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Suburban Retrofit: Consumption vs. Production

 

We all accept that any home built before 1980 probably consumes energy rather than produces. And we know that most buildings today aren’t much better. Some dabble in industry-tested, user-approved microcosms of water conservation and energy production, and even fewer have thrown away the sound bites of “first cost” and “investment return” and have dove head first into responsible yet expensive net zero homes. Interestingly, The Center for Green Buildings and Cities at Harvard is exploring a strategy that may end up making a huge difference in the average home owner’s ability to achieve energy and water independence. They are currently experimenting with retrofitting a pre-1940’s home to attain net zero. The measures for success will be varied and at this point will still act as a testing grounds for possibilities.

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100% Renewable Energy With The Click Of A Button

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What if everyone could make 1 simple change in their personal habits that would, as a whole, benefit a larger population? First, we instinctively ask ourselves the question (no matter how large our green flag may be): what do I have to give up to make this happen? And if ultimately we can manage the risk, we may accept the proposition. This is the challenge for today’s green energy suppliers. In order to make it convenient for a large group of people, they need to make it competitive with larger corporations. What if you were told it would only end up costing you between $3-5 a month extra to have your electricity provided by 100% renewable energy? Cory, a representative of Green Mountain Energy, offered this option to us this weekend.

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Mobile Device Solar Charging Station

It’s seems that at the moment we are coming closer to achieving 100% 24/7. It’s nothing new and it’s not shocking. However it is certainly convenient. One can argue whether convenience has ever truly been as present as it is today (every generation has always been the most advanced in history). But right now certainly seems pretty slick. And yet there will always be a small part in most of us that wouldn’t mind a quiet, unplugged moment. However, even those who enjoy a fairly analogue lifestyle have been gutted of battery life one or twice. And there is something that just feels wrong about plugging up to a wall socket in an Applebee’s to get a few minutes of precious connection.

Steph and I were taking a stroll through Brooklyn Bridge Park last weekend and stumbled upon one of these.

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nstagram: maegenmichael

An AT&T mobile device solar charging station that boasts the equivalent charging rate of a wall outlet. There where 6 types of adapters that fit most devices. Though I did not need a charge, I couldn’t help but get a little giddy about the thought of soaking up my first ever solar phone juice. The iPhone 5 adapter looked like it had taken a beating in all it’s public glory, alas, it did not work. I have no doubt that in the coming months and years, these devices will be everywhere. So whether you like it or not, get ready for waves of friendly, yet probably very expensive energy to be available right when you need it.

Advanced Framing is Pretty Simple

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To the untrained eye, this image may look fairly conventional. However, this home, and many others, are the product of the quickly advancing industry of building science. You’re looking at a growing trend called advanced framing, also called (OVE) optimum value engineering,  that is responsible for lowering construction cost and improving building performance.  Developed in the 1960’s by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, advanced framing is finally starting to become integrated into an overall building performance strategy. Here’s how:

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Abandon or Embrace: Sea Level Rise and Coastal Populations

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By now both sides of the story are painfully clear: 1) we are responsible, 2.) the planet is responsible. And then there are the skeptics. Either way sea level rise has been getting a lot of attention lately. However, it seems this polemic argument is very near-sighted. One side trying to raise awareness, the other trying calm the alarm. Each focused on proving a point, which takes time away from the heavy lead times involved in making actionable decisions. Let’s presume for the sake of this post that sea level rise is a fact. Let’s also take the worst case scenario that in the next 100 years due to rapid glacial melt and antarctic dissolution, that we can expect to see up to 4 feet of rise. This calls into question the very identity of coastal populations, 15 of which happen to be the largest cities on the planet (NYC, Cairo, Tokyo, Sao Paulo to name a few). Some of these major cities have already been confronted with the decision to abandon or protect their territories and have begun to enter into a new relationship with the sea.   While this argumentative chatter can and has filled volumes, there are some designers and politicians dedicated to applying physical solutions to what is a very existential threat.

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Prefab + Sustainability

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If you like buzzwords, it’s hard to beat Prefab + Sustainability, maybe throw a “Green” in there somewhere. Honestly though, trends play a critical role in society’s readiness to adopt large-scale transitions. These widely accessible words, thoughts or actions can become influential in politics and economics, which ultimately can lead to convention. This will occur whether or not we like or agree with the branding involved. However, if there are trends that speak to living responsibly and leading a balanced and efficient life, then these trends, at least for me, become much more palatable. Here is a great article entitled “The Marriage of Prefab and Sustainability” by Sarah Fister Gale that discusses the merits of both and why they belong together.

What do you think? Is this simply a smart marketing move, or a valid direction?

 

OK Small!

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The most sustainable square foot is the one you don’t build. As long as we have had materials and the need for shelter, we have faced each day with the intent to do things and make stuff, especially when it comes to tending to our nest. Mostly without much thought regarding actual need or actual impact. Which is why the thought of small architecture is so entertaining. For very little money, just $300 for this small off-the-gird cabin in Vermont, and a little ingenuity, it’s possible to put together a small, responsible space of your own. By adding a few passive solar and wind strategies, you most likely can accomplish a great level of comfort most of the year without mechanical cooling or plugging into the city’s electrical grid. For example, the North wall is a translucent corrugated plastic that allows the cool, indirect light to provide plenty of illumination. The South wall is a solid corrugated metal which prevents this small sanctuary from becoming an uncomfortable greenhouse. If you have a friend who is an architect or designer, ask for a few tips. Most of us are eager to help our friends who find this as interesting as we do.

How small is too small? What’s the qualification, square foot? energy use? Can you scale this approach for a 3 family home? Is this sustainable living, or simply something to do in your spare time, a glorified fort for your inner child? Either way, these images are beautiful. The simplified interior and small pops of color are a great touch. Let me know your thoughts by commenting below.

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