Going with the Flow

A landlord and his tenant team up to save rainwater, money, and time.

By Shirley Remes

Photography by Bob Stefko

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It was 2003, and Ben Rush was simply looking for a reliable tenant for his Elm Avenue rental apartment in Elmhurst, Illinois. But by renting to landscape architect Marcus de la Fleur, he gained not only a tenant but a partner, one who changed Rush’s perceptions about water: where it goes, where it stays, and why.

Rush complained that muddy water was running down a stairwell and spilling over the basement threshold in this century-old building in the western suburb of Chicago. De la Fleur had experience with slopes and drainage, and said he might know how to fix the situation.

De la Fleur explained the difference between a typical conveyance system we use here in this country and the infiltration systems used in Germany. In the States, we concentrate on directing excess water off our properties, while in Europe, many systems keep water on-site so it can filter down into the ground. It was an on-site solution that de la Fleur proposed for the basement stairwell flooding.

Although Rush was skeptical and cost-conscious, he and de la Fleur agreed to team up to tackle the problem.

Project 1: Porous Pavers
The concrete patio at the back of the house directed water into the stairwell, so they began by tearing out that slab, along with the nearby crumbling concrete sidewalks. They would be replaced with porous pavement.

“In 2001, when I talked about porous pavement, people looked at me like I was a Martian,” says de la Fleur, who earned degrees from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and the University of Sheffield in England and now has his own business that focuses on sustainable solutions to landscape problems. Porous paving, also called permeable pavement, was almost unknown in the States when de la Fleur started the Elm Avenue project. These brick or concrete pavers have built-in openings or spacers between them so that rainwater drains through into the ground rather than running off.

De la Fleur did the job on the cheap by breaking up some of the old concrete and using it as a base. He topped the concrete with a layer of coarse aggregrate followed by smaller stone chips, then laid the pavers on top of that.

Voilà! The water problem was solved. When Rush saw how well the pavers absorbed the runoff, de la Fleur’s reasoning became clear: In our society, we pay to send water off our properties by building storm-sewer systems. We then pay to bring water in to irrigate our lawns and gardens. Why not just keep the water where it is? It was this savings of both water and money that impelled Rush to make the Elm Avenue property even more water wise.

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