Category Archives: elemental business news

Taking ecological design to new heights!

Alaska Airlines Magazine

We can rarely predict from whence our 15 minutes of fame will arise, and I certainly did not expect Alaska Airlines inflight magazine would be featuring my greywater work.  But I’m glad to get even a few small words out about greywater and ecological design to thousands of captive passengers at 30,000 feet. I am interviewed, albeit briefly, in an article about the design/build philosophy that features many great folks from the Yestermorrow community, including Matt Wolpe of Just Fine Design/Build, whose creativity, productivity, and social engagement totally inspires me.

My part of the article, authored by Joe Follansbee, goes something like this:

While conventional architects or builders may walk a site several times and figure out a way to shape the site to the context, some design-build advocates will study the site’s ecology, including the flow of water in and around the site, and the microclimates created by climate and vegetation.

That’s the attitude of Malena Marvin, an outdoor educator and consultant who also designs gray water systems in Ashland, Oregon. “Gray water” is used water from sinks, showers, and baths that is clean enough for other purposes, primarily irrigation.

Marvin advocates for a detailed analysis of the site, down to the soil type and climate patterns. Ideally, a good structural design has little impact on the environment, and may even enhance local natural processes.

Furthermore, Marvin argues that architects should spend as much time as possible outdoors. “We need people who are ecologically fluent, which has to be learned outside,” she says.


Greywater growing stronger!

Greywater-irrigated asian pear tree in southern Oregon.

MY 3 year old asian pear tree produced its first large crop of fruit the season it was irrigated with laundry greywater.

This morning’s September rains signaled an end to another hot, dry summer in southern Oregon, and the first season of greywater irrigation in my yard. As my household enjoys the abundant plums and pears we grew with laundry water this year, I’m reflecting on the growth of greywater in my life, in my community, and across the nation.

With news of greywater legalization in Colorado, greywater is now somewhere in between gay marriage and marijuana in terms of state-level legality. Of course, one day we’ll look back and wonder why we ever thought it was not only a good idea – but the law – to sully perfectly clean water with our waste, than treat it with chemicals and put it back into our rivers. But for now let’s celebrate the small victories: Colorado joins Oregon, California, Washington, Arizona, Texas, and New Mexico as places where people can reasonably re-use their own greywater without becoming outlaws!


I’m also pleased to report that this summer I graduated to the top ranks of the greywater installers among my certifying organization – Greywater Action. I’m now one of three Greywater Associates nationwide, and the only one doing business outside of California. Being a Greywater Associate means that in addition to my certification I’ve completed and received feedback on a minimum of five systems professionally, that I’m actively collaborating with Greywater Action, and that I’m working to ease permitting barriers and provide education about greywater systems in my local area.

Greywater-irrigated plum tree in Ashland, Oregon.

Greywater-irrigated plum tree in Ashland, Oregon.

As my experience with integrating greywater into ecological designs and job sites grows, I’m excited to be doing more collaborative education and consulting. In addition to reaching local networks, I’ve enjoyed connecting with folks around the state and the country who want to include greywater in their larger classes and workshops. On the ground here in southern Oregon, I’m seeing such a need for skill building, not just for folks who want to learn and implement DIY progressive water design, but also for all the plumbers and contractors whose clients are asking for greywater. Most tradespeople at this point have little experience with alternative water systems, and also don’t have a lot of extra time and energy to devote to learning a new craft. It’s fulfilling for me to be able to step in and offer the answers clients are looking for, and help interweave this simple, fun solution into peoples homes and lives.

Eating an asian pear irrigated with greywater.

Eating an asian pear irrigated with greywater from my washing machine.

Greywater, of course, is one element of ecological design – a method of creating human habitat in keeping with nature’s principles. I encourage folks to see their own homes and yards not just as habitat for people and wildlife, but also as fertile ground for growing a new relationship between humans and nature. Like the laws that make greywater illegal in most of our country, we’ve inherited a lot of ingrained patterns in our built and legal environments that make it very difficult to live sustainably, equitably, and regeneratively in our communities. The good news is, we’re changing this! Ecological design, permaculture, and the constellation of elements that they encompass are gaining ground everyday. Here’s to a great growing season for greywater – may we continue to water our species’ good seeds by working together to change the world.


Don’t dump that water – reuse it…

A great deal of household water can be recycled and piped outside for gardens and landscaping under a state law set up last year, and Ashland aquatic ecologist Malena Marvin, who installs graywater systems, will offer do-it-yourself classes in May.

“It’s easy to do, but it’s also easy to do wrong,” says Marvin, who has started the 100 Houses Graywater Challenge and is trying to get city planners interested in helping and promoting it.

“It’s important we do these right and that, if you do it yourself, that you have a consultant work with you,” she says, “so it will become talked about and accepted as a normal, good idea. We don’t want to have people winging it, then having problems, so then people think graywater is a problem.”

Graywater is household waste water diverted from one of four sources — washing machines, bathtubs or showers, bathroom sinks and kitchen sinks — and reused for irrigation. Water from toilets, dishwashers and garbage disposals can’t be used. Graywater can be used on trees, landscaping plants, compost, lawns and gardens, but not for edible root crops such as carrots and beets.

Until last year, graywater reuse was not legal in Oregon. In 2009, following the lead of several other states, the state Legislature passed a bill directing the Department of Environmental Quality to set standards and create a permit structure for graywater reuse and disposal systems. The agency completed the process in 2011 and began issuing permits last spring.

Costs for the permits vary depending on the type of system being installed. Costs and other details can be seen on DEQ’s website at

Showing the system in her backyard, Marvin, 35, shows how the flow is controlled by a three-way valve inside the house, so waste water can either be sent to plants or to the normal sewage or septic system.

Waste water travels to landscaping through 1-inch high-density polyethylene pipe. In Marvin’s system, the water goes into 4-foot-long “mulch basins” that are filled with bark dust. Roots of nearby plants suck up the precious liquid, she says.

Marvin was trained in graywater design and installation in California. She says she plans to get a contracting license soon.

Marvin does consulting on the systems and notes she can help with the DEQ paperwork and site plans. Permits require homeowners to calculate how much water the plants will use, she says, and that determines how much water you can divert to yards. They also require waste water to be 4feet above the summer water table. The systems are turned off in winter.

Marvin built an outdoor shower with mostly recycled materials and will hook that up with her graywater system.

“It’s about how to blend ecological design with esthetics,” she says. “It’s a great opportunity to interact more meaningfully with our own landscape.”

Marvin will offer a hands-on, DIY “Laundry to Landscape” workshop May 17-19. Participants will learn to modify a washing machine’s drain line, set up irrigation and design their landscape to make the best use of the water.

The workshop costs $135. Register at 541-821-7260 or

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at


Help Elemental win a small business contest! Vote here!


In the spirit of leaving no stone unturned, I’ve entered Elemental Design/Build in a vote-online small business contest and could really use your help with the online voting. If I’m selected as one of the 15 winners, my “wish” for $5,000 toward a contractor’s license and new tools would be granted! How cool would that be!

Did you know women-owned businesses make up just 28% of Oregon’s businesses? I don’t think that’s because we’re 28% as smart, or 28% as capable. I think this has a lot to do with access to capital, and many womens’ relative discomfort with demanding their share of the financial pie. I’d really like to make Elemental a shining example of a woman-owned business for other women to be inspired by. And I’d also love to see a green, progressive business highlighted as one of the 15 winners in this contest.

So what are you waiting for! Go vote! And remember you can come back once a day and vote for Elemental to help me win. 

Here’s the link if you want to share it by email or on your Facebook page: