Vertical Solar Power Towers

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By Mark Lundegren

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I was working on a design study recently and soon realized that, although the approach had many merits, one disadvantage was that the basic form did not lend itself to conventional solar panels.

In my case, this was due to the novel geometry of the design. But the problem or issue of course occurs regularly across a variety of design formats, from traditional ornate designs and highly articulated styles to modern polygonal and free-form shapes.

In the future, we may have more flexible solar collector options. Today, however, our choices are more limited. Alternatives include abandoning the original design, or instead the goals of solar electricity generation and building energy autonomy. Another is to pursue custom and often expensive solar panel fabrication.

Solar Power Towers

All of these options can have have substantial disadvantages, and the dilemma led me to envision a preferable alternative. This is the use of what I will call vertical solar power towers – either adjacent to or at some distance from buildings, or even independently of buildings and potentially as a more efficient approach to solar energy collection overall. Importantly, this tower concept is different from and simpler than far more complex solar tower furnaces designed to capture reflected sunlight from mirror arrays.

The Vertical Solar Power Towers infographic above describes the basic idea and summarizes key considerations surrounding the design, construction, and use of these towers. As you can see in the infographic, and as its title implies, the overall concept is quite simple: relatively slender towers of a varying sizes and shapes are constructed, covered or built entirely with solar panels, and in turn used to collect and potentially store electricity. I found a few examples online of the idea being explored, but overall the approach appears substantially unused, despite its many potential benefits.

What are these benefits? In addition to increasing both design flexibility and opportunities for solar energy production, vertical power towers can have a number advantages over traditional horizontal or inclined solar panels. These include: 1) a low cost of construction overall, 2) the potential for prefabrication, and resulting cost and quality benefits, 3) easy panel servicing and maintenance, 4) superior energy capture at low sun angles, high latitudes, and early and late in the day, 5) the likelihood of cooler panels and thus higher energy conversion efficiency, and 6) the potential for greater solar panel density overall. On the last point, this advantage notably is much as with vertical gardening compared with traditional crop planting – with solar panel towers likely to occupy more vertical space than is typical in ordinary solar installations, thus potentially taking up much less room horizontally for comparable production levels.

As my infographic explores, there are a number of solar tower design and placement issues that reman waiting to be examined, many a subset of the study of optimal solar building design overall. Some of these include the optimal shape of vertical solar power towers from both cost and energy collection standpoints, the ideal height of the towers from each standpoint, and optimal densities and placement patterns when solar towers are built in clusters.

With these ideas in mind, I would encourage you to consider my infographic and the many potential uses for vertical solar power towers in building and community design – and whether on a small, middle, or larger scale. In practice, whenever we build vertically and thus nearly every time we build, there is an opportunity to consider either the use of vertical solar power directly or at least the core design principles needed to optimize this approach to solar energy collection in the building’s plan and elevation design.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

Tell others about ArchaNatura…encourage modern natural design & sustainability!

Exploring Curtain-Style Walls

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By Mark Lundegren

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A major architectural and building technology advance in the last 100 years has been development of what is now known as the curtain wall. As the name implies, curtain wall design and construction involves treating building exteriors as an integrated and often patterned or fabric-like surface, instead of an assembly of independent elements.

With the advent of high-rise and large-span steel and steel-reinforced modern buildings – often fabricated with interior columns and cantilevered floor and ceiling edges for efficiency – there has been a basic shift in construction needs and techniques, and in the design of building exteriors in particular. These buildings no longer require massive load-bearing perimeter walls, but often do benefit from greater glass or glazed exterior surfaces to increase natural light penetrating their deep interiors. From these changing demands and opportunities, the innovation of the modern curtain wall emerged.

In curtain wall construction, fairly lightweight, generally non-load-bearing, and often significantly glazed walls are attached to the outer perimeter of floor and ceiling slabs or joists. This can speed prefabricated construction of exterior walls and reduce large building costs overall, while permitting both more active or intelligent wall systems and greater design creativity when planning a building’s appearance. As outlined, once building walls become lightweight or curtain-like, and figuratively are draped from roof to foundation, new design opportunities emerge, and notably ones mirroring the flexibility of designing fabrics or textiles. If a designer can imagine a wall pattern of material and/or glass, a curtain wall likely can be constructed to match, again much as with woven draperies and given the new freedom from exterior load-bearing demands in modern interior-supported buildings.

