By Amy Knight

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The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona


After a dry first half of the summer, we’ve had a good amount of rain the last few weeks. A lot of my work on the water systems for my house took place during the (long) dry season. It’s been really interesting to see both big storms and long slow rains with an eye toward collecting and directing that water. Mostly, I see places where no one has paid attention to it, and water pools or runs off and otherwise is not used.

But several friends and family members have recently set up new or improved rainwater management systems. My parents installed a rain chain, which drains to a garden area. The water flows from the roof into a series of metal dishes, cascading down from one to the next, creating a waterfall, until it flows into a big pot at the bottom and through a pipe under the patio into a planting area, with basins that direct the water and overflow to places where it can soak into the ground, instead of landing on paved areas and flowing down the driveway into the street. And with this successfully in place, it became all the more obvious that the roof on the other side of the house was directing all the water into a stream that just overflowed onto more pavement; the water coming through the scupper could fill the biggest bucket they have several times over in a single storm. All they really need is a downspout and a barrel with a spigot at the bottom, and they’d have all the water they need for watering plants, washing cars or other outdoor things, and anything else that can accommodate unfiltered water.

Another couple, good friends, recently experienced a pretty serious flood in their front yard in the first major storm of the year. They took action: they invited over a crew of friends, and together they created some new earthworks to direct the rain to places where it could soak in, water their beautiful tree, and recharge the groundwater. We’ve had a bunch of rain since, and there has been no more flooding.

My new house won’t have a rain chain, since I’ll be collecting all the water from the roof to filter and use to supply my daily water needs. But just seeing how much water is wasted by doing nothing with it—made clear by directing the water from the other half of the roof—makes me see in a very real way just how necessary water collection is for a desert house that approaches sustainability. I will have earthworks, for the water that falls on the yard and can’t be collected for filtration. I’ll have plantings in the right places to take advantage of the directed water. I hope it works as well as my friends’ which, inspiringly, they did themselves, with friends, for the price of a few pizzas. It all makes so much sense, in a way I couldn’t fully grasp without seeing the difference these things make.

The more I think about it, the more I believe that the careful management of water on the entire property, including collection, direction, and the amount the house uses, is the most important thing I can do with this project. My friends and neighbors have become a real inspiration. Let it rain!



Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at [email protected] or leave a comment here.

Header photo of Sonoran desert monsoon storm by Simmons B. Buntin.

Dear Rain

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, artwork, case studies, and more since 1997.