Product Design: Creating Sources of Green Energy

While my previous entries tend to emphasize the greening of buildings, sustainability in development does not always start with the structures themselves. Sometimes it is the smallest or unseen innovation that causes the greatest transformation. Currently, a sizable portion of our country's scientific effort is allocated to creating new sources of renewable energy for the post-oil era. Even on an international level, the need for change is apparent through competitions such as the 2009 Delta Cup and FuturArc's green architecture contest. There is no shortage of ideas that involve powering the nation's real estate. I have previously discussed how solar panels and wind turbines are being used in recent projects, but as a society, we are always looking for new concepts that involve energy efficiency. Using the blogosphere, I found two posts that discuss less publicized advances that may aid future real estate projects in terms of renewable power. The first item discusses a new use for dead batteries that can be practiced on an individual level. In "Eco Gadgets: Energy Seed Lamp Glows on Trashed Batteries", software engineer Anupam presents a concept design for a sidewalk lamp that runs exclusively on old batteries (see photo right). On a grander scale, Alex Pasternack discusses another theory model that can benefit entire cities rather than single units. In "Renewable 'Energy Islands' at Sea to Power Cities, Produce Fresh Water, and More", the respected writer goes on to describe the advantages of using ocean thermal energy conservation as a primary source of power. These are just two examples of the endless attempts to retrofit our nation in a resourceful manner. Although these schemes have yet to be physically constructed, their realistic possibilities are another step towards worldwide sustainability. Along with providing personal feedback at each respective blog, I have added my comments below.

"Eco Gadgets: Energy Seed Lamp Glows on Trashed Batteries"
This is a great device to promote given the current need for products that save both money and energy. It seems that this design can redefine what it means to recycle batteries. Considering most households are unaware of how to recycle batteries and their potential harm, this lamp will be beneficial for the education of people and the longevity of the environment. My concerns arise when I think about who will purchase these lamps. Chances are likely that if an individual is conscious enough to buy this environmentally friendly product, they already know how to properly disposal of harmful materials. On the other hand, if these were to be installed in public areas by the cities, do you think that citizens would actually bring their old batteries to these fixtures? I would argue that the latter is the best option because the product only drains the batteries, but does not recycle them. In this case, the city's sanitation bureau could be in charge of collecting the battery shells after they have been drained and discard them. Still, the product only "indirectly" promotes the healthy liquidation of these entities. Like you mention, "If proper care is not taken in disposing the batteries used by the lamp, it would still have the same dreadful effects on the environment." Another drawback to this design is that it does not seem to indicate when each battery is fully depleted. It only takes about 2 volts for the bulb to light, but if the combined total of the energy supply is less than this, every battery will probably be trashed considering it will become a tedious and untimely task to determine which battery still has juice left. Despite the flaws of this prototype, I believe that this product will have a huge impact on sustainability in real estate. It can potentially spare land from being exposed to the content's harmful effects and provide a new source of power for artificial lighting. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on its impact in this realm.

"Renewable 'Energy Islands' at Sea to Power Cities, Produce Fresh Water, and More"
This island is a unique concept in the progression of renewable energy (see rendering left). It is promising to see a proposed idea being calculated down to monetary and feasibility levels. The way you have presented the content in your entry is very helpful, as you provide facts, opinions, the pros, and the cons. For someone like me who was previously unaware of this idea, it is quite helpful that you detail exactly how the islands will generate energy. Most importantly, you address a few of my major concerns with this design. First, the cost of building the project is rather discouraging. You mention that these "energy islands have an estimated price tag of $600 million" Additionally, you state that the exported electricity cost will be slightly higher than that of wind turbines and almost double that of coal. I agree that it is not necessary to build these just yet considering the vast amounts of energy that can be harvested at a much cheaper price on land. Another concern that you somewhat mention is the safety of these islands. Although the islands do float, rising sea level will not be the only pertinent meteorological worry. Do you believe that such projects will only be successful in certain parts of the oceans where they are not prone to hurricanes or tsunamis? It would be a shame to invest 600 million dollars into each island only to have them destroyed. Despite my worries, such products will no doubt serve multiple purposes. But their credibility as tourism hot-spots is rather implausible. Even though inventors suggest that a cluster of these solar isles can create new destinations for tourists, I question whether or not people will choose them over natural islands. You mention the "awesome aqualife" and water sports, but what about the atmosphere that island visitors expect? The fact that they float terminates the possibility for beaches and greenery, while water sports and sea life can be found at any tropical vacation spot. Personally, I think that the concept is groundbreaking, but for the time being we should focus on the single purpose of providing power. I am glad that you have continued to report this story as it develops and I will be keeping my eye out for the final product.