While curtain wall techniques initially were intended for skyscrapers and large institutional buildings, curtain walls and their load-bearing siblings, window walls, quickly found an expanded place in residential and smaller-scale buildings. Beginning with the modernist architectural movement in the 1920s, the use of large, significantly glazed, and often textile-like patterned walls increased in small building design, reflecting the curtain wall style and often substantially opening living spaces to the outdoors or courtyard areas. In some parts of the world, curtain-style walls are now common in residential and light commercial construction, though this is less the case where more traditional architectural and popular tastes prevail.

My photo montages provide visual illustrations of these ideas, here focusing primarily on residential and smaller-scale construction, rather than the now near-universal use of curtain walls in larger buildings. The upper-left image in the first set of photos of course is an archetypal example of traditional construction, with heavy load-bearing walls supporting the building’s floors and roof, and doors and windows essentially cut or punctured into the exterior wall surfaces. To the right of this photo is a fairly dramatic but equally typical example of a residential curtain or window wall, in this case one that is nearly all glass, and where the building is or at least appears to be unsupported at its edges.

As you can see from this contrast, these are very different construction approaches and building designs, and both aesthetically and in the environmental and spatial relationships they foster. Importantly, the two opposing photos on the lower portion of the first montage highlights that while curtain walls often are mostly glass in larger buildings, this need not be the case, and often should not be, especially when constructing the exterior walls of smaller buildings in a curtain style – again owing to optimal building cost, lighting, and energy-use considerations.

The next collection of photos, immediately above, further contrasts traditional and curtain-style wall construction, and reinforces the idea that they are quite different in both approach and result. As you can see comparing the top two photos in this set, traditional heavy wall and independent openings on the left give way to a lighter, more subtle, and fairly seamless curtained or textiled effect. In the right photo, the building walls, windows, and doors are largely integrated into a larger and patterned whole.

Across the bottom of this second set of images, I have used two contrasting photos highlighting that these ideas apply beyond rectilinear construction. Here, the traditional door and window placement of the left steel arch building – a construction system which often requires no load-bearing along its end walls – is very different from the more open, inviting, and elegant curtained approach on the right. That said, the second design plainly is far more expensive and energy intensive than the first, especially for a small-building application. As such, an altered curtain-style approach, with less glazing overall and more insulated elements, likely will be superior in many designs.

The remaining photos explore the many possibilities for using curtain-style walls in residential and small building construction. In these photos, we can see the potential for curtain and window wall designs to be elaborate, simple, and at many points between. This sampling of curtain-style or textile walls also highlights how the approach reliably adds openness to building spaces, provides a more flowing or integrated aesthetic overall, and increases feelings of both spaciousness and situatedness.

While reviewing these photos, it is worth noting that the use of curtain-style, patterned, or integrated window-walls tends to modernize structures, and the approach can be at odds with or require extra attentiveness when working alongside traditional building designs. As highlighted above, it also is important  to again emphasize that the approach often requires care and the judicious use of glass surfaces to keep building costs and energy-use in check, especially in smaller buildings (though low-cost solar electric power may reduce these constraints in the future).

However, since curtain-style walls generally increase feelings of enjoyment and building spaciousness, they often can allow construction of smaller buildings with equal occupant utility or satisfaction, thereby naturally mitigating their added costs. And while on the topic of minimizing building scale and expense, I would add that curtain-style walls can be employed in concert with and add new openness to residential and commercial courtyard buildings, and thus may aid wider use of this at once old and new approach to higher-density but privacy-preserving community design.

Let me end our discussion of curtain-style walls by returning to the important idea that residences and smaller buildings often will need less glazed or glass-intensive walls than modern high-rise and other large-scale buildings, once more since less exterior lighting is needed and to control building costs and energy use. Interestingly, when searching for photos of small buildings with only partly glazed curtain or window walls, I found few examples, and many of these were from traditional pattern-emphasizing or textilized Japanese architecture.

