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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 buildings.

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.

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).

WATER USE IN THE DEVELOPED WORLD

As you likely appreciate, we use a great deal of water throughout much of the developed world. Excluding water used in industry, agriculture, and outdoors, domestic water use is often in excess of 200 liters (~50 gallons) per person per day, or more than 73,000 liters (~19,000 gallons) per year.

If you will pardon a bit of math, these numbers come from combining the average household water use figures in the chart above, which are expressed in gallons, and then dividing this sum by current average US household size, which I have rounded to 2.5 people, given the only indicative nature of my calculations. More precise and geographically broader measures of water use are possible, but this rough estimate is more than adequate as a working proxy for indoor domestic water use in the developed world, as a frame for our discussion and given its focus.

This focus of course is our potential for ultra-low domestic water consumption, again amid otherwise affluent or recognizably modern life. More specifically, my aim is to show both that this outcome is plainly possible today, and both how and to the extent this is so. Taking this last point first, and assuming existing or soon-to-be-available technology, it appears that average domestic water use can be readily reduced by more than a factor of ten, dramatically curtailing water use and likely making 100% water autonomy – again via collected onsite precipitation and notably without the use of wells – a realistic goal for most single-family residences.

The calculations that lead me to these perhaps startling conclusions are summarized in the table below, with the technology allowing such reductions described in the next section of our discussion. Please note that the amounts shown below are in gallons, so that they track with the figures in the pie chart.

Indoor Residential Per Person Daily Water Use (Gallons)
US/Can Avg Potential
Toilet 13.20 0.00
Shower 11.20 1.50
Faucets 10.40 0.75
Washer 9.20 0.50
Leaks 6.80 0.00
Dishwasher 0.80 0.25
Other Indoor 3.60 0.25
Vegetable Garden 1.20 0.25
Gallons/Person 56.40 3.50 6%
Liters/Person 213.50 13.25 6%

As you can see in the table, and using the techniques and technology I will describe next, I have substantially lowered water usage across all of these core categories, and brought two of them to zero. Once again, these amounts do not include agricultural and outdoor water use, which similarly have the potential for site-level autonomy as well, and the figures again also do not account for water used in the provision of industrial products and services.

However, you will note that I have included water used for household vegetable (non-staple) gardening, since this is an opportunity to highlight the potential for low water use in this important, instructive, and transferable area. On the other hand, and perhaps to the dismay of some, the estimates assume no residential pools or even bathtubs in either the as-is or to-be projections, though each form of water use, while significant, may be possible on a sustainable or autonomous basis in some climates.

ULTRA-LOW WATER USE TECHNIQUES

Ultra-low water use is a change best pursued on many fronts. Much like low energy and resource-use more generally, reduced water usage begins with curiosity and a commitment to pursue options and alternatives at nearly every turn. That said, our largest typical areas of current water use should be understood as likely to yield the biggest impact, and the water conservation techniques we will discuss next are therefore roughly ordered from greatest to lowest average area of residential water use and thus opportunity for impact.

Importantly, this list of techniques once again assumes no significant alteration in lifestyle or modern activities of daily living. With the techniques, we still can clean ourselves, our clothes, and other possessions, and hygienically process our bodily wastes, in ways that are comparable to status quo conditions in the developed world today. Also, none of the techniques use practices or materials that are substantially more difficult, costly, or resource-intensive compared to ones in use today (though this is clearly an option for added water savings, and notably might include various dry cleaning methods).

> Toilet – as you can see in the chart and table above, flushing toilets are often the largest source of indoor domestic water use, and also where the largest impact in my prototype water reduction model occurs. As you might have guessed, this reduction is simply achieved by eliminating flushing toilets altogether and moving to waterless ones. On this point, let me underscore that there are a number of options for moving to dry and what are inevitably aerating or aerobic toilets – each with varying degrees of overall simplicity, ease of use, need for ductwork, and potential for odor. But again given my goal of minimal disruption to modern living patterns, my assessment is that the best zero-water toilet for most people in the developed world, at this time, is the Separatt toilet or an equivalent product, . In this overall approach, (normally sterile) urine is routed way from air-dried solid wastes and into sewer, septic, or compositing systems. This step greatly simplifies system operation in practice, reduces both needed ductwork and the potential for odor, and importantly allows a design that closely resembles traditional toilets.

