The general interest in sustainable – or green –  options is growing.  This includes the interest in water, one of our most important renewable resources. Water drives the health of our environment, but its functioning is often fundamentally misunderstood. This web page features the 168 Elm Ave. Pilot Project, which demonstrates sustainable rain water, stormwater, and runoff treatments at a residential scale. It offers resources that help fill the information gap by offering accessible, in-the-ground examples that demonstrate the feasibility of and confidence in sustainable landscape solutions.

Seven different treatments are incorporated into the pilot project: 1) the GREEN ROOF, 2) the RAIN BARRELS, 3) the POROUS PAVEMENT, 4) the RAIN GARDENS, 5) the GRAVEL GRASS, 6) the CISTERN, and 7) the BIOSWALE.

These treatments serve as milestones on a VIRTUAL TOUR AROUND THE HOUSE. The web page explains in detail the rationales of the applied sustainable practices, describes the benefits of each treatment, and describes how some of them were implemented. Also included is information on the project’s CLAY SOILS and their infiltration capacity, how much the RUNOFF QUANTITY was reduced, and thoughts towards the larger cumulative effect and the probable positive impact on the local waterway (in this case SALT CREEK).

-- Marcus de la fleur, January 2008


How did the project start?

In March 2002, I moved into a typical suburban two-flat in Elmhurst, Ill., as a rental tenant. The two-story house that sits on two-tenths of an acre had been built sometime around 1900, and had been purchased by Ben Rush in 1998 and subsequently remodeled.

Over time, Ben’s curiosity in my work as a landscape architect increased, and so did his interest in sustainability, particularly at the residential scale (read more in the INTRODUCTION section). Both of us saw that there were almost no installed examples that comprehensively addressed sustainability and responsible treatment of rain water, stormwater, and runoff around yards and gardens. In 2003 we set out to fill that information gap with the 168 Elm Ave. Pilot Project.

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The project rationales

We tend to believe that we live in an infinite world with infinite resources. This is in contradiction to the principle that planet Earth – and its resources – is finite.

Many communities across the nation regard water as one of those infinite resources. We feel that we don’t need to rely any longer on the natural water cycle, but can afford to turn it into a one-way waste stream, disposing of it through gutters, pipes and stromsewers – until we have either flooding, or else water shortages such as the Atlanta , Georgia area experienced in 2007.

The status quo approach in the case of water shortage may range from hoping for more rain, building bigger dams and reservoirs, and drilling deeper wells. Sustainable solutions don’t emerge from the status quo mind-set but require change including the critical examination of our water usage patterns and the identification of water reuse and conservation opportunities.

On the other side of the coin, the status quo approach to flooding may focus on more detention, an increase in the storm sewer capacity, and reinforcing river banks. A change in mind-set may lead us to innovative solutions such as decentralized stromwater management systems and the development of infiltration-based systems rather than conveyance-based systems.

Excessive skepticism and ignorance all too often prevent the emergence of innovative solutions and stand in the way of a mind-set change.

I saw the need to dissipate skepticism and break the ignorance barrier by demonstrating sustainable solutions. My goal is not only to talk the talk but walk the walk. The purpose of the project is to change the mind-set, one drop at the time.

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Why worry about my yard?

We must reconcile our common resource usage and the finite nature of these resources. It becomes increasingly difficult to escape the news about droughts; rivers, lakes and reservoirs with low water levels; and ground water wells running dry. Typically, the identified cause is lack of precipitation, which we expect to be infinite when we need it. Few if any questions are asked about our water consumption patterns. Little is said about opportunities to reduce, reuse, and recycle water. Nor does the damage to our natural water cycle get a mention – the cycle that makes water a renewable resource.

On the opposite spectrum, you may have noticed news about flood warnings, flooding, and flood damage, whether in your neighborhood or on the national scale. What you also may have noticed is that “heavy” rainfall is being identified as the culprit. That, however, is usually the wrong conclusion. Heavy rainstorms have always occurred, but the flooding that is associated with them is a more recent phenomenon. It is caused by our land development methods, and our profound misunderstanding of our natural history (in this case the natural history of the Midwest) and – again – the water cycle.

