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10 - Architectural Actions: Energy

Future habitat will navigate in three channels: first, each building will generate its own green energy. By doing so, 40% of all the energy produced in the world could be saved; second, current social energy needs -absurdly exaggerated- will be reduced; third, energy sources must be not only green but multiple. New low voltage artefacts should include different type of batteries or none at all, because the current ones are 100% non-recyclable. Irons and microwaves cannot be allowed. For decades we enjoued plastic objects and furniture, but they are not ecological, because they are produced out of fossil fuel. Wood-based industries must be explored till its limit, optimising the process of growing trees, because they are the only really renewable source of building material. To plant three trees, to exploit one. We have lost 80% of the world forests and jungles, which was half of the oxigen we breath. The other half comes from the ocean, mostly produced by Phytoplankton (microscopic plants), but 40% of it is gone, which is also the main nutriment of large marine mammals and fish. Part of the forests could be recovered in about 100 years, if specific 'front' resistant trees species survive the new extreme temperature conditions and if they survive on carbon-saturated soils produced by fires, like the ones recently registered in Alaska, Canada, Siberia, Argentina (Patagonia), Spain, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand in the last 10 years, that consumed 5% of world natural forest reservoirs, many in National Parks, because of high temperatures. We still do not know how to recover Phytoplankton.

Pouchulu's House in a Cliff, California, 1994. The last refuge to breath pure air from the mountains. Pencil, coloured pencils and aquarelle on Canson.

In principle, carbon dioxide or CO2 is neither good nor bad. The politial and scientific establishment, an some green industries, and particularly since 2000, have been pushing and installing, as accepted policy, two main working assumptions; first, the idea of carbon footprint as something 'negative', and second, the concept of sustainability, following that a building can 'sustain itself'. Some of my opinions differ from what it is normally accepted as a norm. I will try to give perspective to things. Carbon dioxide is a natural component produced by combustion and decomposition of different organic and mineral matter in the Earth's soil and atmosphere. It is a gas, with a density of about 50% higher than air. It has a double carbon atom plugged to two oxygen ones. Our bodies and each organism alive or death is made of carbon; alive organism are also made of water, generally in higher proportions. When an organic body (plant or animal) burns, the remains are just carbon. Every time we dig, remove and expose soil we expose carbon to the air. Plants, particularly trees (because of its size and extension) are literally oxygen machines that transform carbon dioxide in oxygen; they extract the carbon component from it during the day while releasing its oxygen part, doing the opposite at night. This is well known. However, when we chop down a tree we put the same amount of carbon dioxide it had absorbed during its life, we are not adding more to the atmosphere, even if we burn it. That is why to burn trees for heating is perfectly right, as long as we replant trees and make it renewable. The carbon dioxide crisis originated when our species started to operate on the surface of the ground (agriculture) about twenty thousand years ago, and particularly quite recently by extracting and burning fossils fuels (coal, oil, gas) putting carbon dioxide and methane, that were not supposed to be present in the atmosphere. Methane is hundred times more harmful than CO2  in relation with the Greenhouse effect. This ended up in catastrophe. We are reaching now levels of carbon dioxide not present since millions of years ago, when a meteorite collided with our planet, what is today the Gulf of Mexico; the mere explosion and subsequent combustion threw into the atmosphere huge amounts of ignited stone, soil, burning dust and smoke that blocked sunlight and made most of life impossible on Earth, because plants die first. Not only dinosaurs disappeared when the sky was darkened -no food was available- but 90% of species. That was the fifth massive extinction. According to the most renown researchers and scientific institutions, we are facing the sixth extinction, maybe in less than hundred years, maybe in a few decades. This time is man‐made.

