Resource Hogs: Greening Prison Infrastructure
Posted by Neeraj on March 8, 2009 | PERMALINK

Prisons are perhaps the most resource-intensive institutional infrastructures. This is largely a function of the unique nature of the building typology, which requires continuous operation, high levels of lighting (for security) and water consumption (for the inmates). Moreover, prison cells that contain toilet fixtures are required to have exhaust venting, increasing heating and cooling loads and costs. With the number of prisons on the rise in the US, new green initiatives are being explored to offset these resource hogs.

Take, for instance, Cedar Creek Corrections Center (CCCC), located close to Olympia in Washington State. A couple of years ago, Cedar Creek set up a “Green Work” program, wherein inmates grow produce, compost and recycle waste, and harvest honey. They have also established a research venture with Evergreen State College, entitled the Sustainable Prisons Project. Cedar Creek (and prisons in general) provide an ideal environment to measure energy and food inputs and outputs due to the stability of the population. Further, the inmates are educated in green practices and gain job skills, equipping them to be part of the next generation of ‘green-collared’ workers.

Cedar Creek’s organic garden, recycling program, composting, beehive facility and water catchment tanks have impressive measurable figures; 15000 pounds of organic food was produced last year alone, while 2000 pounds of food was composted. Further, over 250 000 gallons of water was saved. The economic savings from landfill, water and food costs totaled $34,333 USD, or approximately $85.83 per inmate per annum. This has saved Washington State taxpayers $1.5 million dollars per year and allowed, in theory, money to be transferred to other social programs. Further, it has inspired the retrofitting of 34 facilities in Washington State to gain LEED certification.

Washington State is joined by several other states within in the US who see the economic and environmental benefits of greening their prisons. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation announced a plan in October 2008 to retrofit 16 prisons. This is estimated to save $3 million per year, 25 million kilowatt hours and 650,000 therms of energy. This is equivalent to removing 3,770 cars from the road. Moreover, six prisons are slated to house massive solar fields. Ironwood State Prison in Blythe, California has already installed 6,200 solar panels, which produces extra energy that is fed into the grid, providing enough energy to power over 4,100 homes per year. The Putnamville Correctional Facility in Indiana boasts a biomass boiler, saving approximately $6,300 in gas bills a day. A wind turbine in another Indiana facilities produces about 10 kilowatts per hour, saving the prison $2,280 a year. Similar initiatives are starting to occur in North Carolina, Virginia and Norway.


While the United States comprise less than 5 percent of the world’s population, it houses a quarter of the world’s prisoners. According to data from the International Center for Prison Studies at King’s College, London, the United States has approximately 2.3 million prisoners. Greening all the prisons in the United States could create savings of up to $196 million per year. While the number of prisons in the United States is both controversial and in dire need of questioning, the greening prison programs not only equips inmates with new green-collared skills, it allows for a deeper connection with nature and a more sustainable method of rehabilitation. While this is largely economically driven, the saved money can be placed into other sustainable infrastructures, while these prisons yield research that can benefit the general populace.

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Farming Fuels
Posted by Neeraj on February 24, 2009 | PERMALINK

In a few weeks the Algae Biofuels World Summit will take place in San Francisco, one of the first formalized events dedicated to the production of algafuels. Algae farming has garnered increased attention as oil prices continue to rise, and it is not surprising - they seem to outcompete their biofuel cousins on several fronts while having other added benefits.

Algae are miniature bio-factories, utilizing photosynthesis to transform CO2 and sunlight into energy. The primary interest in microalgae is their sheer efficiency in photosynthesizing - fundamentally doubling their own weight several times a day. One reason for this increased productivity is that up to sixty percent of an alga's body weight is already comprised of oil (oil palms, the largest biofuel producer yields approximately 20 percent of their weight). As such, algae are able to yield thirty times more energy per acre than corn or soybean crops, theoretically producing over 10,000 gallons of fuel per acre (recent closed loop systems claim to produce between 100,000 - 150,000 gallons per acre). To put this in perspective, soy produces 50 gallons of oil per acre per year; canola, 150 gallons; and palm, 650 gallons. Beyond its immense productivity, algae farms require no freshwater, consumable food, or arable land. Not only does this allow them to be placed virtually anywhere, it accounts for a lower production and maintenance cost than other biofuels, namely soybean and sunflower.

What is perhaps most appealing about all biofuels (including those from palm oil, soybean, and corn) is that they can be used in any engine that already consumes conventional petroleum diesel, eliminating the need for a separate infrastructural apparatus for distribution. Biofuels can also be blended with traditional diesel in any ratio, allowing them to slowly be introduced into the market as demand and algae farms grow. The infrastructure (and their associated costs) to service and distribute many new biotechnologies has often doomed their own development. This ability to colonize existing infrastructure allows for a seamless transition for both distributers and consumers of biofuels.

Between 1978 and 1996, the US Department of Energy funded several research initiatives focused on biofuel production including the use of algae farms. Scientists were successful at isolating 300 strains of the microorganism that were worthy of testing (in terms of their productive value) from a possible three thousand. With this research, new algae farms are employing high-yielding algae strains to increase efficiency. To further improve yields, ideal growing conditions become increasingly critical. Algae require high levels of CO2 (higher than what is currently in our atmosphere) for maximum production. A polyethylene ‘photobioreactor’ bag is frequently utilized to control light, temperature, nutrient and CO2 levels. The CO2 is often provided from coal power plants or other industrial processes, effectively cleaning the atmosphere in the midst of manufacturing biofuel. Further, the byproduct after extracting the oil can be used in cattle feed, vitamins and pigments.

