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Energy Systems and End Users: An Architect’s 30-Year Journey

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We recently installed a solar hot-air collection system at West Patent Elementary, part of the Bedford Central School District, in suburban New York. For this project all the elements for renewable energy came together: a good building sited properly for solar collection, an enlightened Owner willing to invest, and a product able to perform. For me, installation of the solar wall represents the realization of ideas of sustainability more than 30 years in the making.

The system at West Patent Elementary is simple: a black box made of metal siding, hung on the wall, and connected to an existing ventilation system. The sun heats the air in the box, and fans draw it into the building as preheated fresh air. Automatic controls turn the fans on and off as available heat changes. The old system, which uses heat from a boiler, remains in place as backup. The district will also install rooftop photovoltaic panels, and a photovoltaic tracker that will follow the sun as it moves through the sky.

solar air heating system

Solar air heating system at West Patent Elementary, KSQ Design

The project is featured in the April 2016 issue of School Planning & Management and the school will be implementing a few more alternative energy features as part of their overall District improvements. While the system at West Patent represents ideas thirty years in the making, there were specific events in my life that led up to my interest and passion for sustainability in my architectural design work.

One of the events that made me a believer was in high school as I was getting my driver’s license during the second oil crisis of the 1970’s–on the very day of the Three Mile Island accident. Energy issues filled the news of the day, and seemed to threaten my newly attained freedom of driving a car.

As gas lines and rationing became the norm, I wanted an alternative. I had found a copy of the Mother Earth News, a magazine founded in 1970 out of the “back to the land” movement of the 1960’s. It was filled with alternative energy ideas, some wild, some practical. Articles like “Make your own ethanol fuel,” and “Build a solar window heater” caught my attention. I wanted to experiment. Photovoltaic panels were around then (remember Skylab, with its large array?), but they were out of reach economically. So I chose the solar heating projects, which I could sort of replicate with whatever junk I could find.

I made the solar window heater consisting of a black box with a sheet of glass over it that stuck out of a window sort of like an air conditioner. It worked like crazy when the sun shone on it, but my installation was so leaky that it lost twice as much heat at night. It was also ugly, and my parents tolerated it for only a short time. But the concept worked.

During college I took a month-long course about solar energy at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. It was January, and it was cold. We stayed in their “solar dwellings,” four small adobe cottages, each with a different type of passive solar system: trombe wall, greenhouse, direct gain, and a “control” unit of traditional styling. They all worked well, and the thermal mass of the adobe enhanced their performance.

solar dwelling

Solar dwellings at Ghost Ranch

Back in high school, I tried to brew and distill ethyl alcohol for use as a renewable motor fuel. Nowadays, NASCAR and Indy use it in their race cars, but back then it was a novel idea. I had an after school job at the local Pizza Hut, and used whatever food scraps I could get, plus their finest pizza yeast, to brew up a bucket of noxiousness that definitely contained alcohol, but smelled so nasty no one wanted to go near it. Failure. Had I succeeded, maybe I’d own a microbrewery now.

Some years later, when I was in graduate school, ethanol began to be used as a gasoline additive. I bought a barrel of it. I also bought a 1979 Renault Le Car (a true classic) for $50 from a neighbor.  After some research about air to fuel ratios, etc., I rebuilt the carburetor to theoretically run on ethanol. And it worked. It ran roughly at idle, but it was wicked fast at speed. Ethanol contains more oxygen and has a higher octane rating than gasoline, which combine to give much more power. Renewably fueled transportation.

My current house in New York had very small windows on the south side. I added a full wall of windows to take advantage of passive solar heat gain. Now the heat stays off from about noon to 6:00 pm on the typical sunny January day. That may not seem like much, but it’s 25 percent of a typical 24 hour day. In spring and fall the house can go days at a time on solar alone.

One of the books that inspired me is called “A Golden Thread” by Ken Butti and John Perlin, a history book about solar energy written in 1980. It contains a foreword by Amory Lovins, well-known director of the think tank Rocky Mountain Institute. In it, he discusses America’s haphazard energy policy.  Although Lovins’ comments are 36 years old, they read now as though they could have been written last week.

Through my work, I have come to believe that our energy systems will change in very small increments, implemented by us, the end user. Adding solar and other alternative energy systems may not be practical for all a building’s needs for now. But smaller reductions add up. As the technology improves, so will the benefits. Think of the years and steps it took to go from the original IBM card sorting computers to the iPhone. And over time the dependence we still have on non-renewable energy sources will shift to independence as more renewable sources become available and viable. The very same independence I wanted to protect when I first got my driver’s license.

 

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One response to “Energy Systems and End Users: An Architect’s 30-Year Journey”

  1. Jane Morgan says:

    Nice article Mike. I love the personal information and photos you shared and the fact that you have continued on your original path with energy alternatives. It just makes sense for us, the end user, to try to become independent from the power selling corporations and help our communities thrive by saving their energy dollars. I like that Schools are starting to see the benefits, since it also exposes their students to new ideas.

    Jane

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