All things environmental

Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

The BSU building in Wilhelmsburg

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One of the buildings I wanted to visit soon after Dinah and I had settled in Hamburg was the new BSU (Ministry of the Environment) building in Wilhelmsburg.  It’s the highest building in the neighbourhood.  Dinah came along, though she had her doubts: how interesting could a government building possibly be?

I didn’t need to worry.  The big and colourful building has a large open foyer that held a huge scale model of the whole city.  We had fun locating the large courtyard of Stephan and Anya’s apartment in the Ottensen neighbourhood.  And weren’t alone; there was a small crowd going about, gawking at the model, like us.

The fact that there were so many people is one aspect of a new policy of openness.  The main foyer, the library, even the employee cafeteria, are all open to the public.

There were also many brochures and booklets about environmental initiatives, another expression of outreach.  But it was the building itself that interested me.

It’s a long, snaky, colourful building designed by Sauerbruch Hutton from Berlin.  It was built as part of the Hamburg 2013 IBA (the international building show, where various architects compete to produce original buildings). The main part of the building is five-story tall, with one thirteen floor tower.  The building allows for natural ventilation, and is designed to maximize natural light.  But it’s also energy efficient; thanks to excellent insulation and triple-glazed windows, its annual consumption is only 70 kWh/m2, or about four times less than the usual amount.  And sure enough, despite the crowds, the air had this fresh feel that I have come to recognize in energy-efficient, well ventilated buildings.

Kristian, the PhD student who guided us through the building

I was wondering how could I find more information about the building when Dinah came back with a security guard who said that there is a student working in the building who could give us a tour.  Wow.

We were introduced to Kristian, a PhD student tasked with monitoring the energetic performance of the building.  He took first to the roof of the tower.

What a view!  We could take in all of the IBA site around the building.  It seemed every IBA building had solar collectors, or a green roof, or both.  The BSU building itself has a green roof, with an interesting mix of species; this includes flowering plants, as there is a plan to bring hives.  Beyond the IBA, we could take in a complete panorama: the old apartments of the residential area of Wilhelmsburg (with the unique Energiebunker among them), the harbour, the copper mill, the Moorburg coal plant, and the sea of white tents of the refugee camp (long since gone to better digs).

The view from the BSU roof, with IBA buildings below

We were then taken to the bowels of the building, where Kristian shares his office with another student, Peter.  There, in the labyrinth of pipes, tanks and cables, is the reason for the energy efficiency of the building: a vast geothermal network.  Over a thousand wells have been dug below the building down to about 18 metres.  One of the unique features of the system is that these wells serve both as a geothermal energy system and a structural support system: each well receives a rim of rebars and a twin, U-shaped set of ascending and descending 3 cm diameter pipes.  Once that has been pushed down to the appropriate depth, the well is filled with structural concrete.  Through the pipes circulates a heat exchange fluid that either stores or extracts heat from the ground, connected to heat pumps, for both heating and cooling needs.

This is a very large system, even if the building itself is big; that’s because it is coupled with the new district heating system.  Aside from the heat pumps, the basement holds a cogen power plant fed by biogas from the city’s wastewater treatment plant, capable of producing 500 kW of electricity, along with 700 kW of heat, a 20 cubic meter tank for buffer storage hot water, and two 1.5MW gas boilers for peak heat demand.

Peter, Kristian’s colleague, at his desk, monitoring the building’s performance.

This is part of the so-called “integrated energy system”; it is only one of several buildings that can also produce heat and/or electricity.  Demand and production varies between the different building, making energy savings possible by optimising production between buildings.  For instance, if a partner generator is producing a large amount of solar heat, more than it itself needs at the moment, the excess heat can be piped into the network, and the cogen plant reduces its output.  The other generators integrated into the network are the BIQ house (otherwise known as the algae house, it is the only building in the world with a bioreactor façade), the Smart-is-Green building (which uses a phase change material to store energy from its large solar thermal array), and the Water Houses (with another large solar thermal array).  Beyond this, but not part of the integrated control system, are the windmills of the Energieberg, and the large generating capacity of the Energiebunker, all developed as part of the IBA.

