Next Generation Technologies Are Responsive and Result from Inter-Disciplinary Teams

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In a session at the National Building Museum, Susan Szenasy, Editor-in-Chief, Metropolis magazine, argued that next generation building and material technologies integrate the natural and built environments, are responsive to nature, and often regenerative. These technologies are the result of inter-disciplinary teams collaborating across disciplines. Sustainability goals are often the driving impetus.

Since 2004, Metropolis has sponsored the Next Generation Design Competition, which seeks to identify the next generation technologies that can revolutionize the designed environment. Szenasy emphasized that many Metropolis Next Generation winners and runners-up have gone on to prototype their ideas, receive government funding, and move their ideas into commercial production.

Some new technologies that have come out of the design competition include:

Active Solar Facades: A system created by Materialab offers “active solar facades,” which are “better than passive photovoltaics” and include “integrated solar-concentrated modules.” The modules capture heat that is usually wasted in photovoltaic panels. Moving and tracking the sun, “acting like flowers,” the modules also dynamically concentrate solar energy for high-efficiency. According to Metropolis, these solar modules are indeed next-generation, offering significant improvements over current photovoltaics being mass-produced. “With record efficiency, the modules are expected to convert 30 percent of the sun’s light to electricity and absorb 50 percent of its energy in the form of heat. Unlike commercially available flat-plate photovoltaic systems that sustainably oriented architects have relied on since the 1970s—which perform in the range of 12 to 15 percent operating efficiency and dissipate heat as waste energy—Materialab’s system could supply as much as 50 percent of the energy for a building’s operational needs, bringing us that much closer to a true solar revolution.” The Department of Energy (DOE) has been financing the latest rounds of prototypes, and the Center for Excellence in Environmental and Energy Systems in Syracuse, New York, is testing the performance of the modules.

Recycled Materials for Buildings: Single Speed Design used highway infrastructure materials from Boston’s Big Dig excavation to create a new home. The house incorporated some 600,000 pounds of recycled materials, which would have otherwise been landfilled or incincerated, including highway panels and bridge piers salvaged from the Big Dig site. The designers saw an opportunity and turned the house into a model for creating buildings out of waste materials. “Why not use existing infrastructure materials? The government has to pay to store materials because there’s no place to put them.”  

Lunar-Responsive Streetlights: Szenasy said Civil Twilight was making contemporary an “ancient idea,” which is to use and incorporate moonlight into the built environment. Up to the early 1800’s, many large cities factored in moonlight for evening lighting. Only since major power grids, which have enormous amounts of excess energy that must be burned at night, were created have cities been lit at night by an array of streetlights. To bring back the “poetry of the night sky” in cities, the lunar-responsive lights would use dimmable LEDs and photo-sensor cells that can pick up available moonlight, and therefore adjust their light output.  More than 1,000 cities have joined in a “Dark Sky Initiative,” which aims to eliminate light pollution in cities, so Szenasy believes there is a market for this technology. Additionally, the lunar-responsive lights are 16W, while current streetlights are 150W. A shift would also reduce energy usage. The team now has a scalable prototype and is seeking angel investors.

Piezo-Electric Floors:  POWERLeap seeks to capture the energy used by people walking, jumping, and running to power facilities. While “there are often humorous stories on these types of technologies on CNN,” Szenasy says they are important pieces in the greater alternative energy puzzle. “These are pieces of energy knowledge.” The technology could be incorporated in highways, sidewalks, stairs, escalators, bicycle lanes to power everything from street lighting to traffic systems. Szenasy noted that there are now discos and gyms powered by piezo-electric systems. Additional existing technologies include piezo-electric running shoes.

Combined Power Pylon / Wind Turbine Infrastructure: Wind-it won the 2009 Next Generation design competition for its proposal to incorporate wind turbines into existing power pylon infrastructure. Given the pylon infrastructure is largely in place, this would help reduce the need for creating supplemental wind power transmission lines, and reduce cost for wind power infrastructure.  The new combined pylon-turbine system could both produce and transmit wind-generated energy at once. The French designers who created the idea saw different sizes: XLarge, Large, and Small systems, which could be used in different settings. XLarge systems would be incorporated into large-scale power systems across the U.S.. Small systems, which look like egg beaters, could be used in urban areas. Szenasy said studies have shown the Great Lakes region would be an excellent place to implement the design because there is a built-in pylon infrastructure and lots of wind. She agreed that in other areas of the U.S. the combination of existing power infrastructure and wind isn’t as easily found. The U.S. and EU are both investing billions in renewable energy, and this should be part of the mix.

Other ideas:

Fab.REcology: Neri Oxman, a PhD student at M.I.T. (see earlier post on her work), is interested in breaking architecture down into molecular form. Current buildings waste a lot of materials by failing to efficiently allocate materials around “stress points.” Using computing technologies, Oxman would identify where material needed to be added or removed, and create whole building designs, which could be “printed,” and joined together. Szenasy thinks this could lead to the redevelopment of the building industry.

Wattzon.com:  This web-based tool enables users to measure personal energy usage and consumption, which, Szenasy thinks, could make us more mindful of what we are consuming.
Suburban General Store: Suburban residents almost always get in their car to run small errands, racking up oil usage and C02 emissions. Adding small general stores in suburban communities would help create community, reduce car usage, oil consumption, and C02 emissions. Communities with central club or pool houses could convert these into stores, recycling centers, and coffee houses. “This is a strong, testable ideas.”

Air Flower: Energy-independent ventilation systems could open and close, moderating indoor temperatures. “The building would work like a flower, opening and closing as needed.”

Radiant FLRs: Heat is wasted in old apartment buildings because it doesn’t often reach where people are sitting or working. “Central heating becomes throw-away heat.” Radiant floor tiles could be installed in a modular fashion in areas where people spend a lot of time, thereby reducing wasteful heat expenditures.

Thermally-Active Surfaces: Buildings could become like the human body, radiating heat outwards. In this system, water-carrying heating tubes within buildings would radiate heat from walls and floors. Concrete would be the chosen building material for this system given its ability to distribute heat well.

When asked which governments are doing the best job of supporting next-generation technologies, and pushing them to market, Szenasy said China (with its massive investment in solar energy), France (which is run on atomic power), Germany, and the United Arab Emirates (which are very interested in new technologies and “have a lot of money.”) 

Next generation landscape architecture ideas, Szenasy said, would take aim at the noxious landscapes that require “chemical injections” to grow. Regenerative, sustainable landscape concepts would be of great interest to the judges in the 2010 competition. 

Learn more about Next Generation design competition, and submit ideas for the 2010 competition.  

Image credit: Metropolis / Elioth + Encore Heureux

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