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...