About sustainability, the only way to build a green industry, from power, manufacturing and distribution, is to use renewable materials in the base of the pyramid scheme, and absolutely avoid fuel based mobility. This is, wood, fibres and ceramics as main raw materials. The management of forests provides the raw material of wood; products made of wood extend the storage of carbon dioxide and create room for sustainable forest growth. Wooden products (like furniture) replace materials that emit carbon dioxide. Describing this with more detail, a carbon footprint is a measure of the volume of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere because of energy production (fuel combustion), products' manufacture (cars, every single non-organic object), activities (cars, vehicles, machines, tools, devices), or events from nature (fires, volcanoes). The management of forest resources and the use of wood set a positive example in ensuring a small carbon footprint. Wood is composed of up to 45 per cent carbon, even more. One cubic metre of wood weighs 500 kilograms on average, which means it contains about 250 kilograms of carbon. When carbon is transformed into carbon dioxide (oxidised), 1 kg of carbon creates about 3.5 kg of CO2. Therefore 250 kg of carbon creates more than 900 kg of CO2, which is about 1 tonne of CO2 per cubic metre of wood. (Arno Frühwald, University of Hamburg). We will assess the Carbon Footprint issue related to architecture with one example, consider what I like to call the HCF or Habitability Carbon (Footprint) Factor. This is an evaluation method; in brief, a factor is represented as a percentage number, to see how much carbon dioxide a particular building puts in the atmosphere, considering not only all the construction process but also the building life span. This includes the use of cars for people related to maintenance, repairs and cleaning; we will consider fifty years. We include not only the manufacture of raw materials -issue well studied since 2000 by the technical community in many countries- but also how much pollution the building will put into the atmosphere and soil during its operational and serviceable life, where heating and illumination based on burning fossils are regularly and constantly added. The following analysis refer to total pollution transferred to the atmosphere:

There are ten parameters to consider: extraction of raw material, transportation to raw manufacture, processing of raw materials, transportation to industrial manufacture, transportation to building site, building site, electric tools, workers' daily/weekly transport, maintenance (times the number of years, here 50), heating (idem), illumination, and cleaning (idem). We considered two different versions of a 100 m2 timber house, in the first version the carpenters do not use electricity, in the second they use tools and small machines. We considered that the forest where the timber comes is at 500 km from the building site and the factory at 50 km, plus the two workers live at 20 km and go by bike. We also considered medium size lorries for transporting raw and prefab materials and, in the second option, the two workers live in building site, going home once a week on bikes. Later, one worker or visitor (cleaning) will go once a week in a car and another worker (maintenance, repairs) goes in a car, once a month (average). The lifespan of this house is 50 years. The calculation shows that for a non-industrialised house made of timber, construction represents a small proportion of the total pollution scene. The second conclusion is astonishing: for instance, a single worker, visiting this house (a cleaner), travelling 25km by car (round trip 50km), once a week and during 50 years, will contaminate much more than the whole construction process, including extraction and processing of raw materials. This shows the terrible impact of car pollution. The third conclusion indicates than if construction involves electric tools produces an additional 3%, mostly electric tools and small machines. Because of gaining time by using electric tools, this carpenter can afford to go home every day in a car... then he will produce a bigger CFP, unless he stays all week living in the building site -like old builders used to do- or takes a bike every day. The carpenter's car, in one week, puts more CO2 than all his electric tools and machines together.

Heating and illumination represent most of the carbon footprint. We must consider the life-span of buildings and regular associated activities that produce pollution. We are missing the biggest part of a wider perspective related to Habitat: urbanism in relation with mobility. We should dismount car urbanisations, that destroy landscape and pedestrians spaces, with light mono-vehicles and bicycles. In a global level, factories, ships and planes represent 20% of CO2, then heating and illumination (30%) and the majority of pollution, cars (50%). 

Another big misunderstanding: electric cars.

Electric cars do not contaminate less than fuel cars, actually they contaminate more: they simply do not put CO2 where they are, but it is transferred to the power stations where the electricity they use is produced; in fact, power stations are now forced to achieve a considerably extra amount of electricity, this is, more CO2... And finally, electric cars use more cooper, plastics and heavy metals in their batteries. The solution is not electric cars, particularly not these heavy parodies, bulky, big vehicles that look like tanks and run slowly in the cities and suburbs, but smaller extra-light vehicles, mono or dual units, pedal powered mixed with solar electricity. It is absurd to have such big and powerful cars in cities where we cannot go -average- more than 15 km per hour. 