The US consumes approximately 138 billion gallons of fuel a year. Given the yield of algae farms, The United States Department of Energy estimates that 9.6 million acres of land would need to be dedicated to algae farming - a mere fraction of the present 450 million acres of land devoted to agriculture. While algae farms can be located virtually anywhere, if they are strategically placed along waste streams, they could utilize either human or animal waste as a food source. Moreover, nutrients extracted from the algae (nitrogen and phosphorous) could produce organic fertilizers. This essentially creates a closed loop nutrient cycle from food to waste, to fertilizer and food. This would lower the consumption of petroleum-based fertilizers, treat waste streams, and create fuel. While biofuels may not require an infrastructural system, the siting of algae farms could take a regional infrastructural approach - located at key points in the agricultural and wastewater system to maximize yields while treating waste and consuming CO2.

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Sea Dust, pt 1
Posted by Mason on January 28, 2009 | PERMALINK

On January 21, Thomas L. Viola was charged with the theft of some 135 tons of road salt in Aurora, Illinois. Viola had (intentionally) sold the road salt, which did not belong to him, on October 1 at the bargain price of $9000 (US). He was caught and the salt was recovered / found in a warehouse. Now while the headline "Man Charged With Theft Of 135 Tons Of Road Salt" is certainly more eye-catching than the reality of selling goods that are not your own as thieving, we were struck more with the commodity worthy of such a heist. About 50% of industrialized salt production is used in cold-climate regions for de-icing. Along with that massive seasonally dependent harvest, is the need to store salt (or sand) in a distributed fashion and at a municipal level. Like little salt banks or mail drop-off boxes, salt facilities dot the highway landscape. These often conical containers are perfectly formed to the angle of repose of salt mounds. In a strange twist, the containers are protecting the salt from the weather, while the salt, once dispersed, protects us from the weather.

Toronto, for example, uses about 130,000 - 150,000 tonnes of salt annually with 200 salting trucks to address 130cm of annual snowfall. And Montreal spends about $135 million annually to address its 217cm snowfall. Industrial salt production is a massive enterprise of which less than 10% is for use in de-icing.

The US and China produce about 40% of total world salt production, which globally was about 250 million tons in 2006.

Following a heavy winter last year, many municipalities stocked up on road salt early this year. This drove prices up, and it has created the need for more innovative thinking in terms of ice-melting. One case in point is geomelt, which Chicago is considering. But other options have included garlic salt.

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Infrastructure for everyone! – not so fast.
Posted by Maya on January 28, 2009 | PERMALINK

With the global economy in recession and unemployment levels rising, elected leaders throughout the world are turning to infrastructure projects as a way to put thousands of people back to work.

With this massive forthcoming investment we just had to investigate what’s likely to come down the infrastructure pipeline.  It turns out however, that what me be coming our way are not exactly the forward-looking interventions we are hoping for.  In fact, the stimulus packages proposed potentially threaten the exact projects we should want to succeed.

This risk is a direct result of our current economic situation.  In order for the stimulus to stimulate things need to happen relatively quickly.  Thus, a tension exists between doing things well and doing things quickly.

Unfortunately, federal governments don’t have the best reputation when it comes to spending wisely on infrastructure. In a recent New York Times article “Piling up Monuments of Waste”, David Leonhardt claims:

It’s hard to exaggerate how scattershot the current system is. Government agencies usually don’t even have to do a rigorous analysis of a project or how it would affect traffic and the environment, relative to its cost and to the alternatives — before deciding whether to proceed. In one recent survey of local officials, almost 80 percent said they had based their decisions largely on politics, while fewer than 20 percent cited a project’s potential benefits.

Road and highway construction is one apparent category of infrastructure spending where politics threatens to trump utility. The Brookings Institution directs our attention at U.S. roads as being and potential investment with a high ROI. The proposed investment needs to distance itself from politically driven projects that lead to things like underused highways in western Pennsylvania, and instead focus on alleviating the financial losses in major US centers due to road congestion.

[Clogged Arteries]

…the places that are most critical to the country’s economic competitiveness don’t get what they need. The nation’s 100 largest metropolitan regions generate 75 percent of its economic output. They also handle 75 percent of its foreign sea cargo, 79 percent of its air cargo, and 92 percent of its air-passenger traffic. Yet of the 6,373 earmarked projects that dominate the current federal transportation law, only half are targeted at these metro areas.

"Clogged Arteries", Bruce Katz and Robert Puentas, The Atlantic

Ok.  So this is one tangible project.  We’ll keep looking for more.  Hopefully the next one we find will not only offer hard-data by analyzing effect vs. cost (also known as value) but also move beyond the shovel-ready standards rooted in the 1950s fossil fuel paradigm – something that we may lose sight of during this infrastructure spending spree

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Climate Proofing the Netherlands (and Saving Architecture)
Posted by Neeraj on January 24, 2009 | PERMALINK

In the last years it seems to be an agreed upon fact that sea levels are certainly on the rise due to global climate change. Over the past 100 years, the seas have been climbing approximately 1.8mm per annum. Scientists have more recently been recording a rise of approximately 3.1mm per year (over the past 15 years) indicating that this rate is increasing. This is not only due to the melting of the polar ice caps (and all their precious fresh water), but more predominantly by the thermal expansion of the sea (heating water lowers the density of its molecules, thereby increasing its surface area). In the next century, sea levels are predicted to rise between 90 and 880mm. It is estimated that there are currently three billion coastal dwellers, which is expected to rise to six billion by 2025. As sea levels continue to increase, coastal and low-lying cities (or nations), such as the Netherlands, find themselves in a precarious position. A group of engineers and ocean experts on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a forty-centimeter rise in the North Sea by 2025; between sixty-five centimeters and 1.3 meters by 2100; and up to 4 meters by 2200. These estimates have instigated the proactive Dutch to design pre-emptive measures of climatic defense.