> Daily shower – after flushing toilets, the second largest use of indoor residential water typically is showering. While reducing the frequency and duration of showers, or slowing water rates while lathering, are clear options for reducing water use, many modern people would find this an inconvenience and so these measures are not considered here (but might be used to reduce water consumption even further). Instead, my prototype system uses a recirculating shower, such as Orbital Systems or one of several similar products, where used shower water is diverted from drain pipes, filtered, reheated, and reused until the end of the shower session – in a closed loop that allows both extended hot showers and greatly reduced water use.

> Faucets – third on our list of indoor domestic water use sources is faucets, whether in kitchens, bathrooms, or utility areas. Today, a variety of low-flow faucets are available, which may reduce water usage in half or more, but unfortunately will not achieve our goal of a more than 10X reduction in water usage from faucets. To achieve this even lower level of water consumption, we instead will need to turn to misting or vaporizing faucet nozzles, such as Altered or an alternative product, all of which are just coming to market now and still subject to limited availability (though this is likely to change in the next year or two). Importantly, my water use targets in this area assume that most dishwashing will occur in higher efficiency automated dishwashers, for both water use optimization and in keeping with our goal of conforming to typical modern lifestyle practices where possible.

> Clothes – next in our survey of residential water use is clothes washing. Today, low-water washing machines are becoming the norm. These machines, like low-flow faucets, often can reduce water consumption roughly in half compared to earlier technology. However, the approach once again will not achieve the water reduction goals that are possible, and still newer clothes washing technology is needed. In principle, this will take the form of Xeros Technologies washers or equivalent products, which are now available for commercial use, but have not yet been downsized to a residential scale (or upgraded to provide integrated and space-saving drying). Using only a minimal amount of water and reused microbeads, this fairly new technology achieves remarkable water use reductions, while offering a familiar modern clothes washing experience. And while on the topic of clothing, I would be remiss if I did not add that we today all of the potential to quickly save significant water and energy by washing most of our garments less frequently than is the norm, and also choosing new clothing that requires less cleaning, needs shorter machine cleaning cycles, and uses less or little energy to dry after cleaning.

Leaks – were you surprised to see system leakage as a frequent primary water use in modern homes? Whether in the more obvious form of leaking faucets, valves, and toilets, or more latently as water working its way out of plumbing joints and connections, and utility pipelines, residential water leakage in fact can be quite significant. In this area, my prototype water plan moves to reduce leakage to near zero, notably through regular assessments and prompt action when and where leaks are discovered. If this seems a significant and impracticable undertaking, I would ask you to consider this proposal in the context of an ultra-low water use and perhaps water-autonomous building, where the overall system is much smaller and simpler than is typical, where there are fewer opportunities for leakage, and where even small leaks would significantly impact water usage and quickly materialize on the building’s water meter.

> Dishwasher – in part because less water is needed for dishwashers relative to clothes washing machines, at least with traditional technology, and in part owing to recent advancements in dishwasher technology, achieving our goals for water reduction in dishwashing is fairly straightforward today. Currently, there are a number of dishwashers that use a very low volume of water and also often low energy amounts too (though in a clear theme in our discussion, there can be a natural tradeoff between using less water and less energy in dishwashing and many in other areas). Notably, my projections assume roughly one dishwasher cycle per week per person, and therefore that cookware and utensils used daily would be hand-washed in a misting kitchen sink faucet. In addition, while on this overall topic, let me also provocatively highlight our potential to dirty fewer dishes than is typical, and perhaps achieve significant personal health benefits, by eating fewer meals and less frequently.

> Other indoor – in addition to eliminating baths and pools from both the typical and target water use patterns in the table above, my prototype water use model assumes similar indoor water use reductions in all other areas. I won’t catalog particular water uses in this other category, since they may be highly variable and specific. But I will emphasize that the plan assumes that all such uses will be identified and prove fairly obvious, that steps can and will be taken to similarly reduce or eliminate water consumption in these areas, and that technological or other creative solutions will be possible in all cases.

> Vegetable garden – lastly, and as indicated earlier, I have included modest vegetable gardening in both my typical and target water use projections, since this is a potential, and potentially very healthy, form of domestic water use. Importantly, it is also a topic that allows us to end our discussion with an instructive study in possible water savings both outside our residences and in food production more generally. In particular, my projections assume a small outdoor growing area of about a square meter (~12 ft2) per person, and therefore one that requires about four liters or a gallon of water per day using traditional gardening methods, but that also can be designed to use much less water via alternative gardening practices. These include heavy soil mulching and minimizing soil disturbance, kitchen waste composting and regular soil amendment, underground drip or targeted watering in the early morning, selecting plants with comparable use and nutrition that require less water, and growing plants closely together in synergistic groups or guilds.

