Tag Archives: Home

Faster, greener, cheaper: Your next home may be printed instead of built

A new generation of start-ups wants to disrupt the way houses are developed — and they’re already on the market.

Image via Dezeen.

For those uninitiated in 3D printing (although years of maker sites, souvenirs, prosthetic limbs, and car parts have already shown us the wonders of 3D printing) here is a useful definition of 3D printing from Associated Press: “3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, uses machines to deposit thin layers of plastic, metal, concrete and other materials atop one another, eventually producing three-dimensional objects from the bottom up.”

Printing in three dimensions.

You may think 3D printing is all about small objects — and for the most part, that’s true, most printers are small in size and can only produce small objects. But increasingly, 3D printers are being used for larger objects. Houses, in particular, are an attractive field for it.

The time has never been as ripe as it is now for 3D printing. Innovation is in the air; prices for 3D printers are dropping; more affordable and durable materials are being developed; and there’s a shortage of wood and other materials conventionally used for house building. All the elements have aligned to make 3D-printed structures competitive with regular materials.

In fact, many believe that 3D printed houses could not only be comparable in price to conventional houses — but they could be cheaper. The construction time could also be reduced substantially. The World Economic Forum acknowledged the significance of this industry-changer — 3D printing can raise a house within days, compared to weeks or (more often) months.

Mighty Buildings is a case in point. As reported in Sustainable Brands, the firm basically makes construction panels. These can be bolted together as building blocks for structures. They use a thermoset composite material created via 3D-printer technology and the whole process is very efficient: the material hardens immediately under UV light.

Another 3D printing company on the construction scene is ICON, leveraging advanced robotics. They can print up to three houses at a time. Fast Company looked at their capabilities and reported that, on one site, it tried printing multiple homes at once. It was an experiment and they discovered it was possible, enabling them to go faster and reduce costs. Fast Company described the Vulcan printer, at 33 feet long, as working “like a giant version of desktop 3D printers, squirting out a custom concrete mixture in layers like frosting on a cake. The process builds the walls of the house, with other parts, including the roof and windows, added later.”

But are 3D printed houses too limited a solution for a giant problem of lack of affordable housing? How is this a practical solution? The CTO answered the question with another question: “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Down to Earth

In Italy, meanwhile, 3D printed homes are, literally, breaking ground. If you’re yawning over structures that look like super-sized cartons and resonate with a bicycle, dog and morning newspaper on the doorstep, wait for this. WASP has delivered a startling alternative.

3D printed houses. Image credits: Wasp.
Te inside. Image credits: Wasp.

WASP is a 3D printing company that partnered with Mario Cucinella Architects to make a “TECLA” house near Bologna, Italy. It is a dome-shaped structure, a circular model that has the appearance of coming up straight from the earth under it.

Construction was based on natural materials and it was made with two printer arms running at the same time. The recipe: soil blended with water and special additives. It presents close to a net zero footprint and uses about a hundred layers of 3D-printed clay.

“Each printer has the capacity to print an area of 50 sq m (538 sq ft), making it possible to accomplishing a single housing module in a matter of days,” as per New Atlas. The house has an open living room with a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and wardrobe storage. A skylight brings natural light during the day and “star gazing” at night. New Atlas called TECLA a “pioneering example for low-carbon housing construction.”

At the moment, it’s still hard to say if 3D printed houses will become mainstream. But the signs are there. Already, the first 3D printed house in the US was sold — and at a price much lower than its competitors in the area. No doubt, 3D printing is just getting started and it may not be long before it starts popping up in a neighborhood near you.

Bacterial cement.

What is the house of the future going to look like?

How will our homes morph in the future to meet the demands of today?

House.

Image via Pixabay.

Computers are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in many areas of our lives. We’re also becoming more environmentally-conscious, and more technologically-savvy. At the same time, we’re more and more pressed for time in today’s hectic world. Throughout history, our homes have changed to keep pace with our wants, needs, and possibilities, so it’s a pretty safe bet that the home will transform to both meet the requirements of modern life, as well as to take advantage of its advances. But what, exactly, will this transformation involve?

We don’t really know — but we do have some pretty good guesses. Today, let’s take a look at what future homes could be built from, how they’ll handle utilities, how we’ll get around inside them, and how to keep them at a comfortable temperature.

A brick-by-brick analysis

Fans of English architecture, sorry to break it to you, but the tried-and-tested brick’s prospects don’t look so good. Many traditional building materials, from bricks and mortar to steel and cement, release a lot of CO2 during their manufacturing processes. This doesn’t jive very well with our efforts at fighting climate change, however, so they will probably be increasingly phased out of use.

MycoTecture.

This structure was grown from the fungus Ganoderma lucidum.
Image credits Philip Ross.

Instead, why not lay down fungus bricks? Made from dried mycelia, the tangled root-like fibers that grow beneath mushrooms, these are definitely more eco-friendly than traditional bricks. And, they’re good for you too, not just for the environment. They are stronger than concrete, pound for pound, fire-proof, resistant to water and mold, and can be grown into virtually any shape. Philip Ross, an artist and lecturer at Stanford University who spearheaded the development of these mushroom bricks has co-founded MycoWorks, a company that aims to bring the product to markets.

Right now, MycoWorks’s flagship product is a type of fake leather “grown rapidly from mycelium and agricultural byproducts in a carbon-negative process” — so your couch will definitely match the walls. But what is the material like?

“It’s sort of like a plastic that can potentially be used for God knows what,” Ross told Glasstire in an interview.

Cementing eco-friendliness

Bacterial cement.

Image via Eco-Cement.