The Netherlands is one of the few countries that have mastered building on the water. Largely built on reclaimed land, the Netherlands sits in a perilous location - a delta, created where the Rhine and Meuse Rivers flow into the North Sea. In 1953, a massive flood caused severe damage - killing nearly two thousand people and flooding over 150,000 hectares of land. In the aftermath of this devastation - just twenty days later - the Delta commission was born. The Delta commission was conceived to increase the safety of the Delta area of Holland without shutting down the seaways De Niuwe Waterweg and the Western Schelde (which connect to the prosperous ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp). Creating arguably the best defensive system of natural barriers, levees, dams, storm surge barricades, dunes, etc., the Delta Commission was successful at 'climate proofing' (their term for resisting flooding) the Netherlands for 1:10,000 year floods (for comparison, New Orleans is striving for 1:100 year levels by 2011). Although the risk seems low, the land below sea level in the Netherlands accounts for sixty-five percent of its GDP (approximately $450 billion per year), not to mention a population of 11 Million residents. As economics plays a large factor in 'risk' assessment, the following equation is often used to determine the viability of a ‘climate proofing’ project: Risk = (probability of failure) x (projected cost of damage)


The increased risks by future sea level changes (including the fact that climate change is also expected to promote higher precipitation in the Alps which will trickle through the rivers of Europe) have prompted the creation of the Delta Committee. Governmentally assigned, and comprise of a team of experts, the committee produced a report in 2008 that investigated how to climate-proof the Netherlands for the next century. The report proposed a 100-year mega project, which included extending the coastline and building new surge barriers while fortifying the levees. An estimated 400 square miles is to be added to the Netherlands (or seventeen 'Manhattans') over the course of the project. While the primary function of the infrastructural project is defensive in nature, it is hoped that the new construction, “interfaces with life and work, agriculture, ecology, recreation and leisure, landscape, infrastructure and energy". Although, It is difficult to find concrete details on the design (the report is still only in Dutch), it is evident that it is a serious endeavor and one worth pursuing given the populace and economics with the affected zones.


The aggressive plan comes with a high price tag - approximately 1.5 billion Euros per year for the next 100 years. Although this may at first seem absurd, we must remember that Hurricane Katrina caused an upwards of $150 USD billion of damage, not to mention the loss of life, crippled economics and tourism. Further, the Dutch are motivated to start early to reduce overall costs and potentially avoid disaster. Currently, the project is in its initial stages, but the Dutch Government has already allocated 50 million euros to the research initiative “Knowledge for Climate Proofing the Netherlands.” This organization is researching climate-proofing techniques and new international technologies. Quoted by wired.com as "what may be the most ambitious act of territorial defense in history", perhaps the next “great walls” will be to evade climate, instead of nations.

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Power of Ecosystems / Ecosystems of Power
Posted by Mason on January 17, 2009 | PERMALINK

Having recently endured a power outage during one of the coldest days of the year in a country that begins above the 45th parallel, we are bluntly reminded of the power of (electrical) power. There continues to be increased, and just, pressure to modernize our aging electrical network from "the grid," as it is known, into a smart grid or a super grid. How synchronous then that we read with great interest on Alexis Madrigal's site about how the US Department of Energy has now designated the century-old electrical power grid an "ecosystem."

Here the ecosystem refers to the hardware itself, as a sprawling tentacular pulsating machine. Or as they write in the Smart Grid brochure:

Our century-old power grid is the largest interconnected machine on Earth, so massively complex and inextricably linked to human involvement and endeavor that it has alternately (and appropriately) been called an ecosystem. It consists of more than 9,200 electric generating units with more than 1,000,000 megawatts of generating capacity connected to more than 300,000 miles of transmission lines. ... Today’s electricity system is 99.97 percent reliable, yet still allows for power outages and interruptions that cost Americans at least $150 billion each year — about $500 for every man, woman and child.

But somehow we prefer to think of the grid not necessarily as an ecosystem so much as demarcating one. That the networked powerlines and associated towers and tunnels mark a territory. And that territory, deemed undesirable for human development, instead inscribes an interconnected ecosystem habitat highway. The only true wild remaining in US runs parallel and under this network.

Adam Ryder and Brian Rosa's On the Grid, currently at the Stairwell Gallery in Providence, RI, seems to capture this version of the ecosystem better. Their photographs follow the high-tensioned electrical lines in Rhode Island, starting near Ocean State Park Power facility in Burrillville. The network, typical in many ways, is full of rusty trucks, loading docks, horses, birds, bugs, and other marginilized urbanisms and nature. As development pushes from either side of these electrical corridors, animals and insects flock to this zone as it becomes a reliable no-man's land of occupation, and kind of everyday demilitarized zone between competing developments.