Overall, this brief but ranging discussion of ultra-low water use buildings likely has given you a lot to think about. As indicated at the start, there are a number of reasons why the goal of very low water use and site-level water autonomy, in residences and beyond, may be important to you, your family or organization, or larger community. But in nearly all cases, I think you can see that it is a realistic and economical goal, and potentially a highly beneficial one too.

I welcome your comments and questions on this crucial topic in modern natural design and development.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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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.

I would like to briefly summarize key DFP principles from desktop and industrial printing, and then discuss their implications for building design and construction in a 3D-printed era. But let me first offer a quick acid test of building and structural design printability up-front. Simply put, if you can’t print a design model on a desktop 3D printer, it is unlikely to be printable at full-scale – though there may be exceptions to this rule, some of which we will discuss.

3D PRINTING OVERVIEW

As outlined, the primary technology of 3D printing in our time involves either X-Y-Z or pivoting printers, along with their enabling software. Together, they allow us to render computer generated images in plastic or some other extruded or sprayed, quickly-solidifying, and usually self-binding material. Typically, objects are printed in small layers or planes, one upon the other, in a process known as fused deposition. And already, 3D printers can produce a variety of items – from gears and art to toys and teeth.

Example of Industrial 3D Printer In Action

Importantly, other 3D printing technologies are possible and indeed seem inevitable in building construction. A good example of this, in use today, is the 3D etching of silicon chips and other materials. But even here, subsequent depositional layering and fusing is employed to place new materials within or above etched areas. Similarly, 3D milling technology is now in increasing use, where the printing nozzle of a 3D printer is replaced with a spinning drill or high-energy laser, and used to sculpt objects from larger blocks of material.

Since it appears that future 3D printed building technology will primarily, or at least initially, involve fused deposition techniques, perhaps with robotic insertion of modular elements – from rebar and lintels to floors and conduit – my comments regarding DFP will primarily focus on depositional methods. In any case, they come with the understanding that new printing techniques naturally will come with their own DFP demands and opportunities, some specific to the technique and others more general or broadly applicable to mechanical printing in all its forms.

Looking at the literature on artisanal and industrial depositional printing (example 1, example 2, example 3), a number of core DFP principles quickly emerge. Notably, all are fairly intuitive, nearly all center on resisting or working with gravity during and after the printing process, and most appear to have direct corollaries in the architecture of natural geological deposition. These DFP principles include:

> Selecting materials for adequate strength, endurance & other qualities

> Establishing an adequate base or foundation for the object

> Limiting the depositional incline or cantilever of materials

> Avoiding large unsupported prominences and flat spans

> Use of temporary printed buttresses to support materials while solidifying

> Inclusion of curves, ribs, and articulation to increase final object strength

You probably can see that this list of DFP considerations is largely, if not wholly, transferable to the printing of buildings and other larger-scale structures, and perhaps to printing approaches beyond depositional techniques. However, one important exception to this idea of transferability is that, unlike desktop and many industrial objects, buildings and other large structures may be less tiltable or relocatable after printing, thus potentially increasing their natural DFP demands or constraints.

By contrast, another likely set of exceptions to this transferability centers around the greater overall cost and complexity of printing relatively large and more heterodox or multi-lithic structures. This elevated cost and complexity may allow the economical use of mechanical aids to support or augment materials during the printing process – such as the use of permanent and removable formwork (ranging from traditional decking to airforms). Again, the greater expense of buildings also may permit integration of various modular elements or components, via robots or human labor, before, during, or after the printing process, and all in a way that may not be economically or practicably feasible in small-scale printing.