If bricks just don’t represent you that well, bacteria have got your back (and walls). As part of a European Union-backed project, a company in Madrid has developed a cheaper, sustainable, bacteria-based ‘eco-cement‘. The material starts out as a bacterial mix, which you have to supply with soil and nutrients, then simmer at around 30°C for around three hours. After this initial fermentation process, the bacteria have basically produced limestone (which is a central ingredient of cement). Throw in an armful of sand, industrial cement residue, and rice husk ash and voila — cement!

“Our raw materials are basically all waste. So we don’t have added costs,” said Laura Sánchez Alonso, a mining Engineer and Eco-Cement project coordinator. “For instance, we don’t need to extract and transport the limestone commonly used to produce cement. And we also save the energy costs”

This bacterial approach can shave some 11% off of greenhouse emissions, and 27% off of the production costs of cement. Researchers have yet to determine how many wall-related discussions this cement will spark at your housewarming party, but unofficial estimates say it is ‘a lot’.

Wooden’t you like to live here?

Brock wooden skyscraper.

The wooden Brock skyscraper was constructed ahead of target.
Image credits Acton Ostry Architects, the developeres of the project.

Wood is making a comeback as a building material. It has several very appealing properties: it’s a strong, sustainable material which stores carbon dioxide to boot. It’s also very versatile, and we’re learning to do more and more awesome things with it. If you need steel but want wood, it can do that — just make it superdense. Need windows but all you have are planks? Fret not; transparent wood is stronger than glass and easy to make. From timber skyscrapers to wind turbines, to taller skyscrapers, wood is definitely the most modern ancient building material.

“(As) a building like this becomes a reality, it really paves the way for additional projects across the country, probably throughout North America and throughout the world,” said Lynn Embury-Williams, executive director of the Canadian Wood Council’s Wood Works BC program, who worked on the Brock Commons, a wooden skyscraper student dorm for the University of British Columbia campus.

Insulation

Insulation has a big role to play in making your home energy-efficient. If you’re a sci-fi type of guy, aerogels are right down your alley (and, ideally, up your walls). For the fantasy fans among you, staw might be more palatable — but just as effective.

Heating is cool

Radiator.

Image via Pixabay.

Insulation is just half of the equation — we also want to heat the place up during winter and cool it down in the summer. In other words, we want temperature control. One of the sleekest upcoming systems in this area is a thermal battery developed by the EMPA (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research). It mixes NaOH (sodium hydroxide, lye) with water to generate heat during cold months. When summer swings by, recharging the battery is as simple as leaving it out in the sun to dry.

Alternatively, if your goal is to stay cool on a budget, this air conditioning unit might spark your fancy. In broad lines, it pushes air through a paper-like membrane to dry it down. Then, this dry air is pumped over metallic plates inside the AC to force water to evaporate at room temperature. Since water needs to absorb energy to turn from a liquid to a gas, this cools down the plates, which in turn cool down the surrounding air. The system also generates about 12 to 15 liters (12.68 to 15.85 quarts) of potable water per day.

Getting around

Elevators.

Image credits Suppadeth Wongyee.

One of the best parts of technology is that it makes life easier and more enjoyable. Getting around the house might not seem like that much of a hassle, but for the elderly or those living with disabilities, it can become quite hard. Stairs are a time-proven feature but are hard to navigate for someone in a wheelchair, for example. Elevators seem like the ideal fix, but let’s be honest — how many of us can afford to install new-age residential elevators? We’re not all French kings, after all.

One British company is touting new-age residential elevators as the ideal solution. Their product is basically a home elevator that can “fit into the corner of a room and ascends through a hole in the ceiling with no lift shaft required,” according to the South China Morning Post.

“You could describe it as a high-end chair lift. People don’t want, in many cases, a chair-lift on their beautiful staircase and they don’t necessarily want a lift; it’s about looking at the lift for the long-term future proofing the property,” said John McSweeney, the company’s founder.

“And unlike a stairlift which is a permanent feature on your staircase, the lift can be sent away when you don’t need it — so it’s never the elephant in the room.”

Water, power, gas

Solar roof.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Perhaps the single best way your house can generate its own clean power is with a solar panel roof. When working in tandem with a battery bank, such a roof could, with a bit of luck and help from geography, even make your home energy-independent — or even a net energy contributor to the larger grid. Since it’s clean, relatively cheap and easy to maintain, and quite efficient, I think solar roofs will catch on in the houses of the future. And, if you need to make sure you’re generating as much energy as possible, you can turn your windows into a source of power as well.

Water has always been a little trickier to reliably generate at home. Wells aren’t a realistic option for those of us living in big cities. Even if you own a plot of land big enough to dig said well, groundwater tends to be very polluted underneath cities — so you shouldn’t drink it. But, we have ways to get a drink out of Mother Nature.

This simple, manganese-oxide-coated-sand approach can be used to purify stormwater. The sand particles physically block impurities, while the coating breaks down organic pollutants. The team intended for it to be used on a large scale, to supply displaced communities with clean water aquifers; it can thus easily be turned to the task of supplying ‘placed’ communities with clean water they can then pump out or tap with a well, for example. However, it can probably be adapted to provide clean rainwater for single homes at a time.

Trees are more sustainable than sand, capture CO2, and can also clean your water. By tapping into sapwood’s natural filtration properties, this team of researchers created a simple and elegant water filter. The only thing it can’t filter, the team explains, are viruses.

“Today’s filtration membranes have nanoscale pores that are not something you can manufacture in a garage very easily,” says Rohit Karnik, one of the researchers that developed the filter. “The idea here is that we don’t need to fabricate a membrane, because it’s easily available. You can just take a piece of wood and make a filter out of it.”

So far, so good for all of those who favor a more natural approach — but what if you want to call upon the full brunt of science and precision technology when turning the tap? Graphite may be the filter of choice for you, then. The team behind that filter reports it removes “99% of natural organic matter from water at low pressure,” which is nothing to scoff at.

