This past June, I had the opportunity to visit Mendocino, Calif. The purpose of the visit was to conduct a deep dive into the town’s approach to sustainability and to develop a set of drawings using the iPad as the digital recording device. The trip marked my third experience of the town and on this particular occasion the town’s water towers and windmills struck me in a very different and somewhat profound way.
The town's name comes from Cape Mendocino, named by early Spanish navigators in honor of Antonio de Mendoza, Viceroy of New Spain. Many of the town's early settlers were New Englanders, as was true with many older Northern California logging towns. Portuguese fishermen from the Azores also settled in the area, as did immigrants from Canton Province in China, who built a Taoist temple in the town. Mendocino was one of the first logging towns and settled mainly by New Englanders, and most of the houses were built in the New England style.
The town of Mendocino was noted for its incredible use of water towers and windmill structures that were built in the late 1890s to provide water pressure to homes and businesses in a town without a central water system. Each dwelling and the supporting buildings feature windmills and water tower structures. The town has no direct fresh water supply, and rain only falls between November and March, so residents had to conserve the rainwater they received. In a stroke of ingenuity, the town added windmills to power the movement of collected waters to a central tower located at a high elevation. That way, when water needed to be released for use from this collection point, gravity would direct the water to where it needed to go.
Some of the water towers are still functioning. Others have been recycled or renovated to provide unique artist studio and loft bedroom spaces. The windmills are mostly history, replaced by electric pumps. But a few windmills remain, and these historical structures not only lend Mendocino a unique, rustic charm but serve as an example of how people on this continent have long relied on sustainable strategies for survival. If the Mendocino’s settlers could devise such a system so ingenious that it provided fresh potable water using only wind and gravity as power forces, then why can’t we take advantage of current technology to create net-zero energy and water buildings?
One possible explanation is that we have not been adequately challenged. Since Mendocino lacked natural access to potable waters, settlers had to create a sustainable water system if they wanted to stay in this gorgeous coastal town. Most of us don’t face such a dire predicament in our everyday life. In fact, we might not even perceive a problem, but if we don’t start to reduce our energy and water usage big problems will arise in the not so distant future.
The rocky headland and magnificent ocean setting of Mendocino is incredible to experience, but views across the skyline silhouettes of the water towers and windmills in all their unique variations can be an inspiration for people everywhere. Mendocino inspired me to remember that human ingenuity can solve sustainability problems on a wide range of scales. Now we must figure out how to inspire people who have never set foot in this fantastic town to address problems plaguing our world, even when the consequences of those problems are not yet dire in nature.
Douglas Wittnebel is a Principal and Design Director for Gensler’s San Ramon office. With over 29 years of design and management experience, his work is characterized by his creativity, expressive sketches and ability to translate ideas into functional design. Contact him at email@example.com.