Or as they write:

The path of the power lines functions as a rural to urban transect, cutting through farmland and commercial parks, cul-de-sacs and strip malls, used car lots and interstate highways.

And further still on the kind of landscapes that emerge around power lines:

... the realm of power lines seems to exist not only outside of regulation, but also outside of the normative properties of the native landscape. Whereas an area half of a mile away from a high tension line may be densely wooded, the space occupied by the wires will be clear-cut, devoid of trees and exhibiting, at most, low shrubbery and grass. The uniformity of this narrow swath as it cuts through the landscape reveals as much about its own spatial utility as it does of the landscape it bifurcates across the state (and beyond).

On the Grid runs from Jan 10 - ? at the Stiarwell Gallery in Providence, RI.

And a related radio segment is here.

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Student Works: Suburban Defense
Posted by Mason on January 14, 2009 | PERMALINK

Caught somewhere between No-Stop City and an Everyday Virilio-ism, Tom Vigar's Master of Architecture thesis "Subtopian Dreams" at Sheffield University posits a shared economy (and landscape) of suburbia and military sites. Arguing the inevitable links and interdependence of one with the other, they could share the same territory in a cyclical symbiosis. Suburbia thrives on the technology transfer offered by the military, while the military conveniently hides behind the false front of oh-so-innocent suburbia.

Vigar writes:

The suburbanite is in a state of constant warfare against their neighbours, nature and terrorism. Luckily at the suburbanites command is a whole host of military developed technologies to help them rid all their work surfaces of 99.99% bacteria & maintain a sterile home whilst inadvertently helping to keep the war industries in business. Somehow we have confused the strict military ordering of things with the act of living!

Seeking an optimal performing suburban pattern for the top layer, various network configurations are evaluated on the basis of defense and access. A combination of types becomes the chosen condition that is then mirrored and repeated. Meanwhile, below that cleansers and domestic technologies are being manufactured for consumption. And, yet again, meanwhile below that troops are training in subterranean bunkers for the next call-up. The military-industrial complex and the suburban-industrial complex unified in marital bliss.

Get in touch with him at t.vigar[at]gmail[dot]com.
And for more on defense infrastructures, we defer to our blog-colleague at Subtopia.

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From Ego to Energy - Towers of Power Revisited
Posted by Neeraj on January 11, 2009 | PERMALINK

As the race for the tallest tower progresses, research into solar power design has created (perhaps for the first time) a need for height. The solar updraft tower – a combination of a solar chimney, greenhouse and wind turbine – was first presented in 1903 by Spanish Colonel Isidoro Cabanyes in the magazine La Energia Electrica. Due to magnitudes of economics, solar towers garnered little attention until the 1980s. The present energy crisis has fueled a resurgence of solar tower design.

Solar towers are a unique invention that exploit the greenhouse effect to create energy. Powered by the sun, solar radiation heats a large glazed base that encircles a massive tower. The base essentially acts as a greenhouse to trap and heat the air. Naturally rising hot air finds its way to the tower, and is pulled through the solar chimney by convection currents, the vacuum effect continually drawing in more air. As this occurs, the updraft is able to spin a single or several wind turbines attached to the base of the tower. Like a hot air balloon, think of it as forcing a temperature differential to produce wind.

So where is the best spot to plant a solar tower? Flat, sun soaked conditions are ideal, within close proximity to the electrical grid. Further, areas with lower atmospheric winds and geologically stable land are preferred. It is possible to set up a solar tower in northern latitudes, but this requires the collection disk to slope towards to the south to capture maximum solar radiation (output is often lower as well, typically 85 percent of a strategically located solar tower). Lastly, because the collection greenhouses consume a vast amount of space, these towers are often only possible in areas with low land value (which, given the current economic crisis, is almost anywhere).

The amount of energy produced by solar towers is directly related to size – bigger is better. Taller chimneys create higher-pressure differentials, increasing the force on the wind turbine. Additionally, the size of the solar collection area and chimney affects the volume of air, and therefore the amount of energy produced. Current designs are being explored that couple a 1000m tall tower with a 20 sq.km greenhouse, yielding approximately 100MW of power. A similar tower with a 38 sq.km collection disk could produce a whopping 200MW, enough to power 200,000 houses.

The efficiency of solar towers is greatly reduced during the night. The turbines continue to rotate due to the super-heated land that heats the adjacent air, but the efficiency drops significantly. Researchers at RMIT and Ove Arup have incorporated salt-water ponds (also called ‘solar ponds’) because of their increased specific heat capacity, which traps heat in the layers of saltwater and releases it gradually during the dark hours.

Funded by the German government and designed by engineers Schlaich Bergermann and Partner, a small-scaled solar tower prototype was tested in Spain from 1982–1989. Sited 150 km south of Madrid in Manzanares, the tower stood 195m tall with a 10m diameter shaft. This coupled with a collection greenhouse of 46,000 sq.m, produced a maximum output of 50KW. Not intended for energy harvesting, the prototype allowed for the testing of various greenhouse materials.