This limited set of contemporary examples of the approach suggests waiting opportunity for new exploration of partly-glazed curtain walls in smaller buildings, and also where we might look for initial inspiration and guidance in this area.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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Design For Planetary Health

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By Mark Lundegren

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Architects, engineers, builders, developers, and planners have many ideas about optimal design. These include preferences and goals for the aesthetics, layout, materials, densities, spatial plan, and economics of buildings and our larger built environment.

All are important considerations, and can be essential to successful building and community design. But I would like to propose a simple, fundamental, and quite sweeping design principle that at once underlies and supersedes all other design issues and demands. This principle is consideration of whether the design or development aids or inhibits planetary health, which is my topic for today.

As I said, the idea is sweeping and fundamental. If you will give me a few minutes, I will first explain why this concern should be considered the first principle of natural design, and then outline how the principle readily can inform and guide other design and development ideas, across the modern world and for our common benefit.

The Design For Planetary Health infographic above describes two basic approaches to modern development – one primarily as it occurs today, the other how it might, if we are committed to planetary health and human sustainability. Please note that many of the ideas in the infographic are drawn from the work of the ecologist Walter Jehne, who you can learn about here and here. Let me also emphasize that my design for planetary health proposals do not involve either creating or living less vitally or robustly, only differently, or more intelligently and naturally.

Understanding why the promotion of planetary health is the first principle of natural design is fairly straightforward. Simply put, all design, building, technology, and indeed human action will have either a positive, negative, or neutral impact on the natural health or survivability of life and the ecosystems upon which we depend. While negative health impacts may be inconsequential when small or limited, as these cases increase they naturally undermine our capacity for further action, and even future life, and thus are irrational, paradoxical, inextensible, or unprincipled.

Further, since some human actions typically will be either unintentionally or clandestinely health negative, effort at positive health impacts are essential, if we are to achieve positive or at least neutral environmental health effects overall. And the only way to further this outcome fairly, and not overburden particular people and groups, is to make demands for comparable degrees of positive health impact the rule for all designs, developments, and endeavors. This may sound onerous, but in practice is normally a reasonable or fairly easily adopted standard. After all, living nature has been using this basic approach for millions of years, without obvious hardship, and indeed seemingly to its benefit.

There are many potential methods for achieving positive planetary health outcomes in the aggregate, and my infographic is not intended as a final word on the topic. But its framework may reflect our best current understanding of how we are most contributing to reduced planetary health, and the most direct, efficient, and reliable alternative to reverse and undo these trends. As you can see in the graphic, this alternative approach to modern infrastructure design addresses many of our most important human and environmental health issues today. These include global warming, climate change, ocean acidification, land aridification and desertification, agricultural soil loss, poor food quality, habitat loss, increased atmospheric carbon, and other forms of human pollution.

As I said, the infographic describes two basic approaches to human design and development, one broadly running contrary to natural ecological forces and another intended to work in concert with them. In the two approaches, the central design difference is their relative emphasis and use of hardscape and softscape conditions. By this, I mean land surfaces or coverings that either inhibit or promote: 1) natural water retention and cycling, 2) soil building and microbiological vitality, and 3) green land outcomes – or ones that are sunlight absorbing, photosynthetic, and shading.

Here are brief descriptions of each design model or archetype, to help you consider and use the infographic:

> Model 1: Agricultural and Urban Hardscape – as indicated, this model describes our dominant present-day approach to design and development in both rural and urban areas. Whether through the use of monocrop annual food systems or the laying of urban pavements, today we typically create periodic or permanent hard landscape surfaces that tend to shed, rather than retain, water. When this occurs, and especially at scale, a natural result is that soils are dried and eroded, instead of hydrated and strengthened. This directly leads to diminished and decarbonized soils, less vibrant soil microbiology and surface vegetation, more sunlight reflected into the air, the formation of heat domes, and perhaps most importantly, diminished natural water cycling. Reduced water cycling, in turn, promotes compounding land aridification and reduced natural cooling on a regional scale, often further reducing soil and plant health. In addition, our common use of fossil fuels takes ancient, deeply buried carbons and releases them into the modern atmosphere, which adds to this unnatural system of planetary drying and warming.

