erosionSite erosion control, while often overlooked is an important part of sustainable building practices. Erosion from building sites silts up waterways amongst other things so minimizing it is critical for achieving the goal of low impact development. In this post, Bob goes on to suggest five techniques that architects and builders can use to help to prevent erosion and sediment loss and ensure that the building of the green building is itself green.

by Bob Faulhaber, PE, LEED AP, Founder/Owner of Faulhaber Engineering & Sustainability, LLC. Read his blog, The Green Civil Engineer. Follow him on Twitter @FESCONSULTING. Like him on Facebook. Connect with him on Linkedin.

As design engineers I believe that our tendency is to focus on post construction stormwater controls and best management practices. This is natural and to some degree warranted- after all we are usually hired to design a finished product and how it gets constructed is often left to the contractor. Couple that with the fact that the insurance companies and attorneys are always advising design professionals that “we are not responsible, in any way, for the means, methods, sequence, procedures, techniques, scheduling of construction” and it is understandable that the focus is on post construction stormwater management. However, because of that I think Erosion Prevention and Sediment Controls (EPSC) during construction are often overlooked as a green site design and planning technique. Give your erosion prevention and sediment controls a little love!

It might not be sexy but EPSCs or lack thereof can have a tremendous environmental impact. According to the EPA a typical, unmanaged construction site can lose approximately 35-45 tons or soil per acre in one year. By comparison, forest or farm land will lose 1 ton or less per acre over the same time period. Left unmanaged that soil can travel downstream and clog natural and man-made waterways, affect water supplies, damage aquatic life, and otherwise adversely impact adjacent property owners and waterways. In addition, bare soil can increase runoff velocities resulting in further erosion on site and downstream, increase runoff volumes causing flooding and reducing groundwater recharge and increase water temperatures negatively impacting aquatic species. Beyond that, if you ever want to upset the neighbor of one of your construction sites try dumping some dirty water or sediment on their property – it will definitely get their attention!

If you are applying LID (Low Impact Development) techniques to your site, it becomes even more critical to pay attention to the erosion and sediment controls. I have experienced this on some of the first LID projects that I designed and I saw otherwise good LID designs perform poorly because the contractor did not properly install and maintain erosion controls. With traditional stormwater controls much of the flow is directed to catch basins and pipes where it is easy to manage sediment and control flows. However, when the post construction design relies on vegetative practices such as swales and raingardens it is critical to prevent erosion rather than just control sediment. And it is equally important to make sure that infiltration practices don’t become clogged and compacted during construction which can negatively impact their post construction performance. Many times these items are overlooked because LID techniques are new to the design and construction team.

So what can you do? Of course it is very site specific and you may have little or no control over construction phase activities, but there are some very basic tenants that you can apply that will do wonders for your erosion and sediment controls during construction.

1 Disturb as little area as possible – the most basic thing that you can do to reduce soil erosion and sediment loss is to limit the amount of area that you disturb. You can do this by getting involved early in the planning process and working with the architect or planner to locate the building and infrastructure and being mindful of the natural slopes and general topography.

2 Phase your grading operations – the common practice on most sites, especially smaller ones, is for the excavator to come in at the begging of the project, strip all of the topsoil in disturbed areas and grade the whole site to sub-grade. Much or all of the site is then left disturbed for the life of the construction project. By phasing the grading operations you can limit the amount of time the land is disturbed and therefore limit the amount of time that it can erode.

3 Reduce slope gradients and lengths – steep and long slopes erode exponentially more than shorter flatter slopes. Try to keep slopes to 4:1 or less and less than 40′ long. If slopes are steeper and/or longer they should be terraced, furrowed, serrated or stepped.

4 Establish vegetation on disturbed areas – the best way to limit erosion and control sediment is to get vegetation established. A good stand of grass will beat silt fence any day. Here is a case where the color green really means something – a brown construction site will not perform as well as a green one! Unfortunately, the vegetation is often put off until the completion of the project rather than using it during construction to control erosion.

5 Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance – don’t wait for erosion controls to fail or for the local of state authorities to come calling before cleaning and maintaining erosion controls. Its always easier to maintain than it is to fix it once it gets out of hand.

The five techniques above are really just a sampling of what can be done to help prevent erosion and sediment loss, but I think that the key points are to be mindful of it in the design phase, stay on top of it and establish vegetation early. Traditionally the focus has been more on sediment control, yet it should be on erosion prevention. Doing that will limit environmental impact and improve the post construction performance of stormwater controls.

For a list of current trends in green building see our related post “The Top 20 Green Building Trends for 2011.

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© 2011, Bob Faulhaber. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Bob Faulhaber (8 Articles)

  • Chris de Morsella

    One fairly common practice that can also help lessen erosion problems on building sites is to cover exposed graded soil with a straw mulch to lessen the impact of falling rain and to place strawbale bunds in strategic locations and slow the movement of water in erosion prone areas. The straw filters the water trapping silt in it as well and can be composted into the landscaping afterwards.

    • Bob Faulhaber

      You’re right Chris – placing straw or other mulch is a great way to reduce erosion on exposed surfaces. The most common mistake I see with straw mulch is that nothing is done to anchor is so it blows away or washes away after a few rainfall events. Anchoring the straw with a tackifier or crimping it into the ground significantly increases the effectiveness of mulching.