For potable water, however, I’d recommend going the safe route and doing away with filters completely. Something like a scaled-up Solarball could provide a family with all the drinking water it requires, germ- and contaminants- free.

As far as gas usage goes — just don’t. Use electricity instead.

Green Home.

How to reduce your home’s ecological footprint

Between climate change, pollution, and overconsumption, we’re not treating the planet very well. But what can us little actors on the world stage do?

Image credits: Jack Bulmer / Unsplash.

We may not have much sway over global matters, but we’re all kings and queens of our own castles. So, here’s a list of some of the quickest and most effective changes we can do to greenify our own little slice of the Earth.

Insulation

Quality insulation is the most straight-forward approach to limiting your home’s energy use and environmental footprint. It’s also probably the single most effective energy-related measure on the list. Insulation is comprised of materials that can reflect heat or trap small pockets of air (a very poor thermal conductor) to slow down heat flow. The second type is more commonly seen (and, as a side-note, works pretty much like thick winter clothes).

One of the most traditional approaches is to insulate the walls. However, all parts of a building will benefit from insulation. Windows tend to be the prime drivers of heat exchange, according to a paper published by Jong-Jin Kim and Jin Woo Moon back in 2009. They reported that windows vent roughly 26% of the heat in a home in a cold climate (Detroit, Michigan). Walls only vented a bit over 25%. Keep in mind, however, that windows tend to have a tiny surface area compared to walls.

Wall insulation.

A building facade with outside insulator layers.
Image credits Alina Kuptsova.

Even something as simple as painting your roof white can help insulate your home in blistering environments.

It is estimated that improvements in the level of insulation of the existing buildings can reduce heating requirements by a factor of two to four. Houses built using the latest insulation technology and design in various cold-climate countries use only 10% of the energy for heating compared to their peers, the paper adds. If the house you live in is really old, perhaps selling your home fast to move into a more modern, energy-efficient one is worth considering.

Stop wasting water

Modern households use a huge amount of water — and we don’t even see it for the luxury that it is. Freshwater is in short supply. Our efforts to secure as much of this resource as possible is having nasty effects on ecosystems throughout the world — so don’t waste it! Lifestyle changes are a good place to start: turn off the tap when you’re brushing your teeth, for example. Take shorter showers. Fix any leaks you might find around the house, too. The biggest culprit, however, is your lawn.

Lawn Sprinkling.

“Aahhh, I can hear the planet dying already!”
Image credits Rudy Skitterians, Peter Skitterians.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that one-third of all U.S. residential water is used for irrigation. Over 50% of that water is wasted by inefficient use, however. You don’t need to give up your lawn, but there are tricks and tweaks you can apply to reduce water use. Some of the simplest changes you can make are to monitor natural precipitation and reduce irrigation accordingly, water your lawn between 4 a.m. and 10 a.m (reduces water loss to wind and evaporation), and switching to water systems that stay close to the ground.

Actually, stop wasting anything

While they can be quite a hefty up-front investment, smart meters can help keep heating expenditures in check. They come in handy especially during winter.

Energy-efficient appliances are also pretty good — but they tend to be expensive. Bulbs, however, are pretty cheap. So change your aging bulbs with some crisp energy-efficient ones, i.e. LEDs. Bills go down, you get quality light, and the penguins get to keep their home. Everybody wins.

Produce more on-site

Vegetable balcony.

Image credits Marcel Oosterwijk / Flickr.

The first points were more of a case of waste not, want not. But one of the easiest ways to reduce emissions from power plants, or plastic waste from packaging, is to not use them in the first place.

There are several commercially-available energy production options to choose from out there. Solar is probably the least hassle-intensive, while wind or geothermal have their own selling points. The first can work around the clock, the latter is pretty install-and-forget, and both produce ample power. However, they’re both hampered by relatively high up-front costs, making them better suited for communities (or y’all richer folk out there).

All that energy will keep your house going, but what will fuel you? Well, people have been growing food around the house for as long as people have known how to grow stuff. Probably.

We’re much more space-constrained these days, but any space around the house you can fit a planter in will net you some tasty tomatoes, a handful of carrots, or whatever else you fancy. Even a meager harvest will still be a big win for you — gardening, and interacting with nature in general, has been shown to bring ample mental health and life quality improvements. The plants will also help freshen and clean up the air in your home.

Plus, think of all the bragging rights you’ll win when your friends come over for lunch next time.

If you do have the room for it, a compost bin will provide lots of quality fertilizers for your crops, and help reduce the amount of trash you sent to the landfill. Of course, for those who don’t have any growing space at all, buying local whenever possible should significantly reduce the carbon footprint of your groceries, while helping your local community at the same time.

Burh Becc.

Incredible farm in Michigan becomes the world’s second ‘Living Building’

A beautiful, 15-acre farmhouse in Ann Arbor, Michigan has been officially recognized as the world’s second Living Building by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI).

Burh Becc.

Burh Becc at Beacon Springs.
Image via ILFI.

The owners, Tom and Marti Burbeck, worked with a team of over 20 designers, engineers, architects, and sustainability experts over the last five years to transform their home from a consumer to a net producer.

The design of Burh Becc, as the building has been christened, was inspired by traditional Tuscan farmsteads, and sports a 2,200 sq ft (204.4 sq m) living space, alongside a 2,400 sq ft barn and workshop. The arable land on the property had been depleted after years of commodity farming and was revamped following the criteria set out by Living Building — using permaculture farming methods and an integrated system of agriculture, horticulture, and ecology.

The approach should create a system that will keep regenerating the soil for decades, maybe even centuries to come. The Burbecks use the farmland to grow their own food and provide produce for the local community.

A building’s life

So, what is a Living Building? Well, according to the ILFI’s website,

Living Buildings are:

• Regenerative buildings that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community.

