Sunday, August 30, 2009


It was becoming an obsession: stormwater run-off and how to deal with it. Not just how to deal with it, but how to deal with it in a responsible, thoughtful way. When we first moved into this house, we had a basement flood -- we thought it was a fluke. Freak rains for days culminated in a massive nor'easter that flooded everyone on the street. Our sump pump was no match for the volume of water. Then it happened a few more times but the sump pump did its thing. And again, with the sump pump failing, and the water rising, and then again after the basement was dried out... I dreaded thunderstorms, and watched the radar when it seemed like rain.

We looked into waterproofing the basement with french drains. While french drains sound kind of naughty and exciting, they are really just trenches and drainage pipes placed around the perimeter of the basement with a sump pump to get the collected water out. Actually, the contractor we spoke to suggested routing the drains into the household drain, which is against code for good reasons.

I decided that we needed to keep the water out, rather than deal with it inside the house. When water started coming in the basement, and I realized just how challenging the grading issues were in the back of the house, I seriously considered repaving it all, and adding an extra inch or three of asphalt. Let the water go somewhere else, wherever that may be. But asphalt is nasty stuff, full of toxins. I am trying to get away from using petroleum products; surrounding my home with them seemed counter-productive.

A couple of landscapers looked at the site and shook their heads. "That's not good." "Huh." "How long are you planning on living here?" I got opinions ranging from complex systems of drains and drywells (with paving on top) to a series of sump pumps, to repaving and making it higher than my neighbors. But I kept coming back to the idea that surface water wants to become ground water, and that our creeks and streams are toxic because we don't let the earth clean the water as it is meant to. This little patch of the world is my responsibility, so I should do the best I can with it, in my own small way. And when I'd describe my dream to the landscapers, they'd cock their heads, and say "hey, I think you could be on to something."

Hence the carefully excavated and graded green driveway. I got bids, and found an enthusiastic contractor in Brian, also known as "our hero." Brian and I worked together to design the driveway. He suggested using GrassPav2, rather than the eco-pavers or other products that you put in like tiles. We added a little patio for outdoor meals and playing. And then he got to work, sawing the asphalt and calling in the excavator.

There were a few set-backs. After Greg (another hero) excavated the driveway, removing at least three layers of driveways, and creating an eighteen-inch deep hole, we had a massive storm. I watched in horror as the giant hole filled with water. I was too depressed to take a picture of it. Brian and an assistant bailed us out twice. The second time they borrowed a sump pump, but even so, it was a lot of work. Due to Brian's hard work, the water never made it inside.

Then the rains stopped, and the sand and gravel was delivered, and all was right with the world. Brian built up the threshold to the garage, where water used to come in, and did the same to the back door. He waterproofed like crazy, and then he put down sod. It's been so much work, but it is truly beautiful. Just last night, we had a torrential rainstorm, and a gloriously dry basement.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Phase I complete

Phase I of the backyard landscaping and storm-water run-off mitigation project is complete. I wish I could say I am thrilled with it, but it is hard to see how it will look until the rest of the project is finished.

The wall itself is nice. I like the irregularity of it, and so far it seems pretty sturdy. I put permeable pipe behind it, and am glad I did, as our soil is so heavy and full of clay that it seems it will never dry out. I am planting, planting, planting to try to keep the dirt from sliding away every time it rains.

We ended up with a lot of dirt left over. Enough to regrade the entire side of the house, make a sizeable stash for future projects, take a Honda trunk-load to a friend, AND still have enough to give away on Freecycle. Some guy came and took away three pick-up truck loads. That's a lot of dirt!

Now we are just waiting for the 12th, when excavation starts on the green driveway. Of course, in the meantime, we've decided to have monsoon season here in Southeastern PA. I used to love thunderstorms. I'd sit on the porch and watch them roll through. Now, I obsessively watch the radar on and feel sick to my stomach as the red bands of heavy rain approach. We got water again in the basement again, of course. At least I know my brand-spanking new sump pump works!

