2013 - 2014 / USA - California - Project M.


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Projekt / project:

Californien / Nachhaltige Landwirtschaft, Wasserretention, Quellfassung, regenerative Energie  ~ 10ha
USA / California / sustainable agriculture, water retention, spring tapping, regenerative energy ~10ha (~ 25ac)         
Verantwortungen / responsibilities:
Konzeptplanung, Prototyp Quellfassung 
concept design, prototype spring tapping

Projektpartner Planung / project partner design:

Sepp Holzer 
Arch. DI. Birgit Hein-Krizek,
I-N-Stein Solar Energy GmbH / Graz / Austria
DI. Harald Goriupp (soil mechanics) 
Atelier Frühwirth - Graz (renderings)

Projektpartner Quellfassung / project partner spring tapping:

Sepp Holzer, Permavitae
Gea Kalkhof, Benjamin Brewer

Beschreibung / description:

Rekultivierung degenerierter Landwirtschaftsflächen, Wasserretention, Quellfassung, Autarkes Energiekonzept
recultivation of degenerated agricultural land, water retention, spring tapping, self-sufficient energy concept

Kategorie / category:

nachhaltige Landwirtschaft + Energie / Kleinklimazonen / Waldgarten / Wasserretention / Architektur
sustainable agriculture + energy / microclimate zones / forest garden / water retention / architecture

Chronologie / chronology:

2013 - 2014


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Detailed project description:

Some international press headlines from 2014 are as follows:

„Forest fires rage in southern California“  1 

1 -http://www.theguardian.com/world/video/2014/jan/16/forest-fires-southern-california-video, Januar 16, 2014

„Century-drought scares the US ...the White House speaks of the worst drought in 5000years...“2

2 - http://www.n24.de/n24/Nachrichten/Panorama/d/4347138/duerre-in-kalifornien-macht-usa-angst.html, Februar 26, 2014

„Flash Flood Warning Issued in LA County ... rainfalls of 1ft per hour were measured“  3

3 - http://www.myfoxla.com/story/24857324/flash-flood-warning-issued-in-la-county, March 01, 2014

„A superpower in the grip of the forces of nature - earthquakes, droughts, hurricanes: no other country is threatened by such diverse natural catastrophes as the US...“ 4

4 - http://www.zeit.de/wissen/umwelt/2014-03/naturkatastrophen-usa-erdbeben-duerre-hurrikan, April 27, 2014

„ Amerika loses Weight and the Tectonic Plate rises...absent Rain results in lifting up the West of the US by more than 1/2inch“ (decrease of groundwater volume results in less weight of the tectonic plate which causes it to rise up) 5 

5 - http://www.sciencemag.org/content/345/6204/1587.abstract?sid=eb369843-5c5e-4295-baec-2787b8314f3f , August 21, 2014

„With Dry Taps and Toilets, California's Drought Turns Desperate...“  6

6 - http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/03/us/california-drought-tulare-county.html?_r=0, October 2, 2014

„Southern California Flooding: Mudslides, Flash Flooding California Damage Homes, Leave At Least 1 Dead“  7

7 - http://www.weather.com/news/news/southern-california-flooding-20140804, November 17, 2014 

(Image: trend 2050 - sinking ground water level, rising water level of oceans)8

8 - http://www.waterparadigm.org/indexen.php?web=./home/homeen.html „Water for the Recovery of the Climate“, p.62

trend 2050 - changing water levels


The issues in the previous newspaper articles describe problems of drought and disturbed groundwater tables as very severe in Southern California. The proposed design strives to improve the current difficult situation of the property concerning these issues.

The most important project aim is to catch and store all precipitation water with easy means on the site. 

The proposed landscape design - including a regenerative energy concept - enables all stored water to be circulated on the property and to be used at any place whenever necessary.

The design counteracts the dangers of erosion, desertification, salinization of the soil, fire, mudslides, flash floods and a sinking ground water table.

No drop of water is allowed to ever cross the existing rainwater tubes leading from the property into the neighbouring ocean!

The Pacific is full enough!


What leads to a successful project ? 

At first all assets (gains, positive aspects) as well as every liability (losses, negative aspects) of the site should be collected, listed and evaluated. This can be done by analysing and studying all  existing conditions carefully.

Subsequently principles and strategies must be developed in order to maximise gains and minimise losses of the site. This can be achieved best if the bases, reasons and interdependencies of all available (past, present and future) assets as well as liabilities are understood comprehensively.

The right design sequence in order to achieve a sustainable and ecologically sound project is the basis for an integrated design - working with nature and not against it.