• Self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site.

• Create a positive impact on the human and natural systems that interact with them.

Burth Becc is a net-zero energy design. It’s equipped with a 16.9-kilowatt solar array which can provide for all the farm’s energy needs and still have some extra to feed back into the grid. Heating is handled by a passive solar system, supported by a tight thermal envelope and a cooling tower, both of which help limit energy expenditure on heating and cooling. During the winter, the home is kept toasty warm through floor heating, supplied by a closed-loop geothermal system.

The Burbecks can also call on a rainwater and snow harvesting system, which makes their home, for all intents and purposes, water net-positive. A rainwater collector feeds non-potable water to huge, 7,500-gallon underground cisterns. Potable water is drawn from an on-site well (necessary to comply with local building codes), but the home is equipped with a potable rainwater filtration system that can be switched on at a moment’s notice.

After more than three and a half years spent on designing their home, 18 months to construct it, and a year of performance auditing, Burh Becc at Beacon Springs Farm became the second building to ever be awarded the Living Building Challenge certification in December 2017. Additionally, the home has been awarded a Platinum LEED Certification.

The Burbecks say the project made sense, considering their lifestyle.

“As we looked at the criteria for LBC certification we thought, why not go for it,” says Marti Burbeck.

“If our goals include helping to change peoples’ relationship with the environment and to change building philosophies, we should start with our own project, and then become advocates.”

The couple now plans to host educational workshops and house tours for members of the community, building industry, officials, and pretty much anyone who’s interested in sustainable living.

Light Bulb.

Green living at home: a list of techs to hack your house into clean energy

Society as we know it today couldn’t exist without energy. If you boil everything down, energy directly translates to how much we can shape the world around us into the things we want and need — houses, food, warmth, ZMEScience.

Light Bulb.

Throughout our history, we got this energy by burning stuff — first it was food in our muscles, followed by firewood, and modern times dawned with the burning of fossil fuels, then atoms. This way of going about it wasn’t such an issue while humanity used a little energy overall and the environment could absorb both the byproducts and our limited ability to alter it.

But today we churn out a lot of energy. There has been a huge growth in the amount of energy we can bring to bear towards this goal of crafting a cozy world for ourselves, and our effects and emissions scale accordingly. Natural systems today are left weakened by millennia of human exploitation, and all over the world they’re buckling under the pressure we place on them today — which, according to our needs and energy generation potential, is greater than ever. These systems can’t come anywhere near scrubbing all the CO2 our pursuit of energy releases, and they can’t regenerate because we take out more and more from them.

We’re already seeing the effects in the shape of climate change and environmental breakdown. We’re living better than ever before — but doing so at the expense of everything else on the planet.

This needs to change

The matter of fact is that we can’t go back to how things were. The industrial revolution changed our society drastically, and it was made possible by an energy revolution. We need a lot of goods today, on a level only mass producing on assembly lines can supply. We simply can’t make enough medicine, clothes, or any other type of goods, by hand, for everyone. But hypothetically, even if we all decided to tighten the collective belt, forgo the comforts of modern life and go back to pre-industrial levels of energy use, we couldn’t do it. And food illustrates best why.

The sprawling cities of today depend on foodstuffs being shuttled in to feed their inhabitants. But without factories, we wouldn’t have any fuel or spare parts. Which means there will be no equipment to till soils, only oxen and plows, no pumps for irrigation, no industrial fertilizers — just good old fashioned back-breaking work. We could fish or hunt, but only with ships and tools you can build by hand and which don’t use engines. Considering how depleted natural stocks of game and fish are today, this way of doing things would probably net us fewer calories than we’d put into it.

Overall, de-industrialization would translate into an immense drop in food production. Going down this line of thought, we’d have no way to transport our limited food from farms to market beyond what a human or pack animal could carry, no cement to make proper roads, and only a limited capacity to quarry stone to build half-proper roads.

Dirt Road.

Pretty practicable. Until it rains.

It keeps going on like this.  So, could we do it? Back in 2009, Jon Bosak of TCLocal looked at one question:

“If New York State produced what it did a hundred years ago, before the arrival of gasoline- and diesel-fueled equipment, could it feed its present population?”

Apart from his own not-exactly-exact but still illustrative calculations, Bosak draws heavily on two papers published by J. Peters et al. in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems between 2006 and 2008. His conclusion can be best summed up as ‘no’, even when considering “that we still had substantially more arable land than we actually do now” and that “the vastly greater resources of animal power available a hundred years ago” would still be available today.

The first of Peters’ papers take a more thorough approach looking at how dietary choices impact the carrying capacity of New York State, finding that it could support around 30% of its current population with radical changes in diet, and just 21% of its current population on a “balanced diet” (which still requires significant changes in diet) with the full means available today. The second one reinforces the findings of the first in broad lines, while also showing that NYS could theoretically reduce the farm-to-consumer distance far below its current average of 1300 miles (2100 km), but fully supplying its population with food would still require shuttling goods over great distances — which, in the absence of mechanical means, may not be feasible since food tends to spoil.

That’s not taking into account how the lack of goods, electricity, running water, and a myriad of other things we take for granted but require constant power to operate would impact society, production, transport, and communications. People would eventually stabilize into agricultural groups in farms and some actually impressive cities, maybe. But no power — no internet, no phones so you can’t order takeout. Light switches would basically be stress relievers and there’d be no running water. At the same time, we know that a business as usual model basically takes us the same way, so we need to make some changes.

Now that we have our “why,” let’s look at the “how”.

Clean sources of power

The lion’s share of the problem lies in how we source that power. Much attention has been brought to fossil fuels and greenhouse emissions lately as the effects of climate change become more wide-spread and more pressing. But even if these resources weren’t as dirty as they are they would still be finite, meaning we’d have to shift away from them at one point or face those problems we’ve talked about earlier.

