Musings of a former Rocket Scientist

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  • Terps Take 2nd Place in 2017 Solar Decathlon


    WinningFor the third time in the last 10 years (the last three times Maryland has entered, in fact), the TERPS have placed First in the Nation at this year’s Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.  This victory includes placing Second in the new Innovation Contest category, reflecting the team’s strong priority for bringing something truly new to the competition in Denver.

    The name Team Maryland chose for their house is reACT, which stands for (R)esilient Adaptive Climate Technology.  reACT is more than an individual dwelling, it is a toolbox of technologies for creating the next generation of housing throughout the U.S. and the world.

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  • Single-Family Housing and the Living Building Challenge

    Urban Grapevine’s Central Courtyardimage credit Lael Taylor of Meditch Murphey Architects

    In 2015, the DC Living Building Challenge Collaborative sponsored the Affordable Living Design Competition (ALDC).  Over 20 teams from the DC area and beyond worked to design a small community (10-15 units) of single family dwellings capable of meeting the Imperatives of the Living Building Challenge without resorting to currently allowed Exceptions under that rating system.

    Binder Regenerative Design partnered with Meditch Murphey Architects, Rain Underground and with Tom Serra (an independent engineering consultant) to enter the ALDC, competing against larger firms and other collaboratives of talented designers… and we WON!

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  • The Challenge of Density vs. Water Independence

    In seeking to create a built environment based on regenerative principles, one goal often cited is to create closed loop systems of water and waste.  Net-positive Water is the sole Imperative for the Living Building Challenge’s Water Petal, for instance.  The idea is that we ought to be able to supply all our potable water needs using filtered and sterilized rainwater that falls on the site; wastewater recycling is another option but using it for drinking water complicates matters even more.

    In our pursuit of lower construction costs and greater efficiency in energy, materials and land use, we often work very hard to reduce the geographic footprint of the project.  This is especially true in the residential sector, and doubly so in affordable housing projects.  Greater density is often heralded as a basic groundrule of sustainable design (at least in urban settings).

    But as we will discuss, density also presents serious challenges to developing projects that are net-zero in energy and water.

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  • Urban Agriculture – Learning from Our Mistakes – Part 1

    Original conceptual design for Keyhole Garden

    Today I begin a series of posts dedicated to my own experiment in urban agriculture.  My wife and I have decided that we should ‘walk the walk’ on creating a permaculture-based lifestyle.  We cannot afford to add a graywater recycling system or a composting toilet.  Our house is not well oriented for solar panels either.  So our foray into practicing what I preach had to be in the garden. In posts over the next couple weeks, I will attempt to chronicle what we tried, what worked and what failed, in the hopes that others might benefit from our errors, and to lay the groundwork for our next round of experiments.







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  • Regenerative Design Principles in Action

    regen-cycle2So we have talked about regenerative design in previous posts, trying to be as general as possible (looking at the big picture).  In this post, I will try to refine these concepts into some more specific design principles and show some examples of these in practice.  We’ll also have a look at performance goals, which the design principles are intended to help us achieve.

    This list of 10 regenerative design principles is my own take on similar list published by others (see references at the end of this article).

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  • Regenerative City House – Plans

    3D_StreetView3After a long and iterative design process, we finally have a plan for the house, with buy in from the clients.  This preliminary design is a modern variation on the classic center entrance colonial that is found throughout the neighborhood.   Many different organizations of the interior spaces were considered, including different arrangements of stairs.  In the end, though, putting the stairs in the center front of the plan not only helps create architectural continuity with the surrounding context but also provides the best access to light and air for the spaces on both occupied floors.






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  • Saving the First Smithsonian Museum

    Exterior shot of Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building
    Exterior shot of Smithsonian Arts & Industries Building

    Anyone who has visited the National Mall in Washington DC has probably enjoyed one or more of the museums that line the perimeter.  There are museums of Art, American History, Natural History, Air and Space technology, Botanical Gardens and more.  The Smithsonian Institution plays a critical role here, and appropriately enough the Smithsonian Castle, a beautiful red sandstone Late-Victorian building sits in the middle of it all.  Right next door is another beautiful building of red and multicolor brick, the younger sister of the Castle which has, tragically, been almost forgotten by visitors – blocked off on all sides by construction fences.  This is the Arts & Industries Building, and it needs our help.

    Many people don’t realize that this was the very first Smithsonian museum, completed in 1881 and originally called the National Museum.  The Castle was built to house offices, provide a residence for the Director, and to host events.  A history of the building can be found at  Over the years, the Castle has been used as exhibition state, and ironically, the Arts and Industries Building was most recently (since the 1980s) used for office space.



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  • Regenerative City House – Raising the Roof

    House_wDiagonalGableRoofIn previous posts, we have talked about the best layout for the house, base on its solar orientation, opportunities for natural ventilation, privacy considerations, engagement of the landscape and relation to the surrounding architectural context.  This exploration led to the conclusion that an L-shaped floorplan ‘pointing’ South was the best suited overall.

    There are many massing considerations to explore in three-dimensions – an we will start with the roof.  A good place to start because the shape of the roof definitely helps determine the architectural character of the building AND because the roof is generally a good place to mount solar panels for generation of electricity and hot water.  The roof is high enough to avoid being shaded by the landscape and other buildings (at least in a residential neighborhood), and this space is often unused for other functions (except where green roofs and terraces are part of the program).  The panels are also relatively protected from vandalism and theft, which unfortunately can be a consideration even in relatively safe urban neighborhoods.  Finally, the panels CAN help shade the roof, reducing the cooling load on the house in the summer (depending on the details of the panel mounting).  We shouldn’t rule out some wall-mounted solar panels either, but we’ll get to that later.

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  • Regenerating Our Cities

    There are many different visions for regeneratively designed communities of various sizes & densities.

    Soleri sketch of Arcology
    Valetta Springs Arcology by Paolo Soleri

    Arcologies, a fusion of Architecture and Ecology, were envisioned by Paolo Soleri in the 1960s and 70s as completely integrated megastructures, small cities in a single building of mammoth proportions.  Living, working, shopping, agriculture, power generation, water purification, waste management and transportation were all woven together in a fully three-dimensional marvel of engineering and architecture.   Everything was recycled, nothing went to waste.  Passive solar heating and natural cooling strategies were often intrinsic to the overall form of the arcologies (apses to capture the warmth of the sun & ventilation cores hundreds of feet high).


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  • Reclaiming American Independence

    AmericanRenaissaceAmericans pride themselves on being fiercely independent. We have spent the better part of the last 200 years fighting to keep the Government (first the British, then our own) out of our personal lives. Over the past 100 years or so, however, we have been giving up more and more control to others for the sake of convenience.

    Our food is grown by someone else (usually on a factory farm) and driven cross country to the store. Power to provide light and other services is generated for us by the utility company. The utility company, in turn, relies on gas or coal provided by other companies. Our water is taken from distant rivers or lakes or aquifers and treated with chemicals in a large industrial plant before being pumped to our houses. Waste disappears into the sewer or the garbage truck and goes… well… SOMEplace. The fact is that most of us have no IDEA where our food, water or power come from and where our waste goes. We are generally not encouraged to find out.  Most of us can no longer fend for ourselves, but must pay others to do it.

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