Thursday, February 25, 2010

Terms & Conditions: Greenhouse

1. [f. GREENn. 10.] A glass-house in which delicate and tender plants are reared and preserved.*

It would be amazing to be somewhere warm and humid watching the snow fall outside. I've been reading about atmospheric optics lately and came across a passage taking the term "greenhouse gas" to task for not being specific. It's a good excuse to take the word greenhouse back for a moment as something more life affirming then perilous. After all, without any warmth in the atmosphere there would be no life.

Of course the second definition in the Oxford English Dictionary is meteorological, dated to a 1937 citation of G. T. Trewartha Introd. Weather & Climate. It's a convenient metaphor that has taken pride of place in the lexicon of environmentalism. The greenhouse today evokes the brutal effects on nature hit by rapidly shifting temperatures. It becomes a prison of our own making. We are walled in by particles that do not radiate accommodatingly out to space in the region of the electromagnetic spectrum that is heat. Alas. But at least some atmospheric scientists still have a sense of humor. If you've read this far, go just a little further to the part about farty housecats.

"The motions of a molecule can be expressed as a sum of normal modes each with a characteristic frequency. These frequencies lie in the infrared and a radiating mode is called infrared active. A mode that does not radiate is called infrared inactive. The terms infrared active and inactive, which are familiar to infrared spectroscopists, are preferable to the popular but misleading term 'greenhouse gas'. Water vapor is infrared active; nitrogen and oxygen, for the most part, are infrared inactive. Greenhouse gasses are produced by resident cats with digestive problems."**

*Oxford English Dictionary, online edition, 2009. 
** Fundamentals of Atmospheric Radiation, Craig F. Bohren, Eugene Clothiaux, Wiley, 2006 p. 81.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Amateur Electronics

Photo: Daniela Morell

"A good lighting design must address not only... requirements for visual performance, but also the biological needs shared by all human beings, independent of culture and style. These needs relate to the biological requirements of orientation, stimulation, sustenance, defense, and survival." -Norbert Lechner* 

Costuming is inspirational and the recent Disorient Bioluminscent boat party hit the right spot. My graduate work lately has been focused on a highly technological approach to daylighting but personally I love to shine in the dark.

Daylighting is a no-brainer for sustainable design but night lighting is a little trickier. When the sun is luminescent let's use it (lux saves bucks). When it's not the electrical world is a cultural judgment call on how we choose to use resources. I can't pretend that this jewelry serves anything more than an emotional need for folly, attention, and figuring out how to make things, but it's worth questioning how and why we use electricity at night. Indoors night lighting feels indispensable. Camping aside, I can't think of a single day of my life I haven't come home after school or work and turned on a light, or a computer, or a television. Yet none of that is inevitable.

Outdoors is another story. There are places in this world (Black Rock City) with tons of people and no electric grid. If you are not personally illuminated in the dark you might get run over. It's interesting to think about the potential of space dominated by personal instead of urban lighting. Would we become more like targets for preditors or like fireflies attracting lovers?

These are dangling questions for me that will be explored further. In the meantime I'm brimming with ideas for more light art. The array pictured above has several innovative features from previous attempts including a means to switch off the LED corsages and the use of machined plexi as an electroluminscent wire substrate. Next I'm hoping to figure out how to make a more streamlined inverter and maybe learn how to program some blinky.

[Just a quick addendum... energy savings from daylighting of course need to be balanced with the potential for increased heat gain.] 

*Heating, Cooling, Lighting: Sustainable Design Methods for Architects, 3rd edition, Norbert Lechner, (c) John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 2009, p370.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Power to the People

I spent this afternoon volunteering at Solar1's PowerUp New York event at GreenSpaces. To get in the building I had to brave a very polite mob of Kieth Urban fans waiting for a private acoustic concert in the same building, which we could hear through the ceiling. The venue is particularly interesting.  It's a workspace for green entrepreneurs of many bents who rent space by desk. I imagine the benefits of collaboration from being with a diverse group focused on different things must be exciting. The floor-through loft is decorated with a classy mix of salvaged furniture and decorated with sculptures made alternately from blue jeans and coat hangers.

Working the sign-in station meant that I got a nice chance to talk with people coming in. There seemed to be a mix of entrepreneurs, engineers, designers, green marketing people, and concerned citizens. Unfortunately it meant I missed most of the first presentation by Robert Peras of NYC's Department of Citywide Administration Services. I joined the crowd for the second presentation by Diane Pangestu who is the NYSERDA liason at Solar1. At this point a lot of her information was old hat to me, as NYSERDA representatives are quite popular at events dealing with energy efficiency in New York, which are some of my favorite topics. It's a bummer that the state has lately significantly reduced the incentive program for solar installation, but NYSERDA is still fighting the good fight in helping people with efficiency solutions.

More interesting was the final speaker, Chris Benedict, who practices architecture with an engineering eye and is devoted to erasing energy loads through building sealing and efficient heat systems. The quantified differences are astonishing. Apparently New York City spends an average of 24 btus per square foot per heating degree day. One of her buildings got this down to 3.8! At one point she spoke of a ventilation system she developed to integrate with her sealing philosophy. It's exciting to hear architects working at that level. Chris also teaches architecture at Pratt and said her students have very mixed interest in the mechanical side. Personally I think her perspective is critical to design in a cultural moment of climate change.

Overall it was great to see a packed room of diverse people who care about these issues. The next event will be in May (when I'll be swamped with the end of my semester) and will be talking about smart grids.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

EAP Watch: Blink Alert

Illustration:  UC Davis

Electroactive Polymers (EAP) are machine materials that respond in shape to an electrical input. There is a wide range to their components and functionality. I've been looking to them in regards to design potential in the world of architectural engineering. Some of the more exciting EAP designs coming to market now are being applied in the medical field, destined (or doomed, depending on your point of view) to vastly expand our bio-mechanical cyborg future.

A press release from UC Davis Health System crossed my desk this morning for an EAP devise in development that can control blink movements for people with paralyzed facial muscles. The innovation over existing blink-repair technologies is that it will require a shorter less invasive procedure, and that if there is a healthy side of the face the EAP system can synchronize with the other eye.

In comparing blink restoration to my own research, it is interesting to think about notions of mediating the transfer of light and information across a barrier. In bioclimatic architecture we're looking to control the flows of energy in and out while maximizing human pleasure--in some cases pleasure might be the view. The parallel of opening and closing is important for both the human organism and the optimized building, and is a central theme in my studies this semester.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Machine Aesthetic

Photo: NREL

"Since it is correct to say that culture in its widest sense means independence of Nature, then we must not wonder that the machine stands in the forefront of our cultural will-to-style.... Consequently, the spiritual and practical needs of our time are realised in constructive sensibility. The new possibilities of the machine have created an aesthetic expressive of our time, that I once called 'the Mechanical Aesthetic'." --Theo van Doesburg, 1922*

Culture, nature, and the machine can not in any comprehensive sense be separated in the 21st century. It's amazing to imagine the days when speed was new, but today it's part of the landscape. The byproducts of industrialization are changing the environment in ways that presage adaptation. Conscientious people speak in terms of 'saving the world,' but that's not a useful goal in the confines of a lifetime. The machine is part of the evolved human being and the question now, since there's no going back, is how to use it conscientiously. The machine of the future lives in climatic harmony with nature.

*Quoted from, Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the first Machine Age, MIT Press, 1980, pp187-8.