> Model 2: Porous Natural Softscape – in keeping with the infographic, a more natural and reversing alternative to this traditional approach is to redesign and re-create our contemporary communities and infrastructure with none or few of these features. In this alternative approach, our modern infrastructure is broadly re-patterned based on natural methods and conditions, notably ones favoring water-retaining and soil-shading porous softscapes, and where carbon-free and sunlight-based economics are the mainstays of life. Key design steps in this approach include the move to perennial and polycultural agriculture, re-greening and perhaps re-agriculturalizing desertified lands, similar re-greening and softscaping of urban areas, and movement to solar-autonomous buildings and transportation. As a re-naturalizing opposite of current design and land-use practices, we can expect these steps steadily to increase landmass water retention, improve soils, increase plant cover and photosynthesis, aid many marginalized species, reduce atmospheric carbon and ocean acidification, and restore natural weather patterns and hydrological cooling.

In one sense, our modern ecological and planetary health problems are complex, vast, and overwhelming. But in another and more important one, we can understand that many of the challenges we face are rooted in a small number of specific features of modern life. These features, or design decisions, are inherently antithetical to natural systems and planetary health, demonstrable as such, and readily actionable and changeable too.

Whatever your role in the design, creation, and use of our modern infrastructure and industrial systems, I would encourage you to explore these ideas and consider how your own actions and efforts might be made far more natural, aiding, healthy, and sustainable – for our planet and all people.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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Carbon Sources Not Equal

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By Mark Lundegren

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If you follow public and scientific debate about human-induced climate change, you likely have noticed there is a good deal of conflicting information about both the problem and its principal causes.

This is unfortunate, not only as a matter of accuracy, but because the ambiguity can make needed action and essential focus areas much less clear. At its worst, false or incomplete carbon pollution information risks overburdening minor contributors to climate change, while giving major producers of new atmospheric carbon relatively easy treatment, or even an unwarranted pass.

As a study in this, and prompting the infographic below, I recently read an editorial piece, aimed primarily at the perils of meat production, suggesting that more than a quarter of human greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions were from agriculture. If you search this topic, you will quickly find that agricultural GHGs vary considerably by country, but are estimated to average about half of this level worldwide and thus form only a small portion of human-created GHGs overall.

Beyond the precise amount of GHG from agricultural activities, a more important but subtle and often overlooked point is that many agricultural emissions are significantly natural or historical GHG sources. And while reducible to a degree, such broadly natural emissions are also significantly unavoidable overall, as I will explain.

As with living nature overall, the principal direct sources of GHG from human agriculture are animal metabolism and decaying plants, which we can think of helpfully as continually released and in turn naturally recycled forms of surface carbon. Though I should add that this is not the full truth. In particular, natural plant and animal ecosystems are typically perennial or evergreen systems, both producing and using carbon dioxide throughout all or much of the year, and also steadily sequestering or encapsulating atmospheric carbon, via the natural buildup of soils that normally occurs in perennial ecological systems.

But crucially, only some of human agriculture involves perennial ecology, notably pastoral ranching and wild fisheries. Much of the rest of our agriculture instead produces annual crops raised in monoculture, often with the use of GHG-releasing fertilizers and pesticides, and where soil lies exposed, eroding, unproductive, and leaching carbon into the atmosphere for significant periods of time each year. In these cases, and leaving aside fertilizers for a moment, annual crop GHG emissions extend beyond surface animal metabolism and decaying plants to include the release of sequestered, buried, sub-surface, or ground carbon, as soil is exposed to the sun and erodes in the wind and rain. Still, even here total GHG emissions are small overall, though they appear to be increasing with ongoing soil loss from monocrop agriculture and forest clear-clearing, and could increase dramatically with the thawing of Arctic permafrost.

One important consequence of these ideas is that if we return perennial agricultural grasslands and savannas, or ocean fisheries, to natural or wild conditions, we can expect little or no change in carbon emissions. Think about it. Left alone, these areas would soon re-populate with wild animals and plants, which would naturally and perennially grow, release and consume carbon dioxide in balance, and build carbon-sequestering soil in time, as they have for millions of years. To stop this re-population, we would have to prevent wild animals and plants from re-occupying these areas, through one means or another, but with the natural result of destroying these wild, soil and atmospherically beneficial, ecosystems.