Part of the Water House with BSU in the background

Part of what makes this integration possible is a high degree of instrumentation.  Embedded in several of the pipes are fiber-optic real-time temperature sensors that constantly monitor the performance of the underground system.  Kristian and Peter explained their research: they analyze all the data from the system to see whether it is indeed as efficient as the designers aimed for, whether there are trends that show that the performance may be diminishing with age (they plan to keep at it for another two years), and whether there are more energy gains that could be realized.

Flowers on the BSU green roof

This research is maybe what impressed me the most about the whole building.  It’s one thing to have fancy designs that result in fancy buildings.  That, we do a lot.  But it’s another level altogether to constantly monitor and check whether the system is actually working like it is meant to.  And it’s yet another thing to have a policy of openness and transparency.  I hope this gets copied widely.

We thanked Kristian and Peter, and went on to find some German pastries.  That’s my kind of tourism.


Written by enviropaul

January 15, 2018 at 11:15 am

Kronsberg – a model neighborhood in Germany

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Kronsberg from the air: it’s the rectangle in the centre, right of the tram tracks

Hannover, the old centre

When Dinah and I were in Germany for a few months, one of the first places we stopped at was Hanover.  The capital of the state of Lower Saxony, it’s the ancestral home of the British royals, and of such notables as Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, inventor of the calculus.  It’s a smallish city of half a million, with a pretty historic centre.  But history wasn’t the main attraction for me; I wanted to visit a neighborhood called Kronsberg.

Kronsberg was developed along sustainable principles for EXPO2000, hosted in Hanover.  I was curious to see what it looked like, and whether, fifteen years later, it had lived up to its lofty environmental and social goals – including affordable, energy efficient housing.

Kronsberg may be a bit unusual in being located on the very edge of the city, nine kilometers from the centre.  Usually, such planned developments are on old industrial sites such as HafenCity in Hamburg.  Dinah and I took the tramway from downtown got off at the very last station (you could see farm land at a distance).

On the tram

I love tramways – such a relaxing way to travel and see a city.  In Germany, dogs are allowed on tramways (great for people who want to take their dogs for long walks on the outskirts without needing a car), and there is something congenial and inviting about seeing a dog wag a tail inside a tram car.  The tramway dropped us in front of a gelato shop, so we indulged (yes, I could get used to this).

Among the customers was a lady getting a gelato for her little boy.  She spoke to him in a thick British accent.  We struck a conversation; yes, she does live in one of these apartment blocks.  They are recent arrivals from London; her husband had been promised a spot on a football team, but that fell through.  She managed to find work at a call centre, one of the few options for someone with poor German. She mentioned that the relatively low rent is one of the attractions of the neighborhood.  I mentioned that the buildings are supposed to be energy-efficient; she agreed (it makes for low monthly bills), but snickered a bit when she mentioned that renting families are given a whole sheaf of instructions (how to set up the thermostat, when to open the windows, put down the blinds, etc.).  She didn’t explicitly say it, but her smile seemed to say “Germans!  They have rules for everything!”  She said they were very happy living there; it’s convenient, quiet, and safe – including from traffic when her son plays outside.

A street in Kronsberg

We went around for a walk, discovering the neighborhood.  Lots of green space, and some green space where you don’t expect it: on the roofs.  Turns out that some of the row-houses are all built above the required energy efficiency standard for the development: they are all PassivHaus, with a green roof to boot.  This was rather daring back in the 90s; but it’s thanks to these pilot projects that such standards are now commonplace.  The green roofs – grass on sloping roof – not so much, but they’re fun.

We saw kids playing in an un-mowed, tall grass common.  This is often a big no-no in our cities (egad, this is where perverts and coyotes lurk!) but it reminded me of my own childhood, playing in the neighborhood “bush”, the vacant land by the railroad tracks.  Sure enough, these kids seemed pretty happy – and safe.

We walked around into what looked like a fancier part of the neighborhood, a row of neat two-story houses, with small yards.  Between the sidewalk and the street was a shallow ditch, with little concrete weirs at regular intervals.  Everything looked very tidy.  It was pretty quiet (this was the middle of a work day) but we did meet somebody puttering in front of a house.