BUILDING DESIGN IMPLICATIONS

While the above general DFP principles may broadly carry forward to 3D printed building design, it is worth touching on some of the specific design considerations the technology suggests for wholly or significantly printed buildings. As a preliminary summary of key building printability issues, and to spur your thinking in this area, let me highlight several crucial ideas and themes:

> Integral design – as with 3D printed objects of all kinds, there will be great advantage in selecting materials and design forms in tandem and with the goal of their combination forming a fully or nearly complete building solution out of the nozzle, so to speak

> Layered design – since buildings are naturally more complex or involve more needed outcomes than many smaller objects – from thermal and internal air control to mechanical systems and weatherproofing – this suggests that, absent significant new advancements in materials science, the potential for fully integral, monolithic, or single-print designs will be naturally limited to some degree, and in turn that layered printing is more likely to be the norm

> Structural reinforcement – while robotic or human placement of reinforcing elements before, during, or after building printing is plainly possible, the practice of including reinforcement measures within the printing process – for example, within or alongside printed materials, via their overall shape, or through multi-layer printing – is likely to provide significant cost and durability advantages

> Foundations – as touched on before, 3D printing in all its forms requires a stable base upon which to build, but it is unclear if traditional foundation construction methods will continue forward into an era of printed buildings, with the clear potential for both site excavation (or milling) and foundation placement to become fully automated

> Walls – instructively, today’s early prototype 3D printed structures (example 1, example 2, example 3) often print the building walls only,  employing simple curves and articulation to strengthen long wall segments, suggesting that the printing of vertical or modestly tilted walls will be the least challenging aspect of 3D printed buildings

> Floors – in contrast to walls, the 3D printing of floors, especially elevated ones, will require significant design and engineering attention to be practicable, and is likely to involve special measures to allow horizontal printing and ensure a durable result – including the use of non-printed formwork, the use of temporary and permanent printed buttresses, and/or insertion of modular decking or ground-printed floor members

> Roofs – representing a middle condition of complexity between walls and elevated floors, the roofs of printed buildings either may constructed more traditionally (as demonstrated here and in some of the early prototypes links above) or they may employ curved shapes for both structural and waterproofing reasons – otherwise, 3D roofs will need to be printed much like elevated floors, especially if they are designed to be flat or in the form of non-curved spanning inclines

> Weatherproofing – building on these ideas, most 3D printed buildings of course will need to be weatherproof to some degree, and specifically to shed rain and other precipitation, again suggesting curved or heavily buttressed 3D printed roofs as just outlined, or the avoidance of 3D printed roofs and building capping via other methods

> Doors, windows, & mechanicals – as highlighted before, these important aspects of modern building do not appear to lend themselves to 3D printing techniques in the near term, with some exceptions (such as sprayed membranes for solar energy collection), though eventual robotic fabrication and placement of these elements is clearly possible

> Overhangs & ornamentation – in keeping with our discussion, building overhangs and other jutting features will be less desirable, have a lower DFP quotient, and will require more design attention to be practicable, but other forms of building appendage and ornament of course are plainly possible, though more intricate ornamentation is likely to require smaller printer nozzles and thus perhaps a separate or secondary printing process

Today, 3D printing of buildings is in its infancy and proof of concept stage. But forward-looking designers and planners especially should begin to prepare for this technology, since it is almost certainly coming, and sure to be disruptive when it does. In particular, 3D printing may dramatically change the way buildings look and are constructed, alter regulation and inspection needs, reduce initial and long-term costs, and increase overall efficiency and sustainability.

As a simple, awareness-building next step in this process, you might begin to assess the printability of the designs you are working on or see proposed around you. In the meantime, I welcome your comments and questions on this important set of ideas.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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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.

With these ideas in mind, let’s examine a few instructive studies in or candidates for the most efficient building form possible, notably by looking at: 1) available building profiles or basic shapes, 2) possible plans, layouts, or distributions of buildings, and 3) the potential for solar energy collection or production by buildings and developed areas (click to enlarge each exhibit).

Efficiency of Building Shapes

For our first study, examining building profiles, or their basic shape or street view, I have begun with the sphere in my first exhibit. As you likely know, this shape is naturally or geometrically the most efficient in terms of minimizing surface area for a given volume, and thus can be relatively efficient in terms of enclosing interior space, and heating and cooling space too.

But spheres and their variations suffer from natural drawbacks or inefficiencies, on the earth or water, and even in space. They of course are naturally likely to roll and thus require steadying, can be difficult or intricate to build unless constructed monolithically or geodesically, and often require extra effort or otherwise prove inefficient to partition, furnish, equip, and modify for human use.

Solving some of these natural inefficiencies are the next two forms in the exhibit, domed and arched-shaped buildings. These shapes are also very efficient in terms of surface to volume ratio, and as with spheres, are often superior when seeking to span large areas and enclose space homogeneously. But the two forms similarly can be less practical and efficient for many applications. Domes and arches also frequently waste or leave unusable internal space, and often prove less effective as overall solutions for modern and generally rectilinear human living.