It’s on our governments to fully detach industry from fossil fuels. Other stuff like electric cars or wind farms fall on the shoulders of the industry. But there are things each of us can do to make the world a little bit greener, one tiny step at a time. Here’re a few of the going-ons in the field of renewable energy which could power home without burning anything.

Solar

Solar Panels.

Solar energy has gained huge popularity with domestic users because it scales down really well, it’s relatively cheap to install and easy to maintain. It can also generate a lot of power — if you want to get a rough estimate of how well solar would work for you, Google can help. Some countries also offer compensation for any extra energy that consumers pour into the grid, meaning you can make a little money on the side. It’s also ideal for the tiny anarchist in you — solar panels only need a bit of sun to churn out energy, meaning you can bolt some on your car or even carry them around with you and have power wherever it’s sunny.

Sounds good? I know. Here’s how you can incorporate solar in your home:

Among other things they dabble in, Tesla is a big promoter of solar energy. Since merging with SolarCity last year, it has announced that their Solar Roof will power your home with clean energy and be cheaper than the average roof. Musk says the company can deliver at a lower price because the current roofing supply chain is “incredibly inefficient”.

They’ve also made huge progress in battery technology, which would allow the system to store power whenever the sun shines and keep waste to a minimum.

“The roof would be integrated with Tesla’s house battery system, allowing the roof to store energy for a longer time,” Andrei wrote about the system last year.

An alternative to Tesla’s tech are the inconspicuous solar panels that startup Sistine Solar has developed. These panels can display whatever color or image you want — so you can install them on your roof to match the tiles or use them to display an ad or logo at your business. They bring the benefits of regular solar panels while keeping your advertising/decorating space unaffected.

Sistine Solar Roof.

Image credits Sistine Solar.

If your crib somehow lacks roofing, fret not. We’ve also talked with Solar Window CEO John Conklin about their proprietary coating which can turn windows and other transparent surfaces into power-producing panels — churning out energy even from ambient or artificial light. The product isn’t commercially available just yet, but Conklin wants it to be something everyone can use.

“SolarWindow doesn’t rely on direct sunlight like normal PV does. Any coated side of the two buildings will generate electricity even just from diffused light,” he said.

“We don’t want this to be something only for the rich and powerful,” John said. “[SolarWindow] works with natural or artificial light so it’s not just sunlight. All that light coming from your fixtures, for example, can be used to generate power.”

These windows can be installed at home to produce some power, but they truly shine on larger surfaces where they can capture a lot of light. Still, between them, these technologies could provide for all your energy needs at least during the sunny parts of the year.

Wind

Wind applications aren’t the best for small users because they usually cost a lot of money up front. They also usually require large blades and are relatively maintenance heavy, since there are a lot of moving parts. For these reasons, wind power is most often employed in medium-large scale applications, such as the Dutch’s iconic windmills to sprawling wind farms which can power whole cities.

Wind Farm.

Image via Imgur.

Still, they do have a number of advantages. For starters, wind can potentially work around the clock, unlike solar which is obviously limited to daylight hours. A turbine typically churns out more power than a single panel and wind works really well to complement solar in temperate areas or replace it altogether in cold or windy regions. However, because of their price tag wind generators would be more attractive to communities rather than individuals or families.

But if you have around US$23,000 burning a hole in your pocket, the Wind Tree will keep the lights burning with artistic grace — and very silently. One major advantage of the Tree over other wind-harvesting methods is that it can work with wind speeds as low as 2 m/s, so it will “be active more than 280 days of the year, with a predicted power output of 3.1 kW,” Andrei explained.

“The steel tree stands 11 m (36 ft) tall and measures 8 m (26 ft) in diameter and the operation is completely silent. New Wind also believe that the trees could be hooked up to buildings via the main switchboard or connected to the grid with an inverter,” he adds.

Spanish startup Vortex Bladeless have also demonstrated an “asparagus” turbine that turns oscillating movements into electrical energy. The company boasted that its Vortex Mini costs only half what a conventional turbine would, required little to no maintenance since there were few moving parts, and is totally silent. It also looks cool. While the Vortex is limited in how much power it can generate (30% less than conventional systems), it can function in average wind speeds of between 3-15 m/s.

Altaeros BAT.

Image credits (c) Altaeros.

If you dream of taking a merry band of friends and living it out off-grid, the Altaeros BAT (buoyant air turbine) might be just the focal point your little community will band together — primarily to charge their phones. This flying wind turbine is designed to float up into the more powerful winds at higher altitude (about 1,000 feet) for up to 18 months at a time, potentially allowing it to produce more power than its land-locked counterparts.

There are three reasons why I’d primarily suggest the Altaeros to a community rather than an individual consumer. The first is the fact that it can produce way more energy than one single family needs. Secondly, it was designed primarily with isolated communities and disaster relief in mind, and you can get a lot of utility out of this thing.

“Besides generating power, these floating power plants can provide data coverage, cell service and local weather data and can be deployed in harsh weather conditions, so they serve multiple purposes,” Tibi explained.

But there’s also a caveat. The Altaeros is basically a fancy blimp. I haven’t been able to find any definitive numbers on its price but it stands to reason that manufacturing and installing the Altaeros would be cheaper than a regular turbine. Here comes the third reason, however: with a regular turbine, you can plop it down and it will produce power for 15, 20, maybe 25 years with maintenance. The BAT, on the other hand, has a hard cap of 18 months after it needs to to be refilled with helium in the best case scenario, where there’s no damage or leaking. The price of helium, however, has been rising steadily, although this is always subject to change based on the market. Altogether, this means the BAT should cost less up front but produce a ‘more expensive’ kilowatt-hour as it has higher running and maintenance costs compared to regular turbines.

