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The Houston Low Impact Development Experience

Posted by Robert Adair on Tue, Dec 06, 2011 @ 11:39 PM

Downtown HoustonHouston is undoubtedly more often thought of as an example of urban sprawl than as a model for sustainable development. However, some in the EPA (particularly in Region 3, which encompasses the critically challenged Chesapeake Bay watershed) actually see Houston as a good example of how to move rapidly from an unsustainable to a sustainable development model. As Dov Weitman, Chief of the EPA’s Nonpoint Source Control Division put it, “The bottom line is they just implemented an amazing consciousness raising process that has hundreds (at least) of developers, civil engineers, architects,landscape architects, etc., thinking differently about stormwater than they did six months ago. And the way they did it seems to me to be replicable in cities across the country.”

Houston started its journey toward Low Impact Development (LID) from the same place that most communities do, a near universal feeling in the engineering community that ‘it’ll never work here.’ Local soils, topography, rainfall frequency, volumes and intensity were cited as significantly unlike those where LID was being used. Perhaps more to the point, LID’s decentralized, micro-scale controls and extended Time of Concentration methodology meant embracing a 180⁰ shift from our ‘efficient’ drainage model.

The Steering Committee of the Houston Land/Water Sustainability Forum (HLWSF), represents most of the local organizations whose membership not only have a vested interest in the development of Houston, but also the combined experience and expertise to make the call on LID. Change seemed inevitable; it made sense for this collaborative group to take a leadership role in determining what that might be.

For almost two years the HLWSF offered ‘nuts & bolts’ educational programming aimed at local design, construction and regulatory communities that included panel discussions, experts brought to town for workshops and in depth exploration of the implications and viability of LID for the Houston area. The general consensus was that indeed, LID could be adapted for Houston and there were overwhelming reasons to do so.

However, educational programming wasn’t enough to overcome the safety of the known, especially in the midst of a recession. What were the odds that an engineer meeting with a prospective client would propose something they’d never actually done before?

The HLWSF LID Design Competition ( was conceived to provide real-life design challenges based on real projects with real site data and owners who were interested in developing with LID. By giving the design community an opportunity to learn for themselves how to implement LID in their own design process, it was hoped that the experience would breed the confidence required to move the market. Submittal requirements for the integrated design teams included producing post development runoff curves at or below predevelopment levels for the 5, 10 and 100 year storms. A cost comparison between the team’s LID design and a traditional design was also required.

There was little mention of stormwater quality. Although water quality was the initial driver for LID, without significant local stormwater quality regulatory drivers in place, LID wasn’t going to be widely implemented in the Houston area, unless it could be done on the strength of its economics. In fact, that’s exactly what happened.

The results reached by the twenty two teams were consistent. The finals event featured members of some of Houston’s most conservative engineering firms presenting to a Jury Panel of twenty key members of the local development, construction and political communities. Every team confirmed that not only did their LID design produce a truly sustainable design in environmental terms, it produced a product that would be more marketable, more valuable, and less expensive to construct for their clients. That was the day things changed in Houston.

In the year and a half since the competition finals event, the number of LID-based projects in the Houston area has grown exponentially, to a number no one involved could possibly have imagined. There were hurdles along the way: working around existing codes that presented obstacles to permitting, construction and maintenance questions and more. But they haven’t slowed things down. The development culture in Houston is changing and much like its leadership in LEED Green Building, Houston is poised to lead the nation into the new stormwater and sustainable development paradigm.

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LID Development Case Studies

Tags: Low Impact Development, Stormwater Management