I truly wish I had known more about surface water when we bought the house. Our flat roof is perfect for installing a green roof. Sadly, we had to have a new roof installed pretty much right away; unless I can convince some leprechaun to part with his pot of gold, we won't be doing a green roof any time soon. Then again, maybe a green roof is just the thing to attract a leprechaun.... hmmm...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Water, water, everywhere...

We have a surface water problem. Our neighborhood consists of brick twins with garages in the ground-level basement (we're on a slope: the basement is ground-level in the back, but not the front.) Most people have asphalt driveways up to the house, and most people have paved their back alley as well. Many people have paved their garden areas in addition to the alley and driveway. All this paving results in a lot of surface water after a storm with nowhere to go. Nowhere to go, that is, until it finds my basement.

We are at the low point of our block; neighbors on both sides repaved not long before we moved in, and so their driveways are just a couple of inches higher than ours. That, coupled with the next door neighbor's faulty drainpipe means we get more than our fair share of run-off. What to do?

The first thing was adding extenders to the downspouts. Just 8 feet took the water past the point where it heads directly into my basement. However, during what my mom would call a "gully-washer" we'd still have a problem, and we are developing potholes in the alley from all the standing water.

We could just pave it; make it a few inches higher, and dump the water on some other poor chump. That doesn't seen very civic-minded and it doesn't help the environment much. While Thomas will probably like having a lot of pavement once he has a skateboard, I'm not sure my nerves can handle watching that.

I've thought about this a lot. I mean A LOT. After a substantial amount of research, I have decided that the answer is installing a green driveway. I got a quote from a landscaper to do permeable paving, but I don't like the way it looks, plus it's hard to walk on if you like high-heeled shoes. Instead, I am hoping to have Grasspave2 installed. I am very excited about this stuff because it looks just like grass (it IS grass, with a recycled plastic matrix beneath it) and it can take a lot of water. It can take my run-off as well as my neighbor's and then some. There are still many details to hammer out, but I think this is the way to go. Wish us luck; we need it!

Here's the before view: dismal, hot, not very useful, and a drainage nightmare.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


Phase one of the grand project could be done, depending on how I decide to define it. I am a pretty ambitious person, so maybe it is not surprising that I did not meet my original (unrealistic?) goal. What is phase one? A dry stacked stone wall to adjust the slope of our side yard away from the back door, and out toward the (forthcoming) rain garden and back alley. Building a dry stone wall is complex in its own way, and now that I am getting in to it, I am enjoying it. I wish I had photographs to share, but I am wedging this work in between my paid work and taking care of Thomas, who is helping in the way that only a two and a half year old can, so I haven't paused to take pictures. I worked until dark tonight, and would have kept going by porch light, but the mosquitoes convinced me otherwise

This work is engaging in a way that word games are. It both focuses your attention and frees the mind. I think that it would be very good work for poets. It is also doing great things for my upper arms.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Forward in all directions

I haven't been posting lately, and it's not because I have nothing to talk about. Rather, I have been working on everything, and getting nothing done. I have a major project in the works, and I think that Phase 1 should be finished by Sunday. This project has involved shopping in places with really cool tools, and having trucks come to the house -- Thomas loves it.

I got some estimates for work I need done in and around the house. It is a big drag not to be handy. Seriously. I can do all sorts of things: I can estimate the space needs of an academic library with 20 years growth and give it to you in linear feet; I can make delicious yogurt; I can identify an 18th century binding at 20 paces, but I am not so great with home repair. Part of it is my concern that the work be done right, and part of it is that I never have the right tool for the job. I don't want to buy the tool, because I am not very handy, so it seems like a waste... yes, it's a self-perpetuating cycle.

However, one of the estimates pushed me to think about doing the work myself. I asked a bunch of friends for advice, and what do you know, a few offered to help! $600 of materials later, and I am in neck-deep. Let's hope this works. Wish me luck.