Current proposals for a 750m tall tower in Spain, a 800m tall tower in China, and a 600m tall tower in Australia are underway. Renewable energy company, EnviroMission is set to build the tower in Australia, a country that is currently powered by cheap coal. The tower is engulfed by a 65m diameter collection area (approximately 6 times larger than central park) and expected to provide enough energy to power between 100,000 and 200,000 homes. This would save more than 900,000 tons of greenhouse carbon dioxide emissions from entering the Australian atmosphere

Interestingly, the prototype solar tower built in the desert, fostered conditions conducive to the growth of plant life. This was due to condensation created at night that enlivened the soil with moisture, essentially transforming the desert into arable land. Not only can these collection areas add water to otherwise unproductive land, the towers could be linked with other programmes. Think of large office or residential towers that have a solar chimney at their core. Venting the exhaust heat from these additional programmes into the solar chimney would increase the updraft current, producing more energy. Plus, every resident could have clean energy and a garden plot in the middle of the desert.

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Water Economy and Liquid Assets
Posted by Lola on January 9, 2009 | PERMALINK

[zoning future underground water banks for a new liquid sub-urbanism]

Scientists and economists predict that the wars of the 21st century will be waged over water rights. Some cities live under the threat of eradication through rising sea water levels, and others, under the threat of desertification. Counties in arid Arizona, whose main cities of Phoenix and Tuscon are among the fastest growing cities in the nation, have begun 'water banking', in order to buffer themselves against the regular droughts.

Waterbanking is a strategy which stores or ‘banks’ unused river water (in this case the Colorado River) to be used in times of shortage to secure water supplies for Arizona. Each year, the Arizona Water Banking Authority pays the delivery and storage costs to bring Colorado River water into central and southern Arizona through the Central Arizona Project canal. The water is stored underground in existing aquifers (direct recharge) or is used by irrigation districts in lieu of pumping groundwater (indirect or in-lieu recharge). For each acre-foot of water stored, the AWBA accrues credit that can be redeemed in the future when Arizona's communities or neighboring states need this backup water supply. (1 acre foot is roughly the amount to meet the annual water needs of a typical household).

[Colorado River basin]

[The Granite Reef Underground Storage Project diverts water from the Colorado River to underground water banks. Image via SRP.]

Water has become so critical a resource that water authorities have real-time daily monitoring systems charting water flows and levels in state water reservoirs.

[real-time maps monitor daily water levels in state reservoirs]

Given the ongoing discussions in this region of how to generate more water for the expanding populations of the Colorado Basin (options include cloud seeding, shipping icebergs from Alaska and piping water from the Great Lakes), water is set to become the ultimate commodity in the American west.
[colorado river water strategies]

Welcome to the water economy...

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Weatherizing
Posted by Mason on January 6, 2009 | PERMALINK

You have no doubt heard that even the luxury goods industry is smarting from the economic woes that surfaced prominently in 2008. And the development equivalent of this, the luxury urbanism across the Middle East, has now also decided to shelve a few projects. How odd in fact that a collaboration between a luxury goods brand (Versace) and a Middle East brand city (Dubai) would be offering press releases deep into December on such an ostentatious project as a climate-controlled beach.

The Palazzo Versace Beach proposal ambitiously seeks to single-handendly suck the heat out of its sand; to make the beach cool. Ah, but "how?", you say? (Of course, "why?" is also valid.) One possible implementation is to employ a radiant-slab-like foundation to the sand. Though certainly avid and vigorous sandcastle builders would encounter a snag when they dig their moats. Another possibility is to maintain nearby giant cool-air blowers. But I thought all these Versaciates left their respective domiciles to get away from it all, not smack on to a runway airstrip?

It is difficult to restrain the desire to modify our environment. Making the cold ... warm, and the hot ... cool. Isnt this the very foundation of architecture even prior to HVAC, a controllable micro-climate? Open a window, and ta-da, a cool breeze. Close a window, and ah, toasty.

Today, often architecture is more circumstantial to large-scale environment modulating systems.

The Ocean Dome, the world's largest environmentally controlled.. uh ... environment maintained an air temperature held around 30 degrees celsius and the water at around 28. Life was certainly a beach at least until it closed in 2007.

Olafur Eliasson's "Weather Project" employed a fine mist to complete the sunset haze environment of the hundreds of mono-frequency lamps. The mist would accumulate into faint, cloudy formations,varying with eacn visit.

An Te Liu's "Cloud" is a battalion of reassembled ionizers, dehumidifiers, and air purifiers running continuously, even exhuastively, in search of 100% pure air.

In Cloud, the appliances are merged, creating mutant assemblies and further confusing the scale at which the work is to be read. It is configurable, expandable and networked, and as a one-to-one reading it is intrusive – even excessive – and highlights the fear of unmediated interior environments. As a larger-scale work it is less Modernist urbanism than Futurist space-junk, since most of the material is intercepted by Liu, no doubt through online bartering portals, en route to dumps as the global e-waste burden grows. At its largest scale it is read as a machined equivalent of an actual cloud abstracted into its components of moisture processing, air exchanges and atmospheric densities, and imagines the potential, as in snow-blowing machines, of generating entire weather conditions at will.

(From a forthcoming essay titled "99.7 Percent Pure" in Architectural Design guest edited by Sean Lally.)

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Making a Better Place
Posted by Maya on January 4, 2009 | PERMALINK

With the cost of a barrel of oil dipping below $40 a few weeks ago (recall this summer’s price of $140), imagining a post-oil future may not be on everyone's mind .  This is not the case for venture-backed  Better Place and its partners.  Since 2007, Better Place, led by founder and CEO Shai Agassi, has been working to design and deliver a strategy to transform transportation infrastructure from oil-based to renewable energy sources thereby reducing harmful emissions.