It was a middle-aged man doing a bit of landscaping.  Yes, he lived there, this was his house.  He said that the houses and townhouses here were pretty much all resident owned; the low-rise apartment blocks, next street, rented.  He said that there was an interesting mix of people in the neighborhood, including many immigrants, but everybody gets along; it wasn’t an issue.  I asked about the drainage ditches in front of the house, are they a problem?  He said not at all; the city looks after the ditches and the other drainage features, and they do a good job of maintenance.

A Mulden-Rigolen runoff control swale

Those ditches, I learned later, are part of a system called Rigolen-Mulden.  They are quite shallow, and catch whatever runoff the streets produce.  The water ponds behind the little weirs during a rainstorm; the depth is shallow, but with so many weirs, there is considerable storage.  Any excess goes into the storm drain, but most of it does infiltrate to the groundwater; indeed, below every ditch (or swale, to use the right term) is a layer of crushed stone that provides room for storm water.  The proof is the pudding: a study showed that there is barely any more runoff now than before development (only about 3% of the rain ends up in the storm drains – an ordinary development usually generates ten times more).

One also notices an absence of graffiti.  On its website, the city boasts of great social integration in Kronsberg, of a “broad social mix for the district”.  They may be on to something, indeed.  This is a place where a third of the residents are immigrants, a quarter are teenagers or kids.  One tenth of the housing stock is social housing, and half of the rents are subsidized.  Maybe this is what is needed.

When Kronsberg was planned, the city had a unique advantage: it owned the land.  It was in position to impose strict demands on the private developers; they had to ensure that all the buildings were energy efficient (a maximum of 50 kWh/m2 for heating).  This was meticulously measured after completion, and developers knew they were going to be fined if they didn’t meet the targets.  As a result, the buildings are actually under the target.

What didn’t work was the planned reduction in electricity consumption.  The plan was to provide generous grants for energy efficient appliances and fixtures; but residents generally didn’t take advantage of these (most preferred to move their old ones rather than shell out for new ones).  The actual electricity use reduction (6%) fell far short of the ambitious 30% reduction target.

There were also some special projects piloted in Kronsberg.  One of these is a thermal energy seasonal storage system: a large cistern stores water solar heated during the summer, uses it during the cold season.  This provides 40% of the heating needs of 104 apartments, similar to another development in Hamburg that I described earlier; the key difference is that Hamburg’s uses hot air instead of hot water, but the performance is similar (and the energy storage takes room, making it more appropriate for a suburban environment).

The green-roofed PassivHaus rowhouses

There was also a series of 32 PassivHaus rowhouses.  PassivHaus standards (a maximum of 15 kWh/m2 for heating) were fairly new at the time, and combining them with green roofs was considered daring.  But it has withstood the test of time nicely, which is all the more remarkable since these apartments are all subsidized rentals.

Another way to tell that the project was successful: it was copied.  Hanover has launched another neighborhood development, called the Zero:e park, built roughly along the same lines.  Like Kronsberg, it is also built on former farmland (26 hectares) at the edge of the city, row houses and detached houses, all built according to zero-carbon guidelines, optimized for solar energy capture.  There is even a supermarket (a REWE) built to PassivHaus standards, using the waste heat from its food refrigerators to heat the building, a first.  This would not have happened if Kronsberg hadn’t showed the way.

Meanwhile, Kronsberg made me rethink my opinion of suburbia.  Yes, I still hate car-dependent sprawl.  And building on farm land is not appropriate everywhere.  But the combination of rail-based commuting, energy efficiency, and affordability is pretty hard not to like.

In my journal notes from two years ago, I wrote “all shopping amenities are near tram stops, and we thought that this style of living in the burbs was definitely great (imagine transporting this to Surrey!).”  Yes, indeed.  Imagine!