Defining Sustainability: Rebuilding New Orleans' 9th Ward

Throughout this blog, I have referred to sustainability in terms of environmentally effective design. In New Orleans, the word takes on a different meaning due to Hurricane Katrina. Even three years after the storm, many families are left without a home and with little hope for the future. In an attempt to turn this around, actor Brad Pitt started the Make it Right Foundation whose goal is to rebuild the city's Lower 9th Ward (see photo right). Having visited this part of the city, Pitt realized the cultural devastation was almost insurmountable. He also noted that this was not the first natural disaster to hit the region. In 1965, Hurricane Betsy displaced hundreds of families and left behind an estimated twelve billion dollars in damages. Pitt's vision for his foundation exploits architecture and design as a tool for creating a lasting community. For the ward's residents, sustainability did not mean using solar power or recyclable materials--it meant creating structures that would survive future storms. Author and historian Douglas Brinkley specifically defines the problem, arguing that the broken levies "did far more than flood thousands of homes--[they] forced houses and families off their foundations." In a figurative and literal sense, the groundwork of the entire neighborhood was left in pieces. Since the organization was founded in 2006, architects have been exploring innovative ways to create permanency for the Lower 9th Ward, and while it has taken over two years for the first phases of the project to near completion, the ground-breaking schemes apparently will help to maintain this district for years to come.

One of Pitt's ideas for rebuilding the ward is to stray away from repetitious structures while keeping the units affordable. Through personal and public donations, the group was able to hire a series of local, national, and international architects. Such strategies made sure that each building maintained a sense of uniqueness. Even though some of the designs are seemingly wild, they will add to the distinctive cultural background of New Orleans. One of the most prominent features of the new homes is that they will be hoisted above ground level (see photo left). Using stilts, this tactic will protect houses if a future storm ever causes flooding. Not all of the buildings will stand on poles, but some will be elevated using garages or lofty foundations. Pedestrian infrastructure will also be tailored specifically for the location. Permeable concrete will stop rain from pooling up on the sidewalks and relieve stress on the ward's pumping system. Lastly, every house will also be fortified to withstand winds up to 130 mph. Before this program, many public officials doubted whether they should invest in the renovation of the 9th Ward considering equally vicious storms are inevitable, but opposition to its reconstruction dwindled after the unveiling of these concepts. Patricia Jones, president of the Lower Ninth Ward Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association, recalls, "In the beginning, people were saying that no one would ever be coming back" to the area. Likewise, resident Gloria Guy remains hopeful thanks to the program, stating, "I used to have okra, squash, cauliflower, sweet potatoes – you name it. And next spring I'll be planting them again." Despite the physical success of the project, there will be a great amount of post construction controversy. It is still undecided how to prioritize who will acquire each unit. This is because the project went straight to the development phase. It does not necessarily follow property lines of the city before Katrina, which makes it difficult to determine what structure falls on whose land. Consequently, the neighborhood was annexed by the city, leaving it up to the private sector to decide who will live where. It is logical for New Orleans to take land in this situation since with their control, programs such as Pitt's will benefit residents. The real problem will arise when determining who is in the greatest need of the 150 houses that the program plans to build.

With the issue of permanent houses under control, the foundation is able to incorporate other sustainable features into the homes. Solar panels and energy efficient appliances will be installed in all of the units. Even though these luxuries do not aid in the permanency of the structure, Make it Right's executive director Tom Darden asserts that, "the difference between having to replace your solar panels or having to replace your home is night and day." By incorporating these facets, the idea of a sustainable house is accomplished on all levels. They also support tenants economically by saving money. Specifically, energy bills are expected to drop around 75% for the development's residents. According to project adviser Kathrine Grove, there are three simple steps to achieve maximum efficiently in design: make sure daylight can reach every room, insulate in compliance with the weather, and reduce water loads. A formula like this is practically homogeneous and can be used to reduce energy costs in any design. In a sense, Make it Right is setting a precedent for all future dwellings. Still, the sustainable features being used are not solely new and inventive. The organization plans to recycle salvaged materials from the previous community. By means of refurbished items such as mantles and light fixtures, each project will remain like no other. The Washington Post goes on to list the structures' other green qualities: "interiors feature nontoxic materials, such as paint with low VOC (volatile organic compounds) and natural-fiber carpeting. Bathrooms feature dual-flush toilets, [and] windows are double-paned." Such features might be beneficial, but to the people of the 9th Ward, sustainability is best defined as long-lasting. It is commendable that Pitt chose to focus his effort on the hardest hit area in New Orleans, but the success of the Make it Right Foundation will truly be determined after the next Katrina.