The goal for the project is not about familiar half-measures such as hybrid or flex-fuel cars.  Instead, the plan calls for the complete decommissioning of the combustion engine in favor of a fully electric solution.

Embracing the electric car on its own doesn’t make for an original insight.  In fact electric cars have occupied our technological horizon since the beginning of the twentieth century.  Then, as now, the limiting factor in leveraging the opportunities of the electric car has remained the same – battery life.

Agassi’s plan is different in that he dismissed the shortcomings of battery life as a reality and instead reformulated the entire automotive model. His plan separates the battery from the car and views automotive transportation as a service instead of a good.

The Better Place zero-emission vehicle system needs three things for optimal performance:  charging spots, battery switching stations, and software to automate the entire experience.

Charging spots, located everywhere you can park your car, will ensure that cars are always equipped with enough juice for 100 miles of travel.  For longer trips, roadside battery switching stations allow you to swap your depleted battery for a fully charged one.  The swap is fully automated – drivers pull in and out without leaving their cars in less time than it takes to fill your tank today.

What makes this all work is the innovative hybridization of the automotive and mobile phone industries.   You currently have a phone that you may have bought outright or chosen to take advantage of a discounted price by making a commitment via a contract.  Once you have the phone, you choose how you want to use it: unlimited minutes, maximum minutes, or pay-as-you-go.  Substitute phone with car and minutes with mileage and you have the Better Place model.

The Better Place electric car network is becoming a reality.  Renault and Nissan have partnered to develop cars to meet the requirements of the plan.  Israel has also committed and promises a nation-wide infrastructure to be in place by 2011.  Israel is thought to be an ideal test ground because it is geographically small with all of its major urban centers less than 150km apart.  As a result 90% of car owners drive less than 70km each day.  Denmark is the next adopter. While similar geographic properties make Denmark another ideal early adopter, the extreme cold climate offers additional challenges.  Other markets planning to go online include Australia, California, and Hawaii.

Better Place has effectively decoupled the issues of energy source and transportation. This open-source model allows for innovations in renewable energies to continue and the electric car network to grow in parallel.  In fact, introducing millions of batteries capable of storing the fluctuating output of energy derived from renewable sources (think solar and wind) only reinforces and strengthens the opportunities of a sustainable future.

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Reviving OTEC
Posted by Mason on December 30, 2008 | PERMALINK

Shelved in the early 1970s after realizing the project was technologically possible but economically untenable, Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion, or OTEC, is witnessing a revival. While many gave up on this, such as NREL, now even energy novices like Lockheed Martin are getting back in on it. Currently, the economic potential of oceanic energy conversion, like most renewables, is inversely related to oil prices; as oil prices rise, OTEC becomes viable. OTEC generates power using a heat engine by leveraging the temperature difference between shallow and deep water. The greater the temperature difference the greater the potential, assuming a 20 degree minimum differential.

Lockheed Martin in collaboration with Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) convinced the US Department of Energy to support their research with $1.2 million back in October, and have since moved forward with an installment of a modest test OTEC facility to better project OTEC's ability to serve the islands of Hawaii. Hawaii is ideal for this kind of renewable energy: it is surrounded by ocean and it is in a tropical climate, therefore enhancing the temperature differential between surface and deep water.

And for those without the convenience of an existing island to serve, a proposal exists that extends the OTEC facility into an island unto itself.

Further still is a proposal of an all encompassing energy island complete with wind, sea current, wave, and solar energy.

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Vortex Induced Vibrations
Posted by Neeraj on December 16, 2008 | PERMALINK

A team of researchers lead by Professor Michael Bernitsas at the University of Michigan has invented a device with the potential to serve a vast amount of the world’s populace with clean energy. VIVACE (Vortex-Induced Vibrations for Aquatic Clean Energy) is a machine that can effectively convert slow moving water currents into energy. Inspired by the movement of fish, Vivace is a hydrokinetic energy system comprising of a field of cylinders that are individually attached to springs. When water moves past these cylinders, it creates eddies, or vortices (which are typically the cause of several problems for offshore engineering). In the Vivace system, however, these vortices are manufactured on opposing sides of the cylinder, causing it to move vertically or horizontally, creating energy.

As Bernitsas explains in an interview with the Telegraph, “This is a totally new method of extracting energy from water flow…. Fish curve their bodies to glide between the vortices shed by the bodies of the fish in front of them. Their muscle power alone could not propel them through the water at the speed they go, so they ride in each other's wake."

The brilliance of this research is that (i) it took a typical problem and found potential energy within it and (ii) these vortices enable us to tap into energy residing within slow moving waters. Currently, most aquatic turbines require five or more knots of current to operate. Because Vivace can take advantage of currents as slow as one knot (one mile per hour), it can virtually permeate all of the waters in the globe. From neighborhood streams to regional rivers and oceans, the Vivace system could be implemented almost anywhere.

Bernitsas’ calculations reveal that a one and one-half square kilometer field of these cylinders, combined with three knots of water current could yield enough energy to serve 100,000 homes. The scientists are using the slow moving Detroit River (2 knots of flow and full of other mysteries) as an initial test site and are expected to have a pilot project running with 18 months. Bernitsas claims that harnessing just 0.1 percent of the energy in the ocean could yield enough energy for 15 billion people. If you are interested in seeing the Vivace, you can watch a video here.

