Thursday, 31 May 2012

Germany Sets New Solar Record By Meeting Nearly Half of Country’s Weekend Power Demand

That is the title of a posting in tonight's Inhabitat online newsletter.  Read the original article here.

Frankly, I don't know quite what to add to this sort of amazing news.  The Inhabitat article mentions that in response to public pressure after the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany significantly accelerated its installation of photovoltaics while at the same time shutting down its nuclear generators.  But what it doesn't mention is the variety of interesting schemes that make it possible for Germany to have installed such huge renewables capacity, so quickly.  Chief amongst them is the mechanism whereby the power generating utility effectively leases a private roof, for the right to install building integrated photovoltaics.  For the householder, this represents not only an effective income, but an actual saving in building materials that would otherwise have to be the roof of the dwelling.

This kind of spectacular growth in baseline generation capacity by renewables, shows how ridiculous is all the negative sentiment and opposition, that we experience here in Australia.  It makes very clear that even now the photovoltaic technology is sufficiently mature, and with the appropriate incentive schemes, economically viable.  Quite clearly it would be able to make much, much more than a marginal impact on how we supply our electricity demand.  If only we would bite the bullet, and get on with it.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

The End of Architecture

Is all this regulation for sustainability about to spell the end of Architecture? Sometimes, the protestations of architects sound like that is what they truly believe, in spite of the evidence that we are seeing ever more bizarre forms in the architectural blogosphere and the burgeoning design literature.

But there is a kernel of truth in the sentiment, especially as it applies to houses and other residential construction. In some jurisdictions, these building types are ever more constrained by prescriptive standards that dictate glazing ratios, wall and roof insulation standards, heat exchangers for mechanically assisted ventilation, and so on. Sometimes a voluntary standard like the European 'Passivhaus' movement, is even more restrictive than the government promoted regulations.

I was reminded of this when I saw photographs of a truly challenging suburban dwelling by Sou Fujimoto Architects, their House NA in Tokyo. Inspired by the feeling of sitting around in the branches of a tree, the assembly looks like scaffolding supporting a series of open and glazed boxes at different levels, with a program that clearly is not dictated by conventional room designations. For better or worse, it engages passionately in a theoretical and practical discourse on contemporary 'dwelling', but could not possibly obtain planning permission in my home town, Sydney.

As I looked further into Fujimoto's work, I saw other, similarly evocative speculations on living between inside and outside, such as the N House in Oita. Argued from a stance that questions the interpenetration of the space of the street and that of the innermost private sanctum, it is most plausibly an extended empirical exploration of the traditional Japanese understanding of 'ma', the 'space in between'. But as the photographs in its context make clear, it is also a selfishly self-referential exercise, where claims of its transparency simply do not disguise the degree to which it disrupts the public spatial order.

This house - even more than House NA - reminded me that by definition, 'Architecture with a capital A' depends on relegating the normal to being the background for the assertively non-conforming object. In that sense, our new enforced 'zero net energy vernacular' does indeed threaten every architect's right to produce something stridently different. Given just how many more architects we have nowadays, than we used to have, maybe that is a good thing.  But I would indeed be saddened if it proved to be the end of remarkable buildings.

Energy positive buildings countdown

Until quite recently, suggestions that buildings might contribute positively to the environment deserved to be treated with at least caution, if not actually contempt.  But, it turns out that technology does develop remarkably fast, and buildings with a potential to 'heal' rather than further wound natural systems may not be too far away.

The most remarkable progress is in developments in photovoltaics suitable for integration into building construction.  From the one issue of INHABITAT - the New York based forum for all things green - comes news of two radically different, but hopeful developments.

The first is that scientists at the University of Southern California have developed a new type of solar cell made from nanocrystals that are so small that they can be made into an ink and painted or printed onto clear surfaces. They appear to have solved the problem of increasing the conductivity between the nanocrystals, such that efficiency of the new cells is now looking useful.  The bad news is that the new surface coating is made of the semiconductor cadmium selenide, which can’t be used commercially because of its toxicity. “While the commercialization of this technology is still years away, we see a clear path forward toward integrating this into the next generation of solar cell technologies,” USC chemistry professor Richard L. Brutchey said in a press release.  So what is the big attraction?  Apparently, the method would also allow solar cells to be printed on plastic instead of glass in a low temperature process, without encountering the problem of merger – which would give a flexible solar panel mouldable and adaptable at will anywhere. 
Read more: USC Researchers Develop Liquid Nanocrystal Solar Cells that Can Be Printed Onto Plastic | Inhabitat

 The second snippet to catch my eye is a tongue-in-cheek application of Biophotovoltaics  in the form of a 'moss table'.  Apparently electricity is generated by mosses and algae as a byproduct of photosynthesis, and is already successfully harnessed to power small appliances such as clock radios.
Read more: Moss Table by Biophotovoltaics Generates Electricity Through Photosynthesis | Inhabitat

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Is the world sinking?

Yes, the level of the world's oceans is rising. But that is not the topic of this post.

I periodically check in to see what is the latest outrageous, environmentally irresponsible project proposed for Dubai. This week, I found a proposal by Polish firm Deep Ocean Technology — the Water Discus Hotel, with suites twenty storeys under water, and lots more besides.

But more interestingly, the various links led me back to news from last year, when a British firm put evidence to a special property tribunal that the artificial islands of the infamous development known as The World "are gradually falling back into the sea”. According to QC Richard Wilmot-Smith, speaking on behalf of Penguin Marine, the World Islands show signs of “erosion and deterioration”. So far 70% of the world’s 300 islands have been sold, but all of the 'countries' are uninhabited save for the 'Show Island', apparently Greenland, which is owned by the ruler of Dubai.
I am no expert on marine hydrology, or any of the other exotic disciplines needed to make sense of such projects. Therefore I can't confirm the truth of either the accusations, or the inevitable denials by the project developer Naheel. But I have always had a gut feeling that such grandiose terra-forming motivated by so little real need, is an invitation to ecological and financial failure.

Friday, 4 May 2012

US launches social media building comparison site

That is the heading of a Design and Architecture snippet about a really interesting new site called I signed up a little while ago, because it fits so well with my teaching and PD work, and really should have blogged about it then.  But all kudos to A&D for bringing it to wider attention here in Australia. Read the full article here.

Imagine if you are a prospective tenant, and you want to find out more about how a building performs? Or if you are an architect with a building to design, looking for precedent and trying to unravel the truth from all the marketing, about the ever higher star rated new buildings, with their latest green techno-bling. The site has the potential to get you so much closer to that elusive information.

Currently, the site and its entries look very US-centric. But their search engine actually works quite well for other countries, and I can confirm from personal correspondence that their commitment is to expand their data internationally.

The idea appeals to me immensely. I can foresee problems with keeping the social media style data reliable, but I do wish them all possible success. That success will depend on how many people engage with the site, and how rich the feedback on the real performance of buildings becomes. Check it out, and join the revolution.

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

What does form actually follow?

The Hoki Museum was awarded last year's Grand Prize of the Japan Institute of Architects.  It is a remarkable building by any criteria, not least because it so easily confounds interpretation of its singular architectural form. I just came across an article on this issue in the latest installment of Architecture Week, by Japan resident author C.B. Liddell.

"When we are astonished by a building, it is often because we don't fully understand it. In such a case, we strive to close the gap between what we see and what we already know of architecture.  As we do this, we may arrive at the truth of the design — or we may simply fill the gap with plausible-sounding explanations that turn out to be wrong."

Long ago, in his delightfully slim book The Nature and Art of Workmanship, David Pye convincingly demolished the very notion expressed in 'Form follows Function'.  He argued that we are unlikely to simply 'see' a direct formal relationship to the purpose of a particular building. Liddell writes about his personal experience of this same problem in relation to the Hoki Museum, and offers us invaluable extra insight gleaned from an interview with Tomohiko Yamanashi, lead architect of the design team.

Normally, I'd be suspicious of the rationalizations of the architect, and prefer the experience of the building.  But as he flags in the quote above, Liddell makes the case that it's easy to bring the wrong preconceptions to the critic's experience, from which can flow both a misinterpretation of design intent, and an inaccurate assessment of likely visitor experience.


A remarkable building, a thoughtful architect operating at the bleeding edge of architectural theory, a client with a strong, hands-on purpose (he is the sole curator of the exhibitions the building houses), and a critic gently but compellingly challenging architectural criticism itself.  Well worth reading. Read the whole article here.