Heat

Heat (in the form of temperature) is annoying because nature never gets it just right — there’s either too much or too little of it and it’s always changing. So the issue of heat has to be approached from a few angles: heating (getting more heat), cooling (getting rid of heat), insulating (holding onto the heat you have) and transforming waste heat into other useful energy types.

Direct exchange geothermal heat pump.

A direct exchange (dx) geothermal heat pump, one type of home geothermal application.

Geothermal is an awesome way to cover both heating and, in the case of very hot reservoirs, energy generation. It basically consists of drilling pipes deep into the ground and pumping water through them, which will come back up nice and hot. This is probably the most conventional and widest-used heat-based method of energy generation, but it (usually) suffers from pretty big upfront costs (since digging the wells is expensive) and it’s highly dependent on local geology, so it may not be implementable everywhere. On the upside, it’s almost maintenance-free and will generate a lot of power to keep your home or greenhouse warm and supplied with ample bathwater throughout the year.

One really cool thing Paris-based architect Stéphane Malka did to insulate an old residential building in the French capital was to cover it in “parasitc cubes” made of wood. These were mounted onto the structure to create a beautiful, blocky, comb-like facade which was further decorated with plants. The wooden parasites reduced the total energy expenditure on heating to almost a quarter, from 190KWh/sq. meter to 45KWh/sq. meter. It also extended “useful space horizontally through openings in the exterior” to boot.

Icelandic turf house.

A cozy turf house.
Image via Jeff and Terry.

Icelandic turf house design also makes for very well insulated buildings. Although the huts were designed from the ground up to maximize insulation, since Iceland can be a dreadfully cold place, you probably live somewhere warmer so even a modest turfing of your house’s walls will help keep the cold out. On the bright side, this type of house is literally dirt-cheap so if you’ve ever planned on building a vacation home but never got the money together, now’s your chance.

Ok so now you have all this heat on your hands, what can you do with it? Well, you could use it to power your fridge. One team of researchers from the Department of Prime Mover Engineering at the Tokai University in Hiratsuka, Japan, have developed a thermoacoustic engine which harnesses waste heat to cool things down. This ‘sound wave refrigerator’ can turn waste heat from  270 degrees C (518 F) upward into loud sound waves at resonant frequencies to compress gasses, cooling them down to a maximum of -107.4 C (-161.3 F).

If you live in a place where the summers are really warm and you miss all that heat during the winter, you’ll be glad to find out that Swiss engineers have put together a way you can pickle heat. The method relies on a concentrated sodium hydroxide (NaOH) solution which releases a lot of heat when it comes in contact with water. So you tap into the compound’s stored chemical energy during the cold months, and when summer comes around you leave the (now watered down) solution out in the sun to dry.

“This substance can be stored for several months, even years, between uses. And tanks of the stuff can be shuttled wherever they’re needed.”

NaOH heat storage.

This is what the system looks like in the lab.
Image credits EMPA.

Effectively, this allows you to ‘store’ the sun’s energy as heat for use whenever you need it. Currently still in the prototype phase, EMPA (the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research) is looking to create a compact version of the system for domestic use.

And in case your home is just too warm, a team of the engineers from Stanford University in Palo Alto has just the way to cool you down while expending zero energy — reflective roofs.

“[The team] placed a surface made up of seven layers alternating between silicon dioxide (SiO2) and hafnium dioxide (HfO2) onto a silicon wafer. At the very top, a thin silver coating was applied to act as a first line of reflection. The first four ultra thin layers of SiO2 and HfO2 reflect nearly all the rest of the energy that wasn’t reflected in the first place by the silver layer.” Tibi explained.

“Together, this stack reflects 97% of incoming radiation. The bottom three layers – two thicker SiO2 layers separated by a thick HfO2 layer – absorbed heat from below and radiated it.”

“When tested, even during full sunlight, the coating cooled surfaces below it by 5 degrees Celsius.”

You’ll be glad to hear that while not as effective, painting your roof white will also help alleviate a scorching day’s heat. Given that air conditioning accounts for 15% of all electricity consumed in the US, I’d say this is a pretty good place to start — cheap, simple, and huge stacking potential.

That’s our list of home energy improvements to keep an eye out for. Some of these are commercially available right now, others are almost there, and a few still need some polish. But if you’re looking to become energy self-sufficient and do your part in decarbonising our economies, they’re a good place to start.

Dusty air.

Researchers identify main factors of home indoor air pollution: marijuana surprisingly plays a big role

A new study led by San Diego State University researchers has identified the most important factors that go into home indoor air pollution. Tobacco and marijuana smoking turned out to be some of the biggest offender — marking the first time the drug was found to play such a role.

Dusty air.

The researcher’s main goal was to understand what behaviors lead to an increase in airborne particle densities in homes, leading to unhealthy or even hazardous environments for kids. So the team, led by SDSU environmental health scientist and lead author Neil Klepeis, worked with almost 300 families living in San Diego which had at least one child aged 14 or younger and one or more smokers.

Each home had a pair of air particle monitors installed — one as close to the area where the families reported smoking as possible while still being indoors, and one in the child’s bedroom. These sensors could pick up particles between 0.5 and 0.25 micrometers in size, the diameter that includes dust, spores, combustion byproducts as well as auto exhaust. These particles can have a nasty effect on health since they’re small enough to reach deep into the lungs and can cause a wide range of lung and cardiovascular issues.