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Methane Capture: Agri-Alchemy
Posted by Mason on December 12, 2008 | PERMALINK

In a recent summary report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (Livestock's Long Shadow), trillions of farm animals across the globe were found to generate a whopping 18% of CO2 emissions. That is more than cars, buses, and airplanes. Hard to swallow that flying could reduce your carbon footprint more than eating meat, but as the New York Times put it: "Flatus and manure from animals contain not only methane, but also nitrous oxide, an even more potent warming agent. And meat requires energy for refrigeration as it moves from farm to market to home." ("As More Eat Meat, a Bid to Cut Emissions," Dec 3, 2008.)


A pig farm in Sterksel, Netherlands has begun cooking its manure (3000 pigs worth) to capture the methane trapped within. The (bio)gas is then, in turn, used to generate electricity for the local power grid. And this is now becoming a growing trend as environmentally responsible agri-businesses try to curtail emissions. Without this activity the pig manure would be stored in open storage tanks for about 6-9 months before being used as fertilizer for farm lands. Cattle and pig manure, when kept in open-top basins, tanks or lagoons open to the atmosphere, undergo anaerobic fermentation and release greenhouse gases (methane, CO2 and N2O) to the atmosphere, not to mention the potent aroma.

To make matters more complicated, the growing demand for meat, has lead to a need for more farm feed, especially soy, which is increasingly supplied by forest clearing. Therefore essential "carbon sinks" are being removed to make way for the release of harmful methane.

Several countries have already implemented mandates for methane reduction. In Denmark, farmers are required by law to inject manure under the soil instead of on top of fields, which enhances its fertilizing effect and prevents emissions from escaping. And New Zealand recently announced that it would include agriculture in its new emissions trading (scheme by 2013. To that end, the government is spending tens of millions of dollars financing research and projects like breeding cows that produce less gas and inventing feed that will make cows belch less methane.

Other uses for methane capture and biogas have found their into transportation, such as Biogasmax (buses) and Svensk Biogas (rail).

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Commingled Economies
Posted by Maya on December 9, 2008 | PERMALINK

By now we all know that the slowing global economy is affecting numerous markets and industries. Automotive, real estate, export markets, and financial services are all in heaps of trouble. Among the biggest losers, somewhat surprisingly, are exporters focused on providing China with recyclable materials . In fact, as described in Matt Richtel and Kate Galbraith's piece "Back at Junk Value, Recyclables Are Piling Up" (New York Times, December 8, 2008), "Trash has crashed"!

Crash it has.  The value of recyclable waste has tumbled at an unprecedented rate.  It has been reported that mixed paper is now selling at $25 per tonne, down from $105/tonne in October (Official Board Markets).  Other notable drops are in specific metals -- tin is now selling for $5 per tonne (vs. $327 earlier this year).

This shift is leaving marks on the ground.  Many large recyclers have been forced to start to stockpiling and warehousing tonnes and tonnes of material.  Some of these material dealers are stuck in contracts with large cities where the cardboard, plastic, paper and metals is simply continuing to stream in.  Alternatively, some are hoping that the market will bounce back and are holding on to the material in order to sell-high.

Recent recycling trends have compounded these effects further.  The switch away from source-separated systems towards commingled recycling programs worked well when the value was high. Now, the additional processing costs embedded in the unsorted waste streams make the material even harder to move.  The city of Toronto has recently switched to a commingled system and as a result, may have its own stock piles to deal with when current contracts expire.

This downturn has shed some light on the capitalistic realities that have sparked recycling booms across most urban centers. The material has to end up somewhere -- if it's not possible to sell it (without a financial loss) it will undoubtedly end up in a landfill.  While the feel-good effect transferred to dedicated recyclers is worth noting, it is the re-sale value of these materials that allows all of us to feel a little green.

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Science Machine
Posted by Mason on December 8, 2008 | PERMALINK

Science Machine from Chad Pugh.

What can be said about Pugh's video beyond itself. A universe where hair follicles and islands are similar issues at different scales... A geography at once everywhere and nowhere ... A cyclical environment of managed natures... A network of habitats distinct and yet intertwined.

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Harnessing the Energy from the Earth’s Rotation
Posted by Neeraj on December 7, 2008 | PERMALINK

New advances in tidal power hint at the massive amount of rotational energy located within the earth. As early as the 1970s, the Soviet Union was exploring methods to harness this rotational energy directly. The prominence of the current energy crisis has sparked new research by physicists to test the ability to tap into this resource.

The amount of energy in the earth is vast - the kinetic energy of rotation alone is 2.137 x 1029 Joules. Channeling this energy would require a slowing in the rotational force of the earth. This process is continually transpiring due to frictional losses from ocean tides and tidal power. Assuming we harnessed a fraction of the earth’s rotational energy, increasing the length of a day by a mere one second, it would consistently yield 2.5848 x 1024 Joules (approximate and assumes losses to friction) of energy.

According to the Energy Information Administration’s 2006 statistics, the total American energy usage (comprising of residential, commercial and industrial) is 1.0989 x 1018 Joules per month, a fraction of the energy available in the earth’s rotation. Although these numbers are approximate, most physicists agree that the amount of rotational energy is vast if we can manage a way to harness it.

[The Equational Ingredients for Rotational Energy.]

