Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Fuels Rush In...

“I have learned through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmitted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmitted into a power that can move the world.
—Mahatma Gandhi

I don’t mean to be a spoil sport, but all the articles I have read about reducing energy consumption are crap. Why? Listen to the news. All you hear from politicians and insipid "news" programs is the same recycled suggestions about shifting from one type of energy generation—say coal and oil—to another type of energy generation, say nuclear, solar, wind, etc. I have not seen a strong drive to do something equally or perhaps MORE important—to begin building a humbler lifestyle that is more sustainable. Oddly enough, the ability to do this already exists.

Let’s talk homes. When articles expound on energy-efficient homes, they talk about such band-aids as double-paned windows, improved insulation and fluorescent light bulbs. Lame. If we really want to make a dent in energy consumption, it has to begin with our concept of what a home is in the first place. It’s time to walk away from environmentally defiant homes to something more meaningful. I’m talking truly sustainable homes, from the ground up. Homes that completely reject the current notions about what a home looks like, how much space we really need to live and how a house functions. There are numerous examples out there, but for the purpose of this piece, I'll showcase two.
The self-operating, completely solar, zero-energy LUMENHAUS.

Let’s start with the LUMENHAUS™. This amazing example of solar housing was designed and built at Virginia Tech. Its innovative design combines architecture with technology and won the international Solar Decathlon Competition in Madrid, Spain in June of 2010.

LUMENHAUS has open, flowing spaces. The north and south walls are all glass, maximizing the exposure to daylight. Its design uses technology to make the owner’s life simpler, more energy efficient and less expensive.

LUMENHAUS is a zero-energy home completely powered by the sun. Its sustainable architecture features compact volume, little air infiltration, strategic insulation, natural/cross ventilation, passive heating, and integrated geothermal energy sink. (Geothermal energy is derived from wells drilled deep into the surface of the ground to tap into the Earth's natural heat.) Design and material selection aim to reduce indoor pollutants, minimize global warming, reduce waste, include recycled content, represent low energy in manufacture and harvest, limit destruction to habitat, and rapidly renew resources. Sign me up!

Homes built into hillsides, courtesy of the Swiss.
Now let’s move to Switzerland. Here, they are building Hobbit-like homes into hillsides. Inhabitants of these earth homes in Dietikon, Switzerland, are said to live not under the earth but with the earth. The homes are constructed from various natural and recycled building materials and then blanketed by grass for protection from rain, low temperatures, wind and abrasion. Homes are clustered around a lake and situated towards the south to maximize exposure to daylight. Natural light is brought in via skylights whenever possible. The compound, which includes an underground parking lot, was built using recycled glass and sprayed concrete, and then topped with a protective, natural green roof. Nice.

This low-impact woodland home was built by a gentleman in Wales.
"If sunbeams were weapons of war, we would have had solar energy centuries ago."—Sir George Porter

If we're really serious about sustainability, forget the pointless squabbling over drilling versus mining versus construction of nuclear plants. It's time to replace the desperate search for more energy with a feverish sense of immediacy over reducing or eliminating what is gluttonously feeding that need. Let's completely re-tool the way we approach our homes, appliances, vehicles and overall consumption habits.

Beddington Zero Energy Development housing units near London.
Granted, there is little financial incentive with status quo energy producers, builders and manufacturers to move in this direction. The demand for sustainable homes and lives would have to be a grassroots movement with some visionary entrepreneurial companies leading the way. And those corporate standard-bearers would have to demonstrate a commitment to making what they build affordable for the average person. Ideally, the government—and I'm not holding my breath—would offer grants to knock down existing nonhistoric, energy-gobbling homes to be replaced by these zero-energy babies.

Yes, re-tooling factories and thought processes is financially and emotionally painful. Still, until there are substantial changes in the way we live, not just in how we scramble to amass greater volumes of energy generation with the aid of our military, it is difficult to believe that we are in any way serious about living sustainable lives. Nor is it possible to feel any sense of optimism for the future of humanity or the planet we so ineptly inhabit.

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