The Next Page / Inside Phipps' Center for Sustainable Landscapes: Making clean water, all in one place

Please click on the PDF below to see the entire plan.

Early this century, Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens in Oakland launched a three-part expansion plan that put green-building principles front and center. The first phase, a redesigned entrance and cafe, emerged in March 2005; it was the first LEED-certified visitor center in a U.S. public garden. Late 2006 brought the new tropical forest conservatory, the most energy-efficient of its kind.

Since 2007 Phipps has been building the Center for Sustainable Landscapes. The research, education and administrative complex has an immodest ambition: to be one of the greenest buildings on planet Earth.

Set to open in spring 2012, the CSL aims to meet or achieve the three highest green standards: the Living Building Challenge, LEED (that's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certification, and SITES certification (a landscape rating system also known as the Sustainable Sites Initiative). To achieve the Living Building Challenge design standards, the CSL must produce all of its own energy using on-site renewable resources. And it must capture, treat and reuse all water on site. In addition to serving Phipps, the CSL will be an environmental education center for the region. By pushing the limits of what's possible in green building, and showcasing local expertise, Phipps hopes its example will spread nationally and internationally.


Today, we're offering a closer look at one of the most innovative features in the CSL project: How the water works.

The wastewater treatment begins with a 300-square-foot horizontal subsurface flow constructed wetland system (two-stage). The "constructed wetland" is a biological wastewater treatment technology designed to mimic processes found in natural wetland ecosystems. It uses wetland plants, soils and their associated microorganisms to remove contaminants from wastewater.

With the treatment and reuse system in place, the building's impact on the city's combined sewer will be eliminated. The wastewater flow from the Center for Sustainable Landscapes and the adjacent Phipps maintenance building has been estimated at 416 gallons per day (242 gallons per day from low-flow efficient toilets and 174 gallons per day from low-flow efficient sinks).

Ten Ways to Make a Difference at Home

1) Plant a rain garden. Beautify your yard, attract wildlife and pollinators, and protect local waterways by planting a rain garden. A rain garden full of perennials and shrubs soaks up polluted water before it reaches the sewers, helping to protect our communities from flooding and providing cleaner drinking water.

2) Capture valuable water with rain barrels. Lawn and garden watering makes up nearly 40 percent of a household's summer tap water usage despite the fact that nearly 600 gallons of rainwater can be captured in rain barrels for reuse from the average size roof in an average rain storm.

3) Landscape with sustainable plants. Even a beautiful garden can be low maintenance. Consult Phipps' Top 10 Sustainable Plants lists for plants that require less water and fertilizer, and are disease and pest resistant.

4) Vary your landscape. Lawns are lovely, but so are lots of other types of groundcover - many of which are quite low maintenance and require far less water too. Try mixing and matching in your yard, and only planting grass where you really need it.

5) Mulch and mulch some more. Mulch protects the soil by helping it retain moisture, suppresses weeds, and insulates plants from extreme temperatures. Any material such as wood chips, straw, nut shells, paper, sawdust, leaves, seaweed, grass clippings, or compost can be used as mulch. Apply only two to three inches and keep away from stems and trunks.

6) Make your lawn "Phipps Safe." Ditch chemicals that are unsafe for you, companion animals and children, and opt for a "Phipps Safe" yard by adopting natural and organic lawn care practices. Learn how easy it is at

7) Direct water to where it counts. Cut your water bills in half! More than half of the water you use to irrigate your garden and lawn goes to waste. Installing a drip irrigation or soaker hose system efficiently directs water to the roots of the plants, right where they need it most.

8) Don't flush water (or money) down the drain. Replace or retrofit your inefficient toilet with one that has the WaterSense label. This will not only reduce your water use by about half but it can also save a family of four more than $90 annually, and $2,000 over the lifetime of the toilet. A low-flower shower head can also save an average of 8,000 gallons of water each year. And, even more water can be saved by limiting showers to five minutes.

9) Put aerators on your faucets. Available at hardware stores, aerators are inexpensive and cut usage from three to four gallons per minute to as little as a half-gallon, without sacrificing pressure. You won't be able to tell the difference, but you'll be using up to 88 percent less water.

10) Reduce, reduce, reduce. Only run the dishwasher with a full load, and if you're running lots of water down the drain while waiting for it to cool down or warm up, place a bowl or bucket in the sink to catch and it use it for other tasks, like making coffee, soaking dirty pots or watering houseplants. If you wash dishes by hand, don't let the water run but rather partially fill the sink with warm, soapy water and rinse dishes under a faucet with an aerator.

Learn more and find more tips at

For updates on the Center for Sustainable Landscapes, see Phipps' media website, "The Green Lead":


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