Out of the total, 44 (22.8%) of families reported at least one household member smoking at least one cigarette indoors in the 7-days prior to the interview. Homes without indoor cigarette smoking reported indoor smoking of cigars (1.3%), hookah (0.8%), electronic cigarettes (14.1%), marijuana (10.1%), and other drugs (0.7%). Nearly all families reported opening a window (95.3%) or opening a door (96.9%) for ventilation purposes. Most homes (60.1%) reported using an exhaust fan in their kitchen and 8.3% of homes used an air purifier. No significant differences in ventilation activities were seen between homes with indoor and outdoor smoking, except the use of central air conditioning which was higher among homes without indoor cigarette smoking (25.5% vs. 6.8%).

On average, the homes had 2.6 bedrooms, 1.6 bathrooms and were mostly one story.  The team notes that “with the exception of the number of doors leading outside, none of the home characteristics of families with and without self-reported indoor cigarette smoking differed significantly.”

Up in smoke

Smoke.

The monitors worked continuously for three months, feeding air quality data to the researchers.The team also carried out two sessions of interviews with each family to ask about their schedule to get an idea of what activities were likely to occur in the house at various times, especially cooking, cleaning, and smoking, as these tend to generate said particles.

Families that reported smoking cigarettes indoors had an average particle level almost double that of non-indoor-smoking families. These particles included nicotine and combustion byproducts, both linked to health issues especially for children. Surprisingly enough, marijuana smoking contributed to in-home air pollution about as much as tobacco smoking. Burning candles or incense, frying food in oil, and spraying cleaning products also led to an increase in the number of fine particles.

“The aim of our research is, ultimately, to find effective ways to promote smoke-free homes and also to find good strategies, in general, for reducing exposure to household pollution,” Klepeis said in a press release. “The findings from our work will allow for better education and feedback to families.”

The team plans to expand on the marijuana findings to see whether the rise in indoor pollution resulting from its use translates into increased exposure to combustion byproducts and cannabinoids in nonsmokers living in the house.

In the meantime, if you’re worried about the quality of air in your home or simply want to tidy it up a bit, here’s a handy guide by NASA to decide what plants to get. They also look pretty, and green, and will make you feel better. Win-win-win!

The full paper “Fine particles in homes of predominantly low-income families with children and smokers: Key physical and behavioral determinants to inform indoor-air-quality interventions” has been published in the journal PLOS One.

Cooking at home is cheaper, more healthy, less fattening — a major boost for nutritional sustainability

Cooking at home rather than eating out won’t only save you money — it will help keep your waist in check, too. A new paper from the University of Washington’s School of Public Health shows that people who cook at home more often are likely to have a healthier diet for less cost.

Image credits sahrazades / Pixabay.

Back when I was in high school, my grandma would sometimes come by to visit (read: make sure me and my brothers wouldn’t destroy everything while my folks were at work) and she’d cook for us. Which was awesome, because her food was like a hot slice of heaven. She had a habit of not letting us know before-hand however, and many a day when we returned home, burgers in hand or half-stuffed into our mouths, ended up with a stern lecture best summed up as “fast food very bad, home cooked very good” — which was usually administered in front of a steaming bowl of stew, so we didn’t much mind.

Cook it yourself

Now I’m starting to suspect that she may have secretly been pursuing a career in science, as researchers from the UoW have reached the same conclusion as her. By following the dietary habits of people in the US via interviews, the team found that home cooked meals provide a healthier diet than take-out, without any extra cost.

“By cooking more often at home, you have a better diet at no significant cost increase, while if you go out more, you have a less healthy diet at a higher cost,” said Adam Drewnowski, director of the UW’s Center for Public Health Nutrition and first author of the paper.

For the study (part of the Seattle Obesity Study) the team interviewed 437 adults from King County, asking them to remember how eating habits (eating in and eating out) during the last week. The researchers also asked them to fill a questionnaire with detailed sections on what they ate and where.

The tool researchers use to estimate how healthy someone’s diet is is known as the Healthy Eating Index. It’s a kind of scale that estimates whether someone is getting proper nutrition (through the right combination of foodstuffs) or not. By comparing the participants’ responses to the HEI, the team found that home-cooked food was associated with a “greater dietary compliance” — meaning diets which included more home meals met more of the federal guidelines for a healthy diet. Chowing down on home-cooked meals three times per week raised the HEI score to about 67 points, while those who ate an average of six home meals a week had a score of about 74 points.

“The differences were significant, even with a relatively small study sample,” said Drewnowski.

Better bang for your (fewer) bucks

One finding that surprised the team was that their results showed no increase in cost for the healthier diet compared to eating out. Home cooked meals were strongly associated with diets lower in sugar, fats, and overall calorie levels, but not with an increase in monthly food expenses ($330/month among low home-cooking group to $273/month among high cooking group), but rather a decrease ($261 in low eating out group vs $364 among high eating out group). A shift towards more home meals could form the basis for a more sustainable nutritional model, the team adds, while also sparing your wallet.

Drewnowski, also a professor of epidemiology at the university, realizes that although the benefits are pretty high, those who wish to eat at home more don’t necessarily have the possibility to do so. People in the US suffer from what some epidemiologists call “time poverty,” and take-out has the undeniable advantage of being time-efficient. Roughly half of all food expenses in the United States are spent on eating out or take-out, suggesting that a large part of the population either doesn’t have the time to cook at home, or just finds it more convenient to eat out.

Although I can think of few things more convenient than these babies.
Image credits Kai Stachowiak / Pixabay.

Another important finding was that a lower income or education doesn’t lead to poorer dietary choices. The 437 participants were chosen formed a stratified random sample, and the team found no link between income or education levels and the likelihood of eating more at home or out.

“People have the preconception that a lower income leads to eating more fast foods, but that was not true in our study,” Drewnowski said.

So what did make people more likely to cook? Well, households that cooked at home more often were associated with larger families, especially more children under the age of 12, marriage, or unemployment.

One of the limitations of the study (apart from the relatively small sample) was that it relied on people remembering and then self-reporting everything they ate in the past week — and it’s likely the data isn’t always exact. But that’s a common issue in the field of nutritional research, as Drewnowski pointed out that almost all work is done with self-reported information.

