By Campus Sustainability Fund | May 27, 2015

By Tiffany Loh
This post was originally published on the Campus Sustainability Fund site.

Earlier this year, the CSF awarded a grand total of $105,367 to 6 projects in the first round of funding for 2015. One of the projects proposed innovative adjustments that would optimize the use of a gift Mother Nature likes to shower upon Seattle: rainwater. 

CSF spoke to Amy Kim, Assistant Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering and Heta Kosonen, a PhD student in Construction Engineering, about their proposed sustainable rainwater system in the Construction Materials Laboratory (CML) in More Hall.

Can you tell us about the origins of this project? Who came up with the idea?

Heta Kosonen: Someone from a local K-12 institution contacted us last fall because they had a rainwater system in their classroom that wasn’t working. They were wondering if we might know how to make the water system work so kids could use it in their science projects. They contacted Amy and Amy reached out to me.

Amy Kim: I had just begun my program and met Heta. Here were the two of us wondering what to work on. It was so natural - it really just fit. We combined the diverse skills we had and kind of grew the project idea from there. We took the perspective of “OK, how do we combine environmental engineering, construction, high performance buildings and water?” It’s not just about the university; it’s about the university making an impact on our community. We wanted to be a part of that. So even though we knew it would be a lot of work, we said yes to the school.

HK: I feel like the K-12 institution’s project kind of sparked our own interest in doing something like this on campus because we learnt so much there. It felt like it would be a waste not to try it out, with the continuous need for water to cure cement in the CML and CEE students wanting to gain project experience.

AK: We wanted to give students an opportunity to get their hands dirty, especially in a field like construction. I think it’s great to be able to talk about the numbers and theoretical ideas, but experience is very important.

"Something I missed out on in my undergraduate education was the chance to take part in hands-on projects... it would have been so much more influential if I had actually constructed something."

What impact do you think this project will have on students?

AK: I think in terms of peer-to-peer communication, this is a great way to get students motivated and excited. If students have access to hands-on experiences like this, even on such a small scale, they will be able to apply the knowledge and skills they’ve gained to a larger setting and make a bigger impact when they go out to work in the field. Rather than listening to me lecture about this nice feature at a different school, students get to design, implement and see their own sustainability plan in operation.

HK: Something I missed out on in my undergraduate education was the chance to take part in hands-on projects. We learnt a lot about what other people did and the phases they went through to understand various features of construction projects, but it would have been so much more influential if I had actually constructed something. If I were hiring someone, I would be impressed if a student had not only taken this course and that course, but had also actually built a rainwater system!

AK: Ownership is something we are bringing to the classroom with this project. At least in regards to sustainable systems, I think offering students an experience like this is a fairly new concept. CEE is already such a diverse department but maybe my next volunteer student will come from business or psychology. We really want to encourage the interdisciplinary aspect too.

What was the most challenging part about the process? What do you foresee might be the biggest challenge moving forward?

HK: The biggest challenge of this project is regulations because they limit what we can do with the rainwater we collect. There are a lot of possibilities that would be feasible in theory but not in practice, because of the water quality regulations. But I foresee that some of the regulations will probably change over the lifetime of the project, so we might be able to adjust our end use for the rainwater as these changes take place. Also, figuring out the timeline was difficult because CEE majors only spend 2 years here. It’s very short. Our goal is to make this a communal project that the entire department is engaged in, to ensure continuity.

AK: Another challenge I want to bring up is integrating our proposed rainwater system into the existing More Hall building. Having a sustainable structure is nice, but being able to tie it in to the existing piping, mechanical and plumbing systems will be a fairly complex engineering problem that students get to solve.

So you’re actually going to let students design the entire project?

HK: Yes, but under our guidance of course, so that it’s not too overwhelming for them. We have a design and plan in mind but there’s still many factors that students will have to decide on.

For example, they can play around with the size of filters in the system, which affects water quality. Michael Dodd is a professor who is also heavily involved in the project and primarily focused on the treatment and quality of water. He will be helping students define what the water quality needs to be during each phase of the system. We’re lucky in the sense that CEE has high quality of information and professors who are specialized in various areas. It’s a nice resource for the students to have.

What are some reasons you decided to postpone the project till Spring 2016?

AK: There’s been some talk about possible expansion plans for More Hall so we will need time to consult with experts, faculty and facilities staff to consider if we can somehow piggyback on that and take advantage of certain changes. This will be a very dynamic project.

"This is a safe place where you can reach out to other students or faculty to ask if you can work together on something. Do your homework and take the initiative to volunteer at any chance you get."

Do you have any advice for CEE students who want to pursue a similar project?

HK: I feel that engineering students have a tendency to be very harsh on themselves. In my experience, students are more than capable of taking on a project like this. I would suggest maybe looking into adding sustainability features to present structures, rather than coming up with something completely new. You can always get help from faculty or grad students specializing in subjects you don’t know much about. CSF projects will take up extra time, but the practical experience you gain is worth it.

AK: The other thing that I would say to students is to use their time now to develop business skills they can bring to the table at their future jobs. Be aware of what gaps need to be filled, know how to effectively present your ideas and recruit people to help you. These are all kinds of people skills that students need to practice. The best place to build that skillset is right here at school, rather than out there in the jungle of the working world. This is a safe place where you can reach out to other students or faculty to ask if you can work together on something. Do your homework and take the initiative to volunteer at any chance you get.

"[The project] has the potential to impact the entire Seattle community."

Any final comments?

AK: Get out of your comfort zone and have an open mind. When Heta and I came together, our goal was to simply do something that would make an impact on sustainability. We also wanted to engage with different divisions of the university, such as engineering, facilities and operations management. The process hasn’t ended yet. We went to a workshop last week! We’re still meeting with more people and constantly learning.

The unique thing about our project is that it has the potential to impact policy and research. When we met with the Department of Health to discuss this project, we realized that there was a gap in information they had in how this kind of rainwater system performed. With Mike’s help, the data we collect won’t just benefit us—it has the potential to impact the entire Seattle community. This could be huge once it goes public. I want UW to be the first to do it rather than another school. Driving change and doing something that hasn’t been done is kind of exciting.

Click here for the full proposal to the CSF for this More Hall rainwater catchment project.