By the numbers:

3200 units on 70 ha (ultimate number 6000), 45 units/ha

Green space 64%, open water 2%, 0.8 parking spot per unit

Three tramway stops (maximum walking 600 m), ratio of jobs per unit: 67% within 0.8 km radius  

Energy supply: 2 CHP plants, 2 MW thermal and 1.5 MW electric together

Peak heating load provided by gas boilers 11.6 MW

Seasonal solar storage: 1350 m2 flat plate hot water, 2750 m3 storage cistern, 40% of heating needs for 104 apartments

Three wind turbines: 0.28, 1.5, & 1.8 MW; with 45 kW photovoltaic, 72% of electricity supply

60% reduction in CO2 emissions

Mulden-Rigolen system: 11 km of swales, on every street.  Design objective: 3 liter/sec per ha max.   Water balance: 3% runoff, 50% infiltration, 47% evaporation.  Pre-development: 2% runoff, 45% infiltration, 53% evap.  (Conventional: 29% runoff, 25% infiltration, 46% evap) 

Much of that information is from Fraker, Harrison 2013. The hidden potential of sustainable neighbourhoods: lessons from low-carbon communities. Washington: Island Press. (An excellent book, where Vauban in Freiburg, B001 in Malmo, and Hammarby-Sjostad in Stockholm are also described and compared.)


Written by enviropaul

January 3, 2018 at 4:37 pm

The war by cars

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It’s Christmas markets time again!  All over Germany, people are sipping hot mulled wine and munching on lebkuchen (and not just Germany; there’s even one here in Vancouver).

The city of Bochum, in the Ruhr area of Germany, made the news with its new decorations for its Christmas market: giant bags wrapped like presents all around the market.

Each of these bags, which contain one tonne of pellets, have been placed there for security reasons.  They are temporary bollards, obstacles to prevent cars or trucks from driving into the crowded market area.  Nobody complains; the truck attack on the Berlin Christmas market last year, which killed twelve people, is very much on everyone’s mind.

Whenever a city takes measures to control traffic, lays down bike paths, or creates pedestrian zones, there is always an outcry about some sort of “war on cars”.  It may be salutary to remember that, for many unfortunate people, the opposite is true: a war by cars.

Just this year, terrorists or deranged people (or both) used cars or trucks to crash into people in Jerusalem (4 killed, 10 wounded on January 7), London (4 dead, at least 50 injured, March 22), Stockholm (5 dead, 14 injured on April 7), London again (twice; 8 dead, 48 injured on June 3; 1 dead, 9 injured on June 19), Levallois-Perret (France; august 9, 6 injured), Charlottesville (1 dead and 19 injured on Aug 12), Barcelona and nearby Cambris (two attacks on August 17, leaving 14 dead and 125 injured), New York (October 31).  This, of course, on the heels last year’s Berlin Christmas market attack (12 dead, 46 injured, on December 19), the 11 people wounded on November 28 in Columbus Ohio, and possibly the very worse, the attack in Nice on the Bastille day revelers (86 dead, over 300 wounded, on July 14).

Canada is not immune: on October 1 of this year, a man plowed into pedestrians in Edmonton in a rented van, injuring five, while a car attack in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu in Quebec left one dead and one wounded on October 20, 2014.

And that, of course, is only one way in which cars have been used as instruments of mass murder.  Car bombs (common enough that an acronym, VBIED, has been coined) have been used most recently in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria; before then, Northern Ireland, Vietnam, Algeria, the United States…the list is long.  Mike Davis reviewed the history of the car bomb in Buda’s Wagon.

Then again, cars are dangerous, criminal intent or not.  Last year over 37,000 people died in car crashes in the US alone; that’s more than 100 people killed every day on average.  The total, since the US has kept statistics, is over 3.6 million killed, with an even larger number of injured people.  In Canada there are between 2800 to 2900 people killed by cars every year; worldwide, there was over one and a quarter million fatalities in 2015.

We call those “accidents” – and true enough, the great majority of those fatalities are not the result of criminal intent.  But it remains that cars are dangerous, and that cars and crowds shouldn’t mix.  Drivers may talk about war on cars, but the situation could be better described as war by cars.

That’s why I like what Bochum has done: portable bollards, bean bags wrapped as Christmas presents.  Bollards matter, and if they look festive, so much the better.  They delineate a space with a message that says: here, don’t worry, you can relax.  It’s your space.  Walk around, take your time.

Even better if they are permanent – and attractive.  Bollards can be planters, statues, dolmens, water hydrants, bike racks, lampposts, places to sit – whatever.  I’ll even put up with ugly concrete blocks.  But let’s reclaim our space.


Written by enviropaul

December 15, 2017 at 3:33 pm

About Site C…

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A map of the Site C project, with the existing Williston Reservoir to the west.