Drewnowski also said that he’s going to share the findings with his students in Nutrition 303 as soon as possible, as one of the students’ assignments is to estimate the price of their typical dinner. Especially the fact that healthier doesn’t mean more expensive, since he’s currently seeing “a lot of ramen” in their homework papers. Finally, he concludes that campaigns to promote home-cooking should go hand-in-hand with measures to encourage retailers and restaurants to sell healthier, less expensive prepared courses to merge the home-cooked meal’s benefits with the comfort of take-out.

The full paper “Cooking at home: A strategy to comply with U.S. dietary guidelines at no extra cost,” has been published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Google asks Pixar, The Onion writers to make its helper more human-like

Google has enlisted help from Pixar and The Onion writers to give its new AI helper that dash of humanity they feel will be a game-changer for the tech industry.

Image via gadgetreport.ro

Search giant Google hopes to make its new AI helper more likeable by taking a cue from animation studios Pixar and news satire publication The Onion. The company hopes the writers’ talent will help “infuse personality” into the helper, which will interact with users from Google’s new Pixel phones, Duo app, and Home speakers.

The ultimate goal is to make a personal software agent that people can actually relate to and care for, and Google thinks a livelier personality and a dash of humor are the way to make it happen.

The announcement came after Google unveiled its Pixel smartphones earlier this month, and in anticipation of the Home speaker — which will both feature the helper. Gummi Hafsteinsson, product-management director of Google Home, told The Wall Street Journal that the writers are already hard at work on making the Assistant more relatable. He says Google wants users to feel an emotional connection to the system, but the technology ‘is still a ways off’.

“Our goal is to build a personal Google for each and every user,” said said Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google.

While the other virtual assistants on the market, such as Siri or Alexa, have some sort of personality to engage users, they’re still very basic. They can tell jokes or do some tricks and are actually quite funny, but they can’t compare to a conversation with an actual human. Their responses are scripted, and if they can’t solve a task they respond with ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not sure’. Google wants to mix their proprietary AI tech — which beat a grandmaster Go player twice — with humor to make an Assistant you can talk to as if it were a human.

This may very well change how we think about and interact with AI, but actually implementing it into a device will be much harder, investors point out. They’d rather see more attention to issues such as latency saying that people don’t have time to deal with it while conversing, The Wall Street Journal writes.

Google officially unveiled its range of new products in San Francisco, including the Pixel and the Home, earlier this month. Most of them were leaked prior to the event, however. Still, the event gave Google a chance to announce that starting in November, the devices will be available in Canada, the UK, Germany, Australia, and India. And they will all share the same AI.

“We’re at a seminal moment in computing,” said Pichai. “We are evolving from a mobile first to an AI first world. Computing will be everywhere, people will be able to interact seamlessly, and above all it will be intelligent.”

If the AI comes out as a tumbled mix of Pixar and The Onion humor, it might just be the best thing that anyone has ever sold in the history of everything. We’ll just have to wait and see.

 

Life with VR: a short adaptation guide

With the recent releases of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, soon to be joined by Microsoft’s HoloLens, virtual reality has finally become accessible to consumers. As far as innovations go, it stands in a class of its own by allowing us to virtually alter the real world around us. It carries an echo of the changes mass media and computers brought into our lives, but there hasn’t been anything quite like it in our history. Among other things, VR could have a very powerful impact on our home life.

Microsoft HoloLens blends reality with virtual objects.
Image via wikimedia user Microsoft Sweden.

First, it’s easy to forget that incorporating virtual objects or people into your house still requires physical space. You need enough space to whack goblins or whatever your VR game of choice is. Reports are already coming in of people injuring their hands playing Selfie Tennis when they swing for a virtual ball but hit a very real ceiling. For applications that blend the real with the virtual — such as the HoloLens — you need to make enough room for projections.

“Let’s assume that you don’t have a giant empty room in your house just waiting to become your own personal holodeck,” Wes Fenlon recently wrote for PC Gamer magazine. “Because if you do, you’re already in good shape for VR. Also, we’re very jealous and would like to come hang out, please.”

As most VR applications require you to stand, Fenlon also suggest switching to a standing desk in your office and opting for anti-fatigue mats instead of carpeting, to make the hours you’ll be spending on your feet more comfortable. But incorporating virtual reality into our lives goes deeper than making space or buying new furniture.

Our home is usually reserved as a place of privacy, and here we surround ourselves both with functional objects and those that have meaning to us — books, art or emotionally charged trinkets. But the necessities of VR could instead push interior design towards minimalism – an empty space to make room for a make-believe world. As Fenlon jokingly points out, the virtual reality boom is a perfect excuse for decluttering – getting rid of furniture, removing rugs and cables you might trip on, and even taking pictures down from your walls so you don’t knock them off.

It’s also possible that the building itself doesn’t fit your VR and you’ll inadvertently do a face high-five with the floor when playing a game — either way, you won’t always be able to visually keep track of your environment, something you’ll have to constantly remind yourself in VR.

It’s not only our concrete surroundings that we’ll have to watch our for, though: in the guidelines accompanying its Rift headset, Oculus warns users to “remember that the objects you see in the virtual environment do not exist in the real environment, so don’t sit or stand on them or use them for support.” This just goes to show how easily we can lose track of what is and isn’t real around us.

I’m not saying that VR is the doom of our species or our crowning achievement. Up to now, we’ve either acted in the real world or a virtual one with a clear distinction between them. But that line just got very blurry and it’s definitely something that we’ve never been exposed to before — definitely not on a scale that we’re likely to see soon. As such, it’s going to take a bit of getting used to.

And don’t throw away all your stuff just yet. You never know when the power might go out.