In most energy production, one form of energy is converted to another via gears, pulleys, magnets, etc. If we consider the earth’s rotation as a form of energy, to harness it, we would need to create a ring of resistance that would covert this to electricity. Gyroscopes are privileged devices in this manner because they maintain their orientation in space. According to Physicist, C Johnson, if one could build a massive ferris-wheel type gyroscope on the North Pole, there would theoretically be a potential to harness this energy. The gyroscope would initially be started with a motor and once in motion, it would spin endlessly. Further, the gyroscope would have to be fixed to the earth – the difference between the earth’s rotation and the gyroscope would create a torque, or moment force as Johnson posits, “The Earth's rotation would externally directly drive the gear train, using the gyroscope simply as a fixed object to push against.”

Johnson’s research builds on twenty years of experiments carried out by the Soviet Union during the 1970s. The Soviet experiments were not successful because they were incurring dramatic energy loss through a system of gears that ‘speed up’ the motion of the earth. Although, Johnson’s research has fewer losses (he calculates a constant production of 587 watts), there is still a long way to go before realizing his device. There are other nascent devices that operate on similar principles but a great deal of research needs to occur due to large frictional losses and the mega scale of the mechanisms involved.

Although not technically a renewal resource of energy, the amount of kinetic energy in the earth’s rotation is abundant and would last for thousands of years. Further, it would create no pollution, greenhouse gases or deplete natural resources. It would, however, make the days and nights longer, but that doesn’t seem to be too large of a trade-off.

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Student Works: Arisaig's Sea Vegetable Complex
Posted by Mason on December 7, 2008 | PERMALINK

We read with great interest of the project by James Tait at the University of Strathclyde and his award-winning proposal for a seaweed farm in the northwest coastal villages of Scotland. His project is titled "Time and Tide for Seaweed," and posits seaweed cultivation as an economic and social catalyst, while capitalizing on cyclical vegetal processing methods.

As James Tait writes in his project description:

From fuel production and fertiliser to cosmetics and foodstuffs seaweeds’ versatility makes it a lucrative natural resource. Scotland’s shores host around 20% of the total seaweed biomass in Europe and nearly half of this can be found in the North West coast.

A thriving seaweed industry would revitalise and reinvigorate the area, reconnecting it with its vast coastline, repopulating and diversifying the social mix of its towns and villages while providing much needed opportunities for its young people.

The architectural proposal will consist of: an offshore cultivation farm, farmers’ bothy, floating restaurant and pier, seaweed baths, and drying tower.

The seaweed farm complex at Arisaig requires little energy to transform the raw material into a product, the farmers boats will be powered by biodiesel made from unused seaweed, while the cultivation process aids biodiversity by providing nutrients for fish and other marine life.

A policy of energy re-use is also employed in the cultivation rafts where LEDs absorb and store daylight during the day and emit it at night while the drying tower base is home to a series of steam baths which use the energy created during the seaweed drying process.

Found via Bustler

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Mountain Design
Posted by Mason on December 5, 2008 | PERMALINK

Chasing down one of the designers of the Peak 2 Peak gondola linkage for Whistler, we stumbled upon Ecosign. They have certainly carved a niche in ski resort planning, or what they call "mountain design." Obviously a misnomer, mountain design sounds inverse to what actually takes place in their design process. Through a rigorous analysis of sun angles, prevailing winds, and topography they arrive at some kind of idealized clearings for the pleasure of downhill maneuvering, the mountain proper remains untouched.

These guys are the double-diamond of the industry. They have designed "350 resort development projects in over 32 countries spanning 6 continents as well as the design of 4 Winter Olympic Games and several World Alpine Championships venues." They have been mogul-making since 1975.

The possibilities for bifurcating runs and slopes is a little underexplored in their 30+ year history. What is needed in an exercise like this? And what should it address? The networks of routes mark the speed of mountains, and are then ranked according to difficulty. In addition, routes expand and contract according to popularity or some pachinko logic of converging skiers. There is room for rethinking the simplified independence of a skiers energy and a chairlift, or the organicist criss-crossing routes relationship to difficulty ratings. Like a net cast over a peak, the infrastructures supporting this sport have a Benton MacKaye logic of geotechnics using ridge lines, transects, and cross grain topos.

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Peak to Peak, or Parabolic Trajectories
Posted by Mason on December 4, 2008 | PERMALINK

It is becoming commonplace to hear the superlatives coming out of the Middle East and China in terms of infrastructure, but not this time. In preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics, the two peaks at opposing ends to Fitzsimmions Valley, Whistler and Blackcomb will be linked. In the ultimate aerial shortcut, a sky cab gondola has linked these two tips using only four support structures, converting a minimum one hour down-the-hill-and-up-the-lifts commute into an 11 minute ride. it is called Peak 2 Peak and it opens on December 12.

At just over 3 kilometers, it is the longest unsupported span. When the sky cabin reaches the low-point of its trip it is 436 meters above the creek and actually at the highest occupiable point above ground (at least until the Burj Dubai finally tops out somewhere around 700m).

Now, if you are thinking what I am thinking: What if this thing snaps? Well the cable is pretty strong so it is less likely to happen out of the blue than if it is triggered by something, such as an airplane. No worries, that is covered via a state-of-the-art OCAS, or Obstacle Avoidance Collision System developed in Norway. A radar is used to constantly scan the area for potential collision intruders. If, for example, an aircraft is detected, the radar alerts the system and immediately tracks the aircraft, calculates its speed, heading and altitude. If a collision hazard exists, the pilot is warned by flashing high intensity strobe lights and an audible warning transmitted over all aircraft radio frequencies.

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