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the historic water cycle

How did the natural water cycle of the Midwest work? The dominant pre-settlement landscape type was prairie. Prairie plants, in particular prairie grasses and sedges, extract carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. A portion of that carbon is fixed in the biomass of the long and extensive root system. Part of that root system dies off each season and adds organic matter (soil organic carbon) into the soil, year after year. Think of it as a huge sponge that covered the Midwest. Whenever it rained, this sponge soaked up the precipitation and produced little or no surface runoff. The water continued to move through the soil (also referred to as baseflow) and discharged along outwash areas into our wetlands, streams, and rivers, providing them with a constant supply of clear, cool water, year round.

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The contemporary water cycle

What has changed? Let’s look at development around us: For every developed acre, a significant portion is covered with impervious surfaces (roofs, pavements, etc.). What happens on that acre if it rains? The precipitation accumulates on the impervious surfaces (and even turf grass areas), has to be collected in catch basins, and is drained off site. That turns the water cycle that makes our landscape tick on its head. We now have a one-way waste stream. Only a fraction of water, if any, is allowed to infiltrate into the ground. The baseflow to wetlands, streams, and rivers is interrupted. As a result many water tables drop, wetlands dry out, and streams are reduced to a trickle during summer months... unless it rains! Then you can observe that the runoff overwhelms the wetlands and streams, erodes them, and causes flooding.

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The attempt to fix it

In an attempt to reduce the damage from runoff, many larger developments are required to store it (detain it) and slowly release it over time. That is why there are so many detention ponds, many of them in pretty poor shape. The problem with detention is that the amount of total runoff is not reduced, because it is still not infiltrated back into the ground (retained). Smaller developments, such as your own property, may not have any storage requirements at all. Think of the runoff that you, your neighbors, the block, the neighborhood, produce. Get the picture? The cumulative effect is mind-boggling.

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What can I do?

It does not need to be this way – there are very good, very effective, and very simple solutions to improve your landscape, reduce your runoff and contribute to the restoration of the natural water cycle. This pilot project demonstrates what can be done in the residential environment and how to treat rain water as a valuable resource. Don’t feel overwhelmed! Start with one or two treatments featured on this web site. The cumulative effect of everybody in the community contributing can lead to real positive change. Go to any of the links on this page to read and learn more.

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For the professional

Are you a design professional, perhaps an Architect or Engineer? Each profession has their code of professional ethics.

I am a Landscape Architect. My profession’s code of ethics was adopted by the ASLA (American Society of Landscape Architects) Board of Trustees on October 1, 1998, amended in April 1999, and September 1999. 

The code requires “… dedication to the public health, safety and welfare, and recognition and protection of the land and its resources.”

Most design professions tend to have similar requirements. I observed that design professionals take the public health, safety and welfare very seriously. Landscape Architects, for instance, work on eliminating the immediate risk of injury through separation of vehicular and pedestrian traffic, railings at vertical drops, handrails at stairs, accessible ramps, etc.

What about the “…recognition and protection of the land and its resources.”? Isn’t this the insurance for the next generation’s public health, safety and welfare? If so, why do we tend to put our energy almost exclusively into the immediate integrity of our designs? This, I fear, is a slippery slope, when the probable injuries of the next generation receive insufficient focus and dedication because we look at it as this vague construct somewhere ahead of us.

I like to think that the long term consequences of our actions today should receive as much scrutiny, focus and dedication as the immediate consequences of our designs. I encourage design professionals to include the recognition and protection of the land and its (finite) resources, including water, ecosystems, and biodiversity, in their mind-set.

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News update
The One Drop at a Time web site won a national award in the
by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA)

Guest on The Mike Novak Show (WCPT 820 AM) discussing the pilot projects.

Web Page Updates
Visit the blog on the new pilot project at 3141 W. 15th Street

Calendar update

March 24th, 2014 presentation
March 29th, 2014 presentation
March 30th, 2014 presentation
June 6th, 2014 presentation


Go to virtual tour around the house

How did the project start?The project rationalesWhy worry about my yard?The historic water cycle
The contemporary water cycleThe attempt to fix itWhat can I doFor the professional

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