Musings of a former Rocket Scientist

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  • Category Archives Design
  • 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.

    Continue reading  Post ID 487

  • 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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  • 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).

    Continue reading  Post ID 359

  • 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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  • 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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  • Diluting the Green Label

    What Does ‘Sustainable’ Really Mean?

    GreenwashingSmokestack“Sustainability” has been all the rage for years now.  In fact, it has almost become passé.  The term has become so ubiquitous that most people don’t even notice it anymore.  Unless a product goes out of its way to advertise the fact that it is radioactive and should be kept in a lead box at all times, it is almost a given that its manufacturer will claim it is ‘green’.  In fact, there is a virtually inexhaustible array of arguments one can use to claim that anything is green.  Natural Gas is ‘green’ because it is better than Coal.  Coal is ‘green’ because it isn’t as dirty as it was in, say, 1890.  PVC is ‘green’ because it can (hypothetically) be recycled, despite the fact that almost nobody actually does recycle it.  This advertising strategy is commonly known as ‘greenwashing’; I presume that there is a whole chapter on it in most introductory marketing textbooks.

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  • Our Green Kitchen Remodel

    SketchUp Model of new kitchen – used to experiment with materials.

    The Kitchen is a room in the house that is commonly remodeled, usually every 20 years, or when you first move in, or when you are planning to move out and want to sell the place.  Most people spend a fair amount of time in their kitchen and it get’s a lot of wear and tear.  Appliances break down or go out of style.  Cooks have different needs and habits and want a space that works well for them.  We want our kitchens to be functional and beautiful.  When my wife and I moved to DC, we had just gone through a kitchen remodel in Cleveland (not realizing that we’d be moving), and we were in no mood to do that again, at least not right away.  Our DC kitchen was actually brand new, having been installed to flip the house.  It was serviceable (the layout was OK and the appliances worked), but that was all that could be said for it.

    The cabinets were white thermofoil over particle board, and the finish carpentry was crap (the sole purpose of adding trim is generally to cover gaps and mistakes, but at even this modest task, the installers had failed).  The doors were too small but the fascia was extra wide, so while there was plenty of room in the cabinets, you had to turn your plates sideways to get them in (which bugged my wife something fierce).  Eleven years later, we decided it was time for an upgrade, and we wanted to get a few years of use out of it before we had to move again.

    Continue reading  Post ID 54