From drop to drain: water neutrality and the bid to save water (part one)


David Sorisi, Associate Director

What does water neutrality really mean?

When less than 3% of the Earth’s water is fresh and most of this is unavailable, it emphasises the importance of protecting its supply and using it efficiently. To understand this and make significant changes to the way we use water, we must consider the water cycle and follow it from drop to drain – only once we start to mimic the natural water cycle and start to work with nature will significant change take place.

Water supply stress and scarcity is becoming an increasingly global concern. Over the last century, the population has grown rapidly, increasing the amount of water we need each day. It is estimated that our water demand has grown at twice the rate of the population which is a worrying statistic for future generations.

The difference between growth and demand will become wider over the next 100 years and it will put further pressure on the water authorities and networks to meet this growth. Therefore, there is a need to reduce the amount of water we use daily, to educate ourselves on efficient water usage and to provide more efficient water designs/installations to ensure the demands of the future can be met.

Climate change means the UK will likely experience drier and hotter summers which could well lead to water shortages by 2050 if sufficient measures are not implemented now. The government estimates the availability of wholesome water could reduce by 10-15% over this period, with some rivers containing 50% less water during summer months. Even in countries with a well-established water infrastructure, the ability to keep up with these demands will become increasingly difficult, potentially leading to more areas becoming water stressed.

While the UK is considered a relatively wet environment, we are starting to see areas within the South East experiencing issues associated with water scarcity. This is leading to restrictions in these areas and resulting in planning being rejected for developments that cannot prove a water-efficient design is being implemented. These water scarcity-related issues within the UK have led to the concept of water neutrality being born, and an industry shift towards ensuring buildings use less water.

Water neutrality will become more important than carbon and will shape the future of the built environment – changing how we service our buildings and provide water.

We are starting to witness this across certain areas within the UK and, as a result, clients are becoming more aware of water resource management and the impact water efficiencies could have on their developments. There are bigger risks to future developments due to the heightened chance of planning being rejected if water reductions studies have not been completed.

We’ve identified four key water challenges that need addressing across the sectors we work within:

  • How we should use water efficiently
  • What a water efficient/net zero water design looks like
  • Understanding key stakeholders with different goals and aspirations
  • Understanding regulatory changes and the impacts on design

Across the sectors

For most organisations, water neutrality may seem like just another industry buzzword, with headline-grabbing claims stating the dire straits of the water industry and the need to save water, yet with no standard approach to achieving this. Water companies have performed exceptionally poorly recently which is bringing the problem of water supply to boiling point. The bad press surrounding them, coupled with individuals facing increased bills and needing to reduce water use, will not sit well with the majority of the population and may escalate the problem.

We should also consider that water is a basic human right and, as a modern society in the UK, we should not be in a position where we are seeing people facing water poverty, as the energy industry has done with fuel poverty over the last few years.

In the meantime, to make sense of the noise, leading organisations prioritise the water neutrality risks and opportunities that are most material to them. Water issues can vary significantly between sectors but financial interdependencies become a core determining factor. These interdependencies can include resource inefficiencies, planning issues and social value.

For developers and operators, identifying these considerations requires a balance to be struck between the key stakeholders: investors, developers and end users. A lack of conviction when change or restriction is applied to the status quo is a common criticism, as well as the imperative for the wider population not to participate because they won’t be around to see the negative impacts of climate change, water scarcity or biodiversity loss.

In part two, we will look at the high-level impacts water neutrality could have on a development and the architecture layouts.