These issues lead us to the square or rectangular building profiles that are the mainstay of settled human life, and also notably to the hybrid form that is the cylindrically shaped building (which generally blends the advantages and disadvantages of curved and rectangular forms). Overall, rectilinear building forms are less efficient from a surface-to-volume standpoint and are naturally weaker structurally than spheres, domes, and arches, but they can be much simpler and thus more efficient to build and use in many cases (again excepting buildings requiring large spans and having homogeneous interiors).

Importantly, square and rectangular forms also can be much easier, or more efficient, to modify, expand, or adapt over time than spherical and curved structures, and this is likely a crucial driver of their ubiquity in human life. However, one important disadvantage of perfectly rectilinear buildings is their flat roofline, a widely unnatural and inefficient approach to providing shelter from precipitation. In practice, this drawback of course is mitigated via the use of special materials and pitched roofs of various slopes – which we can view as variations on or extensions of basic rectilinear forms, as I have indicated in the exhibit.

Efficiency of Development Plans

Our second study moves from considering the efficiency of basic building shapes or profiles to that of overall building distributions, or the general organizing plans, layouts, or top-down views of buildings and developed areas. As the first graphic in the second exhibit highlights, round, spherical, and cylindrical buildings, rooms, and other spaces are most efficiently planned in an alternating honeycomb format, though this still leaves significant unused space between buildings, even when they touch.

As you can see in the next graphic in the exhibit, one solution to this natural inefficiency is to use hexagonal or other tiling polygons for building plans, which reduce unused exterior space and also have a natural beauty or aesthetic appeal. But this approach suffers from many of the drawbacks of spherical and cylindrical buildings mentioned above – including potential added complexity of construction and frequent interior spatial mismatches for many applications. In addition, the lack of direct or straight entry and exit from hexagonal and similar grids may disadvantage them from an efficiency of access and use standpoint in many applications (though this feature can advantage them in others, as I will touch on).

Once again, these natural trade-offs bring us to the ubiquitous human form that is the rectilinear building plan and larger grid layout, whether buildings are square or rectangular, along with potential variations such as triangular grids (but which have many of the same properties as hexagonal and other non-square grid patterns). Overall, rectilinear grids often waste less space both inside and outside of buildings, and thus can be more spatially efficient across many human applications. But one disadvantage of rectilinear and similar grids is that they can be too regimented or belittling experientially, and thereby emotionally unappealing or unsettling. That is, they may be aesthetically inefficient amid their practical and geometric efficiency.

As shown in the last graphic in the second exhibit, a solution to this aesthetic, emotional, or experiential limitation is to alternate, honeycomb, or otherwise stagger rectilinear buildings in one plan or layout dimension. This has the effect of reducing access efficiency somewhat, but can produce a more effective solution overall in many applications, including the development of neighborhoods and other intimate public, semi-public, and private spaces.

Efficiency of Energy Production

Our third study considers building profiles and layouts in combination – in street, side, or profile view once again – and in particular, resulting opportunities for solar energy collection or production. Owing to this, it therefore considers the potential for transformative modern building efficiency from new design profiles and layouts, even to the point where buildings might produce or capture more energy than is consumed in their construction and use.

Intuitively, and as the first two graphics in the third exhibit illustrate, any building will cast an amount of shadow in sunlight, and of course in proportion to its overall shape, size, and height. When buildings require no energy input or benefit from shade, such shadowing is not a problem or source of inefficiency, and even may result in efficiency gains.

However, if we wish to collect solar energy along the sides or walls of buildings, this will necessitate a wider distribution or layout of buildings, spaces, or building elements than might otherwise be the case. In other words, it will involve new optimization of building shape and layout based on the relative efficiency benefits afforded by compactness on one hand and renewability considerations on the other.

As shown in the second pair of graphics in the exhibit, a natural solution to the problem of unwelcome shading from plan compactness is to design for solar collection on the tops of buildings only (roofs and upper walls). This approach allows for close placement of buildings without the unwelcome shading of solar collectors, and also with perhaps beneficial shading of building walls in warm climates, but it does require relatively uniform or otherwise sun-friendly building profiles overall.

Depending on building energy demands, limiting solar collection to the tops of buildings may be an ideal solution, but it is clear that building height and occupancy will be limited overall, especially if 100 percent solar power is a goal, and simply given natural spatial constraints. In this approach, and in a way that is still quite unusual today, building height would be primarily determined by rooftop solar gain potential, system efficiency, and expected building energy use patterns, instead of structural or aesthetic considerations.

