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Open House, Living Kit and the LA Earthquake: Notes from a Visit to Art Center
Alex Steffen, 12 Apr 07
Article Photo

For many people, Los Angeles would not be the first city to come to mind when they think of urban sustainability. But in my recent trips to L.A., I've found it to be a hotbed of new worldchanging design and architectural thinking.

I just spent three days there, on a visit to the Art Center College of Design (the school, some of you may remember, that employed Worldchanging Ally #1, Bruce Sterling, as visionary in residence).

I was asked to come specifically to help do some thinking about ACCD's new project, "The L.A. Earthquake: Get Ready." The project, lead by the school's Designmatters team, aims to use an interdisciplinary approach to helping Angelenos understand, anticipate and prepare for the catastrophic earthquake most experts believe is inevitable.

Earthquakes, of course, are a big problem all around the Pacific Rim, a problem worsened by the stretched limits of the natural systems upon which we depend. But a huge gap separates the public in L.A. from the knowledge they need to make their communities more resilient in advance of earthquakes and their families more ready to respond when the Big One actually arrives.

It is that gap The L.A. Earthquake: Get Ready attempts to close. Working with designer Stefan Sagmeister and a network of writers, scientists and experts, the Designmatters team is working to compile a sourcebook modeled off the Worldchanging book which can compile and explain both the nature of the problem, the associated challenges (for instance, a breakdown in public order or the difficulty of economic reconstruction), and the possible solutions both on an individual and systemic level.

Their approach is clever: along with the release of the book, the school will be launching both a major public awareness campaign designed by faculty and students, and an as-yet-unknown spectacle aimed at changing the cultural perception of the Big One. The campaign even has its own weeblos-like mascot, a visual reminder of the resilience they hope people will embrace.

Their approach is similar to another earthquake project focused on San Francisco, the Be Prepared campaign, which has used guerrilla design tactics like a fake Craigslist ad with pictures of a collapsed building an the offering "3rd floor flat on 1st floor," a faux Earthquake Early Warning System with a wall-mounted alarm bell, under which text reads "Unfortunately, there won't be a warning. Be prepared." and a portable billboard which can be driven in front of prominent landmarks, with a picture of them destroyed in a quake.

This kind of work is great on its own, of course, but the lessons designers are learning by working on these campaigns -- figuring out, for instance, what it takes to wake people to respond to invisible but present threats -- may well apply to a number of the issues worldchangers are working on.

I learned some other lessons on a visit to the school's excellent Open House exhibit. Geoff wrote about the show's Jellyfish House earlier today, but two other ideas that really captured my imagination.

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The first was Escher GuneWardena's LivingKit (PDF):

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a significant percentage of the world population has no access to safe drinking water (17%), sanitation (40%), electrical power (31%), telecommunications (65%), literacy education (15%), or decent shelter (15%). For this population, both in developing nations as well as in industrialized ones, these basic daily needs are considered luxuries. The advancements of information technology or developments such as the “smart house” are unimaginable or irrelevant for people who