A Drop in the Bucket

Data show that new homes can reduce water consumption by almost 50 percent over homes built before 1980

November 7, 2016
Image: qimono via Pixabay

When asked about the major challenges their companies are facing, builders have plenty of problems to choose from: acute labor shortages, regulatory roadblocks and costs, and a dearth of buyers, among many others. But these matters, while serious, can tend to obscure more momentous issues that may threaten the very act of building homes itself.

Our special report this month focuses on the natural resources—water, land, and power—that will determine where, how many, and what kinds of homes will be built in the future in the U.S. While they are all crucial to home building, water has recently been very much on the minds of many in the industry (Image: qimono via Pixabay).

“Water is the true limit to growth in the Southwest,” Kim Shanahan, executive officer of the Santa Fe Area Home Builders Association, said in an article in the Santa Fe Reporter in September. “From the perspective of the home building industry, it’s really about how we are going to sustain our limited water resources into the future, or home building won’t exist in New Mexico and Arizona and California.”

Think that seems like too dire a prediction? Although these western states have somewhat recovered from the extremely serious drought conditions they experienced over the last several years, they are not out of danger. Colorado River programs managers have said that while it appears that there will be enough water for Nevada and Arizona through 2017, forecasts show there will likely be shortages in 2018. 

And it’s not only western states that are worrying about having enough water. Recent maps from the U.S. Drought Monitor, produced by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, reveal that other parts of the country are abnormally dry, with some states in the Southeast and Northeast experiencing drought conditions ranging from severe to extreme, up to the highest level, exceptional. 

Water resource advocates claim that increases in demand for water are as much to blame for the drop in supply as the drought. Population growth and new development have spurred the need for more water in many areas that are least able to sustain them, causing some to call for restrictions on the number of homes built.

The good news is that new homes use a lot less water than older homes. According to research from the California Homebuilding Foundation, data show that new homes can reduce water consumption by almost 50 percent over homes built before 1980. Water-saving faucets, toilets, showerheads, dishwashers, washing machines, and water heaters are all readily available and make using less water in homes a no-brainer for their residents. Outside, usage can be minimized with computer-controlled sprinklers, landscaping with drought-resistant plants, or forgoing grass entirely.

The bad news is that although some builders have started adjusting to the new normal in water consumption specs, there are not nearly enough of them to make the kind of difference that’s needed. One example in our special report, a Plumbing Manufacturers International study, shows that only 7 percent of all toilets installed in the U.S. in 2015 met the standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense program. And although the WaterSense program has been around for a decade, only 130 builders currently participate in it. 

A drop in the bucket, you might say. We’re going to have to do better.

editorial director

Denise Dersin, editorial director of Professional Builder, Custom Builder, PRODUCTS, NKBA Innovation+Inspiration, and co-editor of Multifamily Design+Construction, has been in publishing as an editor and writer for 30 years and has worked in the housing industry for much of that time.


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