Adobe and the Law of Unintended Consequence
Fifteen or twenty years ago my good friend and colleague Jim Hands, who is a superb structural engineer, lobbied intently to have the City and County of Santa Fe implement a statute requiring property owners to capture runoff in retention ponds rather than let it head for the Rio Grande and, thus, Texas.
I don't think Jim is particularly anti-Texas and his motive was not to deprive a neighbor of water. The thinking was simply that holding water in retention ponds and infiltration galleries would help recharge shallow aquifers, take the strain and a lot of detritus out of storm sewers, prevent flooding of neighboring properties and retard downstream erosion. Good thinking, though I secretly put a few pins in a doll when I had to retrofit my own commercial property to comply.
Recently Jim and I were reviewing an assemblage of buildings in the city that are also owned by compliant and responsible folks. It was instantly clear that the letter and intent of the statute had been followed, but that common sense had escaped both the design professional and the city officials responsible for the placement and construction of the retention facilities.
On neighboring properties on a fairly steep slope, one of the adobe homes had been fitted with an infiltration gallery, a subsurface, perforated culvert designed to hold a large volume of runoff water until it can soak into the surrounding soils. It works magnificently. But we were rolling our eyes and scratching our heads at the location; a mere four feet from one footing that supports two stories (adobe, don't forget) and another that supports a massive retaining wall. The soils beneath have both, not surprisingly, failed.
As we gazed across the fence at the neighbor's property, we saw an only slightly less insidious installation. Adjacent to her south adobe wall is a rock-lined retention pond that gathers water from a driveway serving four other residences.
What engineer in his right mind would design such things? Who in their right mind would approve the plans? What inspector in his right mind when looking at these things in real-life and real-time wouldn't snap to the folly? The owners are now stuck with repair bills that are sizable and could almost be thought of as punitive for their having cooperated fully with the law and having paid for services that condemned their properties to descend, with increasing speed, into the ground.
As I ranted to Jim about the inane design of these two schemes, he developed a wry, confessional smile and admitted that he had argued solidly in favor of the statute requiring them. Not, he was quick to add, with the foresight that a civil or structural engineer (to say nothing of the City's design review staff) would have a common and complete mental lapse when it came time to implement.
It is an interesting and disturbing phenomenon that we are experiencing in Santa Fe, and elsewhere I presume, as sites once considered un-buildable are developed, and new restrictions around well-intentioned and increasingly necessary conservation measures are implemented. New houses on bad sites are failing in droves leading to lawsuits by everyone against everyone. The well-intentioned conservation strategies, like the two described here (which are by no means isolated cases), have highlighted the law of unintended consequence.