My infographic above first seeks to capture the idea that perennial organic human agriculture, while subject to productivity or efficiency opportunities, is largely a natural process and not a principal source of new GHG in the atmosphere today. Second, it emphasizes that soil and sequestered carbon disrupting human activities – from logging and annual agriculture to human-increased air and water temperatures – are significantly unnatural, an important and compounding source of new GHG, and destined to steadily reduce the earth’s capacity to re-absorb atmospheric carbon, new and old.

Lastly, the graphic highlights the primary and indeed vast majority source of human-produced GHGs in the modern atmosphere. This is the mining and use of carbon fuels, or ancient soil carbons, long buried deep below the Earth’s surface. Such underground carbon includes coal, oil, and gas-based transportation, electricity generation, industry, building, business and consumer goods, heating and cooling, plant fertilizers, and agricultural machinery.

In addition to unnatural soil-degrading and vegetation-inhibiting agricultural practices, this is where our modern climate change problem squarely and principally lies.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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Additional Reading: Carbon Cycle, Climate Change, Greenhouse Gas Types & Sources

Better Than Nothing Design

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By Mark Lundegren

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I would like to propose a bold new minimum standard for architecture and building – that of better than nothing.

This may seem as though I am lowering rather than raising the design bar. But if it does, it is worth spending a moment considering what we typically mean with the word nothing.

For me, in this context it means a building site that is in a natural or undeveloped condition, or one that is naturally returning itself to a wild state. As such, nothing is actually something, usually far from something negative, and indeed often something quite complex and inspiring, as my photo below reminds.

Undeveloped Nature – Nothing By Human Hands, And Yet A Dramatic Something

In this light, what we design and build too often can be seen as worse than nothing, since it degrades or subsumes wild nature, or is better than before only because a natural area previously had been beat into true or abject nothingness by others.

So, instead of lowering human design and development standards, my intent is to significantly raise, renaturalize, and inform them. By seeking to create in ways that are better than nothing, we have the opportunity for buildings and communities superior to their original natural condition, and not merely ones resurrected from oblivion and mediocrity. Importantly, this work naturally includes not only ensuring elevated aesthetics relative to natural conditions, but also natural autonomy, sustainability, self-renewal, functionality, and health-promotion too.

You may object, thinking I have cherry-picked the above photo or am romanticizing about wild nature. If so, my second photo provides examples of four vacant suburban lots, all currently for sale and awaiting development.

Four Vacant Sites Currently For Sale, All Undeveloped Nothings and Yet Beautiful Somethings

Scanning the four sites, perhaps you will agree that all are naturally beautiful and uplifting somethings, even as they are undeveloped, and thus nothing to some or in a sense. As waiting case studies in better than nothing or nature-informed architecture and construction, I could and would challenge you to conceive of development approaches that genuinely do better than these examples of natural nothing.

Of course, as wild or re-wilding natural ecosystems, all four sites again are not only beautiful, they are also resilient, interacting, evolving, healing, energy-harvesting, resource-managing, and waste-recycling, as is all or most of living nature. Each site equally is complex and synergistic, a store of value or outcome beyond the combination of its parts, in service of a diverse community of organisms, and a worthy lesson and foundation upon which to understand, and indeed demand, natural design excellence .

Once Marginalized Site Restored, Transformed, And Now Protected By Human Ingenuity And Love

I will leave you with one more photo, as you consider our opportunity for raising design standards to mimic and then enhance nature, and her landscapes and lifescapes. This is a before and after photo of a small stream in rural Pennsylvania, in a wild area previously farmed, mined, and logged nearly into unrecognition.

Since then, the site not only has been restored, but transformed into something new, remarkable, and uplifting by human intelligence, creativity, excellence, and love of nature.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

Tell others about ArchaNatura…encourage modern natural design!

Ultra-Low Water Use Buildings

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By Mark Lundegren

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There are many reasons we might be interested in ultra-low water use.