Studying the conditions of the site the following assets were discovered (no priority listing):

 - Favourable warm and mild climate

- Great amount of sunshine / solar radiation

- South facing property, sunshine all day

- Bufferd coastal microclimate 

- Virtually no frost

- Relative high air humidity (proximity to Pacific)

- Good existing ecological condition (~50% of the site is part of the ESHA zone)

- No direct adverse effects of potential neighbour activities expected (i.e. pollution of water from uphill)

- Beautiful and well structured landscape 

- Many natural and diverse habitat zones for flora and fauna

- Striking sunrises and sunsets visible from most parts of the property

- Prime location in terms of infrastructure (close to Pacific Coast Highway and LA)

- Economic high value of site and neighbourhood, sought after location, expected to rise in value

- Basic infrastructure is present, such as ductworks, buildings, etc.

- Rainwater catchment area is fairly big; ~ 3,5 times the size of the property, great potential

- Mineral content of soil is diverse and good, providing positive base for fertile humus build up

- Some valuable orchard vegetation existis outside ESHA Zone as well (i.e., avocados, citrus,   which means not having to start from „scratch“)


These are set off against the following liabilities (no priority listing):

- Very dry conditions, threatened by droughts and increasing desertification of the region

- Severe lack of readily available fresh water

- Little rainfall

- Erratic precipitation patterns

- Erosion problems

- High fire risk

- Very high evaporation rates

- Large areas of uncovered soil, bare earth, are present on site

- Most surface runoff rainwater ischanneled away from the property artificially 

- Main energy usage based on expensive fossil fuels, dependency on external supply

- Widespread usage of totally unsuitable vegetation for this region and conditions, i.e.: turf

- Present usage of artificial chemicals, such as: herbicides, pesticides, artificial fertiliser

- Continually sinking ground water level in the whole region

- Very bad ecological effects of present irrigation system, e.g.: severe danger of salinization

- very steep and erosion prone existing pathways

- High energy usage for obtaining water (i.e. pumping ground water for irrigation purposes)

- Usage of ineffective irrigation systems and logistic


The following principles and strategies are proposed in the design in order to maximise gains and minimise losses of the site:

The main philosophical and ethical principles of our system of Agro-Ecology are:

- Respecting Nature

- Observing Nature

- Interacting with Nature


The leading design strategies are as follows: 

 I) Observation and Analysis

- Special places with favourable natural conditions are defined on the site in terms of topography, geology and hydrogeology. It is a precondition to ensure a balanced water-household in order to tap nature's potential to develop biodiversity.

II) Ensuring a Sustainable Water Management

- The difficult and disrupted water household will be restored to form a basis for life - we claim that 70% percent of the work is done when the water household is revived.

- Maximising available water with most simple means.

III) Working with nature, not against her

- Favourable natural conditions are intensified and thereby improved in a catalytic manner, while the existing situation for vegetation will be kept as such, which means a non-invasive approach to existing ecological “hot spots”.

IV) Economical operation methods

- All interventions should be undertaken with the minimum of effort and maximum effect.- Economic considerations and easy maintenance are indispensable.

V) Focusing on local conditions

- regionally adapted, indigenous and thus suitable species (plants and animals) should predominantly be chosen and (re-)introduced adhering to natural cycles.

- Using existing resources as much as possible, this includes water, building materials, energy, flora and fauna.

VI) Starting small, giving and taking time

 - all work should at first be carried out in relatively small areas, well observed, studied and documented.

VII) Respecting, supporting and trusting nature's regenerative powers

- No use of artificial chemicals, such as herbicides, pesticides, insecticides, fungicides and artificial fertilizers!  They are counter productive and inhibit the positive development of an agro-ecological project!

- Supporting ecological diversity and stability.

 VIII) Long-term instead of short-term thinking and action

- Constant building-up of humus and living soil.

- Sustainability - striving for long term success, effects and gains.

IX) Interacting with and learning from nature

- Mistakes can and will be made but should not be repeated; successful strategies should be recognised and constantly improved; in due time from smaller onto larger areas, documentation should continue all the time.

- Facilitating redundant and stable systems.

X) Relaxing and harvesting

- Recognising and enjoying the generous gifts that nature will provide freely when respected and treated well.

- Enhancing the beauty of a place as well as all aesthetic considerations are self-evident.