Les bras m’en tombent.  Meaning, my arms fell off as a result.  That’s what one says when the news are so bad that you don’t know how to react, or have lost the ability to react.  And, well, that was my initial reaction.

So, don’t expect any in-depth analysis.  But I’ve compiled a set of reactions from others, for your reading pleasure.  I won’t even embed the links, that’s how deflated I feel.

The Tyee does a nice job summarizing the situation, at

Sierra Club of BC, David Suzuki Foundation, CPAWS, BC Wildlife all chimed in (see below, at the end of the post), all united in disapproval.  Sierra Club also started a letter writing campaign, here at

Predictably, there is backlash among NDP supporters (see ) and as predictably, First Nations are expected to challenge the decision in court, which will likely add delays and cost (and who knows, may actually win.  See

Andrew Weaver of the Green Party talks about a disheartening decision

Judith Sayers talks about deep anger, deep disappointment, feeling foolish in having hoped that this government might be different.  Read her whole statement here:

Others report that the decision may harm BC’s credit rating, as well as violating basic human rights (See

A few people counter that this isn’t so bad because the power will be needed, especially as the economy decarbonizes; for instance, how about selling the power to Alberta?  Well, Alberta just announced a new auction for renewable power, and guess what, it will come cheaper that a dam and a large transmission line.  See

I want to leave a voice to a few commenters on Facebook.  Sierra Club’s Galen Armstrong posted
Thanks to everyone who has been fighting (in many different ways) to protect the Peace River Valley. If you need something to do right now, you can donate to West Moberly First Nations and Prophet River First Nation. These Nations have announced that they will fight for their Treaty rights in court:  You can also donate to the Peace Valley Landowner Association — they have put SO much into this fight: You can also donate to and we will continue to fight. Most importantly, keep raising your voice and don’t give up hope.

My KPU colleague Andrew Frank, who has been very active with first nations issues, posted

I am deeply disappointed, appalled and angry with the BC NDP’s decision to proceed with the Site C dam, which would trample First Nations’ treaty rights and drown thousands of hectares of BC’s most productive farmland, all for a project that experts say is too expensive and perhaps not even needed relative to future energy demand.  What I find most galling are Mr. Horgan’s false promises and meaningless words to honour the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and to begin a new, respectful relationship with First Nations. This dam represents the kinds of human rights violations that belong to a previous dark chapter in our province’s history, one that I hoped we were moving away from.

To hear Mr. Horgan’s explanation, we need to complete Site C for financial reasons in order to provide better childcare, healthcare and schooling to our (non-Indigenous) children and families (in the south of the province). Some are now calling the Peace River valley and its communities a sacrifice zone, and I agree with them. By continuing with Site C, the BC NDP is choosing to continue making it one. On a hopeful note, some of the affected First Nations are launching new lawsuits against the government to protect their rights and livelihoods, and others are vowing to continue fighting the project. These are efforts we need to support in solidarity.

And I like Stephen Rees’ post.  He simply gave a link to the logical fallacy called “the sunken cost fallacy” – a great article, and very eloquent on its own.  It can be found at

A friend reposted a post by one Howard Breen, to whom I will leave the last word:

Massive disappointment.  The party has the backbone of a chocolate éclair when it comes to supporting indigenous sovereignty rights on unceded lands.


The NGO statements are at:


Written by enviropaul

December 11, 2017 at 8:14 pm

Is Site C needed? No.

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After reading Mark Jaccard’s opinion piece in today’s Vancouver Sun (would we use Site C’s electricity? September 12 2017), I felt compelled to write a letter.  Here it is, below; we’ll see what happens!

A map of the Site C project, with the existing Williston Reservoir to the west.


Jaccard and his team carried out long-term electricity demand projections based on the expected switch to electricity for vehicles and space heating (via heat pumps), as well as population growth.  I do agree that an increased demand is likely (although the potential of an aggressive conservation program seems to have been dismissed).

But it is a leap of logic to conclude that Site C is needed.  For one thing, Site C is considered a clean source of electricity; it is not. The rich soils that the reservoir will submerge will produce greenhouse gases.