Key Takeaways

I hope these ideas and analysis are helpful to you, and will help you to explore, pursue, and encourage more optimal natural design and development in its many potential forms.

Provocatively, our discussion suggests three overall efficiency ideals for solar-powered building, leaving aside industrial and other high-span applications: 1) low-rise buildings placed closely together and primarily using rooftop solar collection, 2) mid-rise buildings placed a moderate distance apart, and using roof and wall solar collection, and 3) high-rise structures spaced even more widely apart and also collecting energy on both roofs and walls. Importantly, the ideas we have examined further suggest that rectilinear buildings and rectilinear grids, significantly compacted in shape and layout,  will be most efficient as well – though again, perhaps with the use of partially staggered or honeycombed layouts in some applications to improve aesthetics, appeal, or spatial intimacy.

Of course, there are other factors or application demands, beyond solar energy production and building autonomy, that will determine which building profiles and development formats are best or most efficient in particular cases. But I want to end our discussion by pointing out that much of our traditional and contemporary built environment does not match the above archetypes, and also often is not substantially compact as well. Given this, many historical and ongoing approaches to building and development are likely to prove less efficient and desirable, as we move to greener or more ecologically-friendly development, and especially as we switch to naturally more distributed, decentralized, and thus democratic sun-based energy production.

As you can readily observe, nearly everywhere we look today, we see tall and mid-rise buildings packed closely together, low buildings often far apart and sprawling into the landscape, and similarly wandering and inefficient building shapes, especially in the latter case. There are numerous reasons for these patterns of development, including historical building practices and inherited community zoning practices. But if we are serious about renewable, sustainable, and efficient human building and development, this must change.

I would welcome your comments and questions on this crucial and far-reaching set of design ideas.

Mark Lundegren is the founder of ArchaNatura. 

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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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Self-Driving Mobile Homes

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By Mark Lundegren

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Self-driving or autonomous cars and trucks are coming, and soon. Not only are the number of firms developing the technology increasing, regulatory barriers and public skepticism are receding, and the initial rollout of the vehicles is proceeding successfully.

As I write this, Google brethren and early market-leader Waymo has driverless, level-4 autonomous vans roaming the streets of Phoenix, Arizona, with plans to expand and achieve fully autonomous, level-5 functioning in the near term.

Self-Driving Technology May Change The Way We Live Overall

But what about self-driving or autonomous motorhomes, or mobile homes, here meaning more than mere recreational vehicles? As autonomous vehicle technology proliferates, self-driving mobile homes cannot be far behind, and perhaps with far-reaching consequences. After all, if we could live and move in our homes, and not have to drive or steer them, many of us might choose to no longer have fixed homes, and to live far more mobile or location-flexible lives than we do today.

Consider some of the potential key features of mobile living, if we could live and work, and not have to drive, as we move:

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Green Building: More Than LEED

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By Mark Lundegren

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In many countries today, there is a rapid movement toward green building.

Often, however, this goal is cast somewhat narrowly – as creating buildings that require little or no external energy for their daily use, or fabricating structures with a fairly high degree of autonomy.

While this goal is laudable and has led to a number of important innovations, there are at least two broader, more rigorous, and ultimately more socially beneficial ways to conceive of green building design.

A second, broader conception of green building also considers the amount and nature of resources that go into the initial construction of buildings. In this expanded definition, architects, builders, developers, and regulators seek to: 1) minimize resource use during building construction, 2) reduce reliance on non-sustainable or non-recyclable resources, and 3) build in ways that are either minimally impact or positively enhance land, water, and air quality around buildings and their communities. As you may know, this sense of green building design is increasingly more common – and can be explored at green building.

A third and still more expansive definition of green building further extends the concept to include consideration of the long-term ecological and social impacts of building and development overall. In particular, this view enlarges our analysis to assess the relative effectiveness of building and development patterns both at meeting human needs and promoting human health, including the essential foundation of all natural health that is ecological sustainability.

What Is The Correct Scope For Green Building & Development?

Importantly, and often somewhat unintuitively or inexpeditiously, the natural – or renaturalized – goals of meeting human needs and promoting human health generally lead to a basic rethinking of traditional building design and construction practices, along with community and societal development norms more broadly. This is a complex topic, but let me point out that the aim of serving human needs and promoting overall community and societal health invariably must consider how building and development impact people generally, and how these efforts can serve the greatest number of people.

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