There are about 1 billion cars in the planet operating every day, this is, one car per square kilometre (including the oceans' area) or three cars per square kilometre (excluding oceans) infecting the atmosphere with 5 to 10 kg of CO2 per day, per car. In other words: take an imaginary glass box of 1 square kilometre side and 3 kilometres high (the lower atmosphere) and put three cars running for 2 hours, one bus for 15 hours, two factories for 8 hours and one big Jumbo flying all day, every day, and you will see how polluted the air in that volume becomes in a matter of months. That volume, made of 3 cubic kilometres, will be saturated with CO2 within a few decades. Actually, that is what we have been doing for 100 years in our planet, rising up to 400 ppm of CO2 (particles per million) when the average, since half a million years ago, was about 50 ppm. During the late Jurassic period, in the last extinction, there was 1000 ppm and the air was toxic. We have reached half of it. Mass media is not showing this. That is where we headed, mostly because of automobiles. Continuing with this reasoning, we can assess that the construction of housing complex (e.g. block buildings of three, four hundred flats or more) do not put much pollution while building; even if we consider highly complex processing factories and assembly construction systems; the main pollution involving architecture and cities, again, is oil based heating, illumination and people using cars, fuel or electrical. Water dams, that provide up to 30 percent of all electricity produced in some countries like the US or Argentina, are being criticised by experts and some scientists because intervening nature, rivers, soil excavation and creating artificial lakes,which produce new atmospheric chain reactions. This is true, but it is also true that after those building sites are finished, the CFP produced is significantly less than any other existing energy system. Producing energy with water is cleaner, specially is the dam lasts more than hundred years without major repairs.

In the eighties the architectural world was shocked when news from Japan described how large buildings, including towers, were demolished and replaced after only fifteen years of use. That tendency reached Europe and the US, not as extreme like in Osaka or Tokio, but severe enough to call our attention. Buildings used to last hundred of years. The conversion of office and commercial buildings and facilities, usually not more than a simple redecoration, put unnecessary carbon footprint because of badly designed layouts, lack of use flexibility, forcing companies to invest huge amounts of money and effort to "lift up" the company or corporation image. Fierceness marketing and consumerist campaigns push decisions into spending millions in vain. Buildings must be designed with flexible plans and spaces and long life expectation. The main key to avoid polluting is avoiding cars in our daily life, in favour of bikes and public transport, particularly trams and trains. These carry up to 2.000 people in five to six carriages with a single engine (or a series of smaller engines in tandem), which pollute up to 500 times less than a single car. A train power requirements coming from burning oil (first case) puts 50 times less cd in the atmosphere than a car. One train carries a number of passengers equivalent to five hundred cars and is about fifty times cleaner than a car.

It is possible to produce power by water and gravity. Since 2000 the market offers mini and micro hydrogenerators of all sizes, easy to install and maintain; classifications vary. They produce energy when placed in streams, rivers or falls. They need a minimum head (height) from bottom (where the device is placed) to the top, normally a few metres up to 30. The water will fall with enough pressure to move small dynamos, producing DC. This can be easily applied in high rise towers, with one additional fact: the increase of rain can collaborate with the feeding system, we only need to collect all the rain that falls on and around the house or building. Gravity is not usually considered as energy generator for homes but it is great vector. The gravity factor associated with water is an innovative concept; in the near future an affordable LV energy set could be produced for homes. The combination of multiple sources of power (wind, solar, water) has to be refined and adjusted, but it is promising. However, the most important resource almost not explored is the interchanging heat, or pump heat, that takes advantage of the temperature difference (latent heat) between the exterior and the underground (even a few centimetres from the surface), also in water. The combination of mini hydro-generators, heat pump, solar and wind can solve the energy requirement.

Read the next chapter here.

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Background photo: London Sky over Primrose Hill, photo by Pouchulu, 2011.

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