But mostly, the conclusion is made without considering other potential sources.  More electricity could (and should) be generated by the dams already built on the Columbia in Eastern BC (to say nothing of Kemano II, which should enter the discussion).  But megawatt for megawatt, the winds of the Peace Valley could be harvested at a lower cost, and built progressively, as demand grows.  Wind may be an intermittent source, but the large Williston Reservoir provides all the needed storage to ensure dispatchability.  And we remain the only jurisdiction on the Pacific Rim that has not exploited geothermal energy.

Jaccard says that the decision should be made using unbiased analysis.  I couldn’t agree more; but the analysis does not support any conclusion other than more electricity will be eventually needed. 


Written by enviropaul

September 13, 2017 at 10:23 am

Water and identity: a musical interlude

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the importance of water in the Canadian identity.  Not long afterwards, the composer Gilles Tremblay passed away.  That was just after I had discovered a very beautiful album called, simply, water, recorded by pianist Hélène Grimaud.  There is a connection: it’s about water.

Tremblay was a classical, modern composer from Québec, born in 1932.  His music was of the contemporary musical style, that is, the kind that few people ever listen to, but a composer’s composer.  His most famous work is called Fleuves (rivers).  He claimed that his music was never meant to be Canadian or Quebecker; he said that he wrote about the Saint-Lawrence because it is the river he knows best, (un fleuve d’horizons immenses, de générosité – a river of immense, generous horizons) but that the music is about water, ultimately, the same water as in every river.

I had never heard his stuff, or so I thought; but then I learned that he composed the music that was piped into the Québec Pavilion of Expo67.  I spent a lot of time there as a kid, and always loved the strange, surreal mood of what would now be called “nature sounds sampling” – he was a pioneer of the genre, and the mixture of water sounds and forest sounds within an eerie sound matrix was just magical (the music won the Calixa Lavallée award for 1968).

Along the same theme Hélène Grimaud recorded an album of solo piano compositions.  Just the titles of some of the pieces are evocative enough: Jeux d’eau (water play), two pieces with the same title by Liszt and Ravel; Debussy’s La Cathédrale Engloutie (the submerged cathedral); Berio’s Wasserklavier (water keyboard); Janacek’s In The Mists; Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch.  All beautiful, intimist music that easily takes you floating into a daydream.  Every piece is separate by a short interlude of electronic music by Nitin Sawhney that somehow set the stage with what a friend said sounded “like underwater music”.  The video below gives a taste.

(I want to pause here – these two are far from the only musicians to be inspired by water; there are articles devoted to lists of these, such as here, here or here.  One only needs to think about Debussy’s La Mer (the sea) or Smetana’s Vltava, a piece that ties Czech nationalist aspirations with the river that flows through Prague; or the Eurythmics’ Here Comes the Rain Again, among many popular songs, or the countless references to the Mississippi in blues.  One personal favourite is jazzman Abdullah Ibrahim’s Water From An Ancient World, below.)

It’s no wonder water inspires musicians.  Beyond the fact that we, as a species, are emotionally drawn to water, water itself creates music, be it a babbling brook or the hypnotic rhythm of the waves by the seashore.  Some musicians have incorporated purely natural sounds such as recorded whale songs.  The Croatian architect Nikola Basic went one step further, letting the ocean create its own music:  the Zadar sea organ.  As waves enter a chamber, they pressurize air that exits through a series of organ pipes, set at different heights and with a different pitch.  Have a listen.

It’s worth quoting the liner notes from Grimaud’s album to get a sense of the inspiration water can generate.

Be praised, Lord, through Sister Water.  She is very useful and humble, and precious and pure. (a quote from St Francis of Assisi)

The majority of our bodies, like the surface of the Earth, is made up of water of water.  Life cannot exist without it.  Water is merciless and miraculous.  It sustains and humbles us, divides and completes us. Water is nature’s architect, sculpting the contours of the earth.  Water is also Nature’s composer, its drops, streams and waves beating the world’s primordial rhythms.

