Searching for a perpetual motion machine has been pursued
since the Age of Enlightenment and perhaps long before. The closest we have come
are our concepts of our stable planetary system, an ever-expanding universe and
evolution. We have come to rely on: the sun rising in the east, the seasons, the
hydrological cycle, reproduction of the species, gravity, molecular motion, and
a certain amount of random chaos. We have also designed plenty of unsustainable
systems along the way [See fossil fuel graphic].
The idea of creating shelter for mankind that is sustainable has likely been around since mankind emerged from caves to build their own habitats. People have created various ways to make buildings more comfortable and much historical architecture, of both humans and animals, was cleverly conceived to combat the harsh elements of various climate zones. This evolution of shelter was often the key to cultural or species survival. However most of man’s traditional solutions were labor intensive and resource depleting.
In my career as an architect I have worked to understand, and help evolve, a more stable and sustainable approach to architectural shelter. This journey has taken me from studying and applying the mechanically-powered heating, ventilating, cooling and lighting systems for buildings of the 20th Century, into the realm of naturally conditioned buildings that physically respond to the affects of climate and weather; without the need of off-site imported energy to make them operational.
My approach has focused on using natural materials and systems since the early 1960’s. I have witnessed the development of all sorts of new construction techniques which help us design and construct buildings that are less inefficient and more energy independent. Today with the aid of new systems and refined control devices it is possible to create buildings that are nearly autonomous; heating, cooling, recycling air, water and wastes, and even producing food is possible using on-site resources. Some of these structures are automatically self-sustaining tending towards perpetual motion machines.
The rediscovery of the principles of passive solar design during the 1970’s has lead into the invention of many new sophisticated materials, systems and controls. The development of things like: selective variable transmission glazing, organic super-insulations, and thermal phase-change materials has allowed us to design ever more sophisticated structures that respond to the environmental forces that act on them. New devices like: photovoltaic cells, microprocessors, heat pumps, wind turbines, thermal solar collectors, and LED lighting have led to architecture that adapts to the environment in self-sustaining ways.
The latest developments in combining these new materials and systems are promising and exciting. Though many of these tools have been around for decades, we are now learning how to put them together in simpler more logical ways to create a newly responsive architecture. True invention is reducing things to the most basic and simple level of their nature to get the job done; this is not always easy or obvious, but today architects and engineers are finally creating the tools of sustainably living on earth. Some inventions are improvements on natural systems; some are not [See fabulous manmade tree graphic].
The ultimately simple passive solar approach to designing a house, that I call direct gain passive solar, is where an appropriate amount of the suns energy is allowed to enter the living space, be stored and re-radiate over time to keep the space comfortable for days at a time [See direct-gain graphic].
This approach can work efficiently and effectively in most climate zones; it is a matter of combining the elements of a building together to create a micro-climatically responsive live-in solar “thermos bottle”. This means a well insulated and configured structure with: integrated thermal mass, properly sized solar collection surfaces, and flexible architectural elements to open and close the thermos bottle. Such a habitat can be a wonderful energy- independent place to live providing free heating, cooling, day lighting, and ventilation; the important factors in space conditioning. By adding on-site derived power, automated control devices, and a heat pump conditioning system, you have a worry-free nearly autonomous home aspiring towards a perpetual motion machine. To be continued…….