To begin a list, we might live in an area which has low rainfall and limited water abundance. We may want to reduce expenses from high water use, wherever we live. We might seek to stop unsustainable draws on local groundwater, and thus perhaps ensure adequate spring and surface water for natural wildlife and the carbon-sequestering ecosystems around us. Or either practically or philosophically, we may wish to build off-grid in as many ways as possible, be free of centralized utilities and their bills, and live with a higher degree of natural autonomy, freedom, and resilience than is typical today.

Whatever our motivations for examining and pursuing this goal, let me say upfront that genuinely radical reductions in water use are normally possible in much of the industrially developed world, without significant reductions in our material quality of life. As we will discuss, thanks to modern technology, and in most areas – and almost always in ones with above 30 cm (12 inches) of annual rainfall – it is possible to live a fully modern life with on-site captured rain and other precipitation as our sole source of water.

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Wikipedia: Residential Water Use in the U.S. and Canada (link/credit)

Importantly, while our discussion will focus on residential or domestic water use, all of its its lessons are directly applicable to commercial and institutional buildings. On the other hand, water use in industrial manufacturing is clearly a separate and more ranging topic, with different issues and differing opportunities across various industrial sectors.

However, while we will only briefly touch on this area here, the case of both industrial and domestic food production is worth highlighting as part of our core discussion. Simply put, with careful water consumption, the use of modern permaculture techniques, and movement to more natural and naturally water-conserving perennial food systems (a topic I have summarized here), the above rule of deriving all needed water from on-site precipitation also broadly applies to agriculture as well.

Lastly for this introduction, our discussion notably will assume the presence of abundant low-cost electricity, a proposal that seems reasonable, across the developed world at least, in our era of increasingly low-cost solar collectors and batteries (a trend I have explored here).

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Building Design For Printability

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By Mark Lundegren

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Architects, builders, planners, and developers are doubtless aware that 3D printed buildings and larger communities are on the horizon, with early prototypes now in the popular and professional press. In this approach, large three-axis printers, or alternatives such as ones pivoting from a central point, are used to place materials in a specific order via design and printing software.

While this potential is well-recognized, at least three important aspects of this likely change in construction methods may be overlooked. First is that it will both require and strongly incentivize new Design for Printibality (DFP) standards and practices. On one hand, this will be necessary to enable reliable use of the technology, and also encouraged by the fact that machine-printed buildings with high DFP quotients – from backyard sheds to urban skyscrapers – may become substantially less expensive to construct and maintain than traditionally-built ones.

To Sense Potential Changes, Consider Which Form Is Easier to 3D Print

Second, as my intentionally provocative photo suggests, perhaps few of us have considered how radically DFP may alter building design and engineering, and the typical building shapes and fine-scale design features that we typically employ and take as given today. But to quickly understand this prospect, consider that much of human architecture, historically and in our time, has a low DFP quotient and is likely to be strongly disfavored or disincentivized by 3D technology.

Third, perhaps just as few of us are aware that DFP standards exist already, owing to the rise of desktop and industrial 3D printing, that these standards appear broadly applicable to building design at all scales, and also that they likely offer a significant window onto future building design and construction.

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The Most Efficient Building Form

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By Mark Lundegren

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Do you wonder if common building forms or approaches are the most efficient possible?

Since much of architecture and design today, as in the past, is concerned with aesthetics, norms, status, expression, and therefore communication, you may suspect the answer is no, and even strongly no.

But before you answer, let me point out that when we think of form or design efficiency, we can mean more than the direct costs or immediate resources and energy involved in constructing and using buildings, along with the larger settings they create in combination, as important as this is to determining efficiency.

In a complementary and informing way, we also can consider the indirect costs of buildings and developed areas. This crucial but less obvious category of costs or efficiency factors is often substantially overlooked, taken as separate from or beyond the scope of building and development, or expediently treated as “free” to some degree – thereby becoming externalities, or public or unborn costs, in the terminology of economists.

Importantly, indirect building and development costs can be as significant as direct ones. They include the often unexamined costs of pollution, dislocation, future inflexibility, sprawl, resource degradation, eventual obsolescence, and the potential for blight. As a practical matter, such indirect and commonly overlooked costs are essential to understanding the true cost, and thus the true efficiency, of any design, building, or developed area.