By my favourite liner quote is from Heraclitus, the well-known “no man ever steps in the same river twice”.  Grimaud makes sure to give the full quote, continuing with “for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.”  Heraclitus, early on, realized that the only constant is change – or is it?  Rivers evolve and meander, its waters always renewed; but despite this, we give a permanent name to a river.  People change and age, as well; they may feel similar, keep their unique identity from one day to the next, yet their constituent molecules are always replaced, such that nothing in your make-up of seven years ago is present in you now.  But water!  A molecule of water, two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen, stay together over eons, evaporate in your breath, coalesce as rain, enters the well that holds the water that your brewer draws to make your beer – or becomes a part of a hydrated mineral crystal, buried deep, emerging back as lava billions of years later – the same molecule.  Water both reinforces and challenges your concept of identity.

Well, enough philosophy.  Forget hard thoughts and concepts, and let water-inspired music work its emotional magic on you.  I’ll leave you with Tremblay’s Fleuves – immerse yourself in the other type of music that was all the rage in the sixties.


Written by enviropaul

September 11, 2017 at 6:58 pm

About Harvey, part 3: floodproofing

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A Bajau village on stilts

Harvey is a stark reminder: we need to learn to manage floods.

Houston has been much criticized for its laissez-faire approach to urban planning.  Yes, having more green ground and less paved ground would have helped – a bit.  The amount of water was just too big, flooding would have occurred no matter what, but maybe more slowly and not as high.

What was a surprise to me, though, was the extent to which planning rules were broken.  Houses were built in both of the reservoirs designed to collect the flood waters – so, naturally, they flooded as water rose in the Addicks and Barker reservoirs, as it was meant to do.

Now what, though?  These folks bought the land, it is still theirs.  If new rules are created (and enforced) to prevent further development, or rebuilding, on these sites, they are left holding the bag: destroyed homes, valueless properties.  Compassion dictates that they be helped – but rebuilding on the same lots, isn’t that the height of foolishness?  Rebuild somewhere else, but where is the money coming from?  Should taxpayers, the ones still dry and solvent, contribute?  Is it buyer beware – too bad – or should the developers who knew better, the city hall clerks who gave the permits, be sued?  Or the oil companies who enabled climate change (and lied about it)?  No matter how you look at it, it’s messy.

(And God knows, if any city should have known better, it’s Houston.  It was founded by the survivors of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, still the worse disaster ever to hit the US in term of fatalities.  And yes, Galveston was eventually rebuilt, and it’s as much as sitting duck now as it was then.)

I don’t have solutions to offer, but the situation made me think of the approach adopted in Northern Europe, making room for the water.  As I posted before, in Hamburg’s HafenCity, for instance, that means buildings that can withstand having their ground floor flooded.  Could that approach be used in places like Houston? Or, for that matter, in the flood plains of Canadian cities like Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver? I read that we are still “not well prepared”.

Room for the water, in an ordinary subdivision?  That would be possible if the houses are on stilts.  This is not as foolish as it sounds.  I have collected some pictures of stilt buildings from a variety of sites, some modern, some not (see here, here, here, or here). As I looked around, I was surprised by the number of examples I found.  One of my discoveries is the site called “make wealth history”.  The tag line is “because the Earth can’t afford our lifestyle”; but despite the crunchy-granola sound of this, the site has a wealth of examples.  For instance, this is where I learned about the new hospital in Boston designed to withstand flooding and keep working (I trust that the architects of our own St-Paul’s Hospital, moving to the very floodable False Creek Flats, are taking a look).

The flood-proof Spaulding Hospital in Boston © Steinkamp Photography



A development in Charleston





A cabin in Washington State


Built to withstand a tsunami, Camano Island, WA









In Galveston, of all places…

In Florida









And it’s not like it’s a radical new lifestyle, either.  Stilt houses have been around since the Neolithic; their modern ram-shackle counterparts can be seen in the Tonle Sap lake or the Bajau community, or in Trondheim for a more northern version.  Enjoy the pictures; there’s something atavistic about them.



A reconstructed neolithic village in Lake Constance

Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia

Pic: Copyright Timothy Allen

Some say that an amphibian lifestyle is what humans evolved to have: like marine mammals, we have naked skin, we shed salt tears, we have the diving reflex.  And we have this great yearning to be near water, which gets us in trouble.  All I’m considering is – can we not make our buildings resilient?


Written by enviropaul

September 4, 2017 at 6:27 pm