New Infrastructure: Designing for Green Transportation

Last week, I discussed how retrofitting the nation's infrastructure with sustainable resources is one option for stimulating the economy. Similarly, carrying this concept through individual real estate projects is being tested. Like cities, developments are planned with transportation in mind. The difference being that they revolve around parking while cities are influenced by streets and highways. Forming green transit systems is the most difficult task considering new urban ideals look down on oil-based transportation. This idea tends to fail because it does not coincide with the general population's dependence on automobiles. Since the necessity of movement is arguably the most important aspect of design, it is vital that we begin promoting change on both the macro and micro levels. As a result of change in transportation, a foundation for maintaining sustainable communities will be created. Using the blogosphere, I found two relevant posts that discuss green infrastructure and further investigate the issue. The first entry is titled "LEED and Parking - Lessons Learned", and it discusses the blogger's process of incorporating privileged parking for environmentally efficient cars into his building scheme. This specific piece is almost a forum where the author asks for advice from developers facing similar issues. Although the writer's identity is well-hidden, there is an obvious amount of knowledge that he shares through his personal experiences. To compliment the microcosmic piece, I reviewed a post that explores a general outlook on transportation. "At Least Some American Infrastructure Investment Doesn't Involve Cars" gives Lloyd Alter's view on the nation's current rail transit. In addition to writing for Treehugger's blog, Alter is a successful architect, developer, and inventor. Although he uses a single case study, his conclusions are generalized for a nation-wide perspective. I have added personal feedback via comments at each blog, but they are also displayed below.

"LEED and Parking - Lessons Learned"
Your project exposes some interesting difficulties that surface when providing restricted parking. I appreciate that you share the information that was found while researching in addition to your opinions. As a student studying real estate development, I have found that these guidelines are becoming more important as sustainability becomes a larger issue. You mention that "less parking than is typically required [and preferred] parking for both carpoolers and Low-Emitting Vehicles" will be offered. Is this to encourage the purchase of fuel efficient cars or do building codes allow less parking if more privileged spaces are available? I believe that your audience can better infer the motive if you mention the building typology. The scheme is described as "an enormous building", but stating what the structure will be used for might be helpful for readers. Whether or not the intention was to promote using efficient methods of transportation, this parking tactic suggests its importance. Additionally, the photograph that you have selected to compliment the text is a great resource (see photo left). It gives a visual reference and shows exactly what you have in mind in terms of painting as opposed to purchasing 200 costly signs. It is commendable that you are thinking about conserving materials. Despite the research that you have provided, defining low-emitting vehicles is still rather unclear. The average driver probably does not know what SmartWay Elite Certification or the American Council's rating system entail. Consequently, do you think that an honor system will take effect? It is obvious that a Prius is more likely to meet these standards than a Ford F250, but I think that a lack of general knowledge may lead to misuse of this privilege. Initially, I too thought of using MPG as a regulation, but the counter-argument that you present is strong. What do you think about using stickers similar to those which allow vehicles to use carpool lanes or handicapped parking spots? On a similar note, I am curious to know how carpool parking spots will be enforced. Is this too an honor system? I look forward to hearing your responses and kudos for the informative summary of a lesser known topic.

"At Least Some American Infrastructure Investment Doesn't Involve Cars"
I am thrilled to see more and more attention being given to non-vehicular transportation. It is great that your post has attracted meaningful responses from its readers. Although you offer a limited amount of text, I believe that your background and unique insight allows for this style of round-table discussion with the audience. In addition, I find that the images support the content nicely. Specifically, the rendering of the Poughkeepsie railroad bridge as a pedestrian overpass is vital in understanding the project's goal (see rendering right). While the thoughts behind the change are respectable, I hesitate to think that it will draw a crowd "equivalent to the Eiffel Tower, or the Golden Gate Bridge". Giving some input on this assumption might alter the way the project is perceived. It is credible that local residents will take advantage of the walkway, but difficult for me to believe it would draw worldwide attention. I would like to hear more personal opinions considering you have an extensive knowledge of the industry. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on the rebirth of the rail system. You mention that we need to start "thinking of every railway bridge and right-of-way as a national asset to be maintained and restored, and not left to rot." It seems to me that the railway system is not fixable based on public perception. Do you think that it is possible to encourage people to take advantage of a restored rail system, let alone invest millions for its rejuvenation? On the other hand, it is commonly accepted that trains can be helpful in displacing "fuel-inefficient [service] trucks." Here in California, Proposition 1b demands the construction of a high-speed railway that will run from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Being a student in Southern California, I have heard few, if any, who oppose the idea. Will creating a new system be as effective? It is necessary to turn to alternative modes of transportation, but preserving railroads on a national level seems costly and may yield less-than-desirable results. Perhaps I am simply unaware of its demand. Thank you again for presenting an informative post and I will be anticipating your future entries.
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