the tools you can get for less than an hour's work at minimum wage, especially compared to what it would take to build it yourself.
There are all sorts of problems and all sorts of tools. The right tool will make your job so much easier. The skill these days is picking the right tool for the job.
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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Too much space and the pyramid scheme of sprawl

Near Piramide Metro station in Rome.

An abundance of space would seem to be an advantage. It could be, if we had the self-control to use it properly, but we don't.
We've found ourselves on a treadmill of growth. Developers built some infrastructure, in order to sell some homes.
'Great, free roads' says the municipality. Then eventually the infrastructure needs maintenance, which the city is responsible for. Unfortunately, the tax base to pay for the repairs can't (ever) cover the cost of maintaining these all investments.
Municipalities get this money by continuing to grow. Development expands the tax base so that the municipality can pay for current maintenance. There's lots going on, though, so it doesn't seem this clear while it's happening.
It's almost impossible, politically, to resist this sort of immediate boost to revenues, especially if the treadmill's going faster and faster. However, it comes along with a time bomb: all the new development will also need to be maintained. It's the same problem as the first time, but multiplied. So you do it again. 
Pyramid schemes work really well for people at the top, but defraud people at the bottom. As the global debt crisis continues to spiral out of control, we're finding out where the bottom is.
Having lots of space entices us to squander the investment in our cities that could have gone to development instead of growth. Building at the edges is easy and cheap, but being a great city is sometimes at odds with being cheap and easy.
Smart municipalities focus their development efforts on revitalizing their core rather than continuing to squander civic vitality building at the edges.
Short election cycles make this a tough sell though, because the payoffs of sprawling development are quick, but the 25 year maintenance costs are too far away to impact current decisions.
In cities that are spatially constrained you see the vitality, the walkability, and the density that makes great cities. They also stand a better chance at financial solvency because they have a tax base supporting less infrastructure than they would have if they'd built at the edges.
We can do better, but only if we're willing to escape from the pyramid scheme of continuing suburban sprawl. It won't be easy, but it's that or get crushed by the pyramid.
We need better cities, that's clear. Increasing densities is part of that. We've got the space. What we need to develop is the self control to leave that space alone.
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