The right design sequence to achieve a sustainable and ecologically sound project:

1st: Stabilisation of existing WATER household 

2nd: Ensuring and fostering healthy and living SOIL

3rd: Planting mixed cultures / 3-Dimensional VEGETATION

4th: Harvesting, multiplying, sowing / CROPS and SEEDS


Integrated Design and Building Measures:

a) Catchment of all surface runoff / “Rainwater Harvesting”:

- Wherever possible preventing all surface water to leave the site by using appropriate means, such as building of terraces, swales, ditches, check dams. 

- Counteracting erosion by taking away destructive energy from runoff water. 

- Ensuring decentralised systems by trying to catch water where it falls.

- Most effective measures are as far uphill as possible, seeping into the ground an d replenishing ground water reserves.

b) Stabilising ground water level:

- Ceasing to pump ground water (because enough water should be available all year).

- Using the system of “spring tapping” for drinking water in suitable spots of the site / underground storage with circulation is important for good water quality.

- Creating a “water network” on the site, using gravity as much as possible.

- Indirect positive effect of decentralised “rainwater catchment” 

- Recycling of used water and using it to replenish the ground water level

- Minimising evaporation from soil, covering soil with vegetation / conteracting salinization

- Cheapest and most effective storage of fresh water

c) Building strategic ponds / aqua biotopes:

- Enhancing the local micro climate / buffering effects

- More diversity and stability through introducing valuable habitat structures

- Positive effects on surrounding flora and fauna

- Evaporation losses minimised through shading and small size open water surface as well as favourable ratio volume/surface

- Cheap storage of large volumes of water

- These ponds can be made watertight using totally natural materials (i.e. clay mineral “bentonite - the costs of this natural material are similar to plastic sheeting/epdm foils but have the advantage to maintain ecological soundness and easy recycling for the future).

d) Minimising water losses:

- Proactive building measures, such as “green roofs” and preference of permeable surfaces!

- Avoiding bare earth 

- Implementation of an integrated sustainable water management system

- Changing the present irrigation system to a subsurface drip systems / irrigation only at night

- Using appropriate plant species by implementing three-dimensional plant guilds, vertically mixed polycultures of hardy and well adapted suitable species .

- Recycling of used water wherever possible

e) Circulation Water System for the whole site:

- implementing a huge buffering system, that stores water and releases it when needed.

- main storage water system for irrigation and fire protection combined

- proposal of 400.000 gallons of decentralised underground water storage in four tanks

- sufficient water is available any time

- pumping system driven by solar energy, 

- hydroelectric energy: surpluses of daily solar energy can be used to store potential  energy in high water tanks, releasing electric energy at night without the use of batteries.

f) Adapting Pathway System according to usage and topography 

- no inclinations are steeper than 10%.

- loop pathway system if possible, no dead-ends!

- easy and economic circulation based on usage and topography of site.

- different quality pathways proposed according to need and usage, width and surface vary:

I)    main access road to house, 6m/18' wide, paved

II)   main access road of agricultural areas, southern part, >~3m/10' wide, paved

III)  main access roads of agricultural areas, remaining site, ~3m/10' wide, gravel

IV) internal access pathways of orchard, machine workable terraces, ~3m/10' wide, earth/crops

V)  main access pathways, walking, small machines, ~1,5m/5' wide, gravel

VI) internal access pathways of orchard, hand workable terraces, ~1,5m/5' wide, earth/crops

VII) main access pathways, walking, no machines,~1m/3' wide, dirt

g) Infrastructure expanded according to additional farm usage:

- Additional buildings for workshops, machines, storage, processing, etc. will be necessary.

- The design proposes an agricultural center with aditional buildings near and around the existing stables and studio buildings.

- “Earth cellar” proposed within the existing ditch west of the main house, combined with underground water storage tank.

h) Autonomous Solar Energy System - Prototype

- Combination of solar energy usage with the hydraulic pumping/circulation water system (g)  providing energy for the whole ranch including all buildings, air-conditioning (solar cooling!), cooking, electricity, pumping, etc. 

- Surplus energy can be used for production purposes, i.e. drying fruit or chilling food (even sea water desalinization is a possible option with this proposed system)

- Potential usage of hydroelectric energy as possible by product from water circulation system.

- Preference of readily available energy against importing it...

z)...last thoughts...

The site is endowed with a great variety of precious assets and resources. It is comparatively easy to minimise the risk of many liabilities by understanding their reasons and reacting appropriately and intelligently to these problems. 

The proposed design provides a viable alternative for improving the valuable site in a highly pleasing and aesthetic manner, not only ecologically but also economically. This is not to mention the high quality and joy of life within such a beautiful place!

„Culture“ and „nature“ cease to be contradictory but start benefiting each other. This, from our point of view, is a necessary precondition for creating a sustainable and meaningful future.


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