Fortunately, we can simplify this complex topic for a general discussion by recognizing that two basic design principles or features often substantially predict both types of costs, and thus the general efficiency of building and development. The first of these principles is that development, buildings, and spaces that are more compact or reduced in scope will tend to be less resource-intensive, less costly overall, and therefore more efficient, as long as they meet essential needs or are effective solutions overall.

The second principle is that buildings, infrastructure, and material inputs using renewable resources – and failing this, readily recyclable or reusable ones – will tend to be less costly and more efficient overall as well, by often producing fewer externalities or indirect costs for others to contend with in time. There are of course exceptions to these two rules. But overall, it is a much more difficult general case to advocate for expansive and non-renewable building and development on efficiency grounds, even as this is still our most common approach to building today.

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Low-Cost Courtyard Homes

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By Mark Lundegren

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In our era of increasing excess, but also increasingly inaccessible excess, there is now an important counter-trend – one favoring mobile homes, smaller homes, and even tiny homes. This trend often seeks to promote less expensive living, less encumbered living, more intentional living, ecologically greener living, or all of these complementary goals at once.

While this overall movement has produced many interesting designs and innovations, one home feature that is frequently lost or missing in the pursuit of smaller or more minimalistic homes is privacy, and especially private outdoor space. Fortunately, this omission is readily avoided and there are a number of ways of preserving or creating private space as today’s architects, builders, property owners, and developers downsize the footprint of housing.

Model Of Small Classical Courtyard – An Option For Modern Minimal Living

Simple steps to increase home privacy generally involve the use of natural or artificial screening around a building site, which can result in designs that are creative, functional, satisfying, space enhancing, and quite beautiful, as I wrote about in Rethinking Walls & Fences. However, sometimes we will want a solution that creates greater privacy, and especially greater acoustical and visual isolation, than screening and similar approaches may afford. Here, we can look to pre-modern urban and suburban building to see an earlier widespread method for creating significant household privacy, especially on a small scale or in fairly dense living conditions. As my title highlights, this method involves the use of courtyards.

The idea of bringing courtyards to modern minimal living and small or tiny home designs may seem an extravagance. But the truth is that, except in mid or high-rise urban cores,  courtyards can be created simply and inexpensively, for little more cost than the land the courtyard occupies. Indeed, sometimes courtyards even can be created almost for free, as in the case of mobile living on public lands or when reconfiguring inefficiently designed spaces. And as the focus for this discussion, homes themselves also can be designed from the start to be naturally self-screening or area-enclosing, creating private courtyard spaces automatically, as they are built and quite simply.

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The Future of Electricity

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By Mark Lundegren

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Essential to modern design, building, development, and economic investment, on many fronts, is an understanding of electricity. Not so much how electricity works, but how it will be created and provided in the future – whether to homes, businesses, whole communities, or industry.

In much of the world today, electricity is of course primarily generated in power plants and transmitted via electrical grids by utilities of various types and sizes (see Ta’u for an example of a new and growing exception). Power plants in our time generally use natural gas, diesel, coal, nuclear fission, or dammed water to turn large generators. However, as you likely know, a small but increasing part of this mix is electricity from solar power plants, rooftop solar panels, and wind turbines.

What may be less clear is that much of this is likely to change, and perhaps soon and quite rapidly or radically. In a decade or two, electricity may be increasingly generated by building-installed solar panels or sheathing, stored in batteries where it is generated, and no longer transmitted by power grids at all. Power poles in residential and commercial areas may be coming down, traditional electrical utilities may be facing bankruptcy, and large power plants and long distance transmission systems may have begun to become obsolete.

A Gridless, Solar-Powered Future May Be Driven By Simple Economics

If this idea or prospect seems uncertain or doubtful to you, let me make the case why it may be likely and even inevitable, and also give you an idea of what more decentralized – or more naturally distributed, autonomous, and democratic – off-grid power systems might look like in the future. Importantly, let me add that these new building-level power systems may, in turn, usher in or become part of a larger movement to modularize and automate building and development more generally, perhaps significantly reducing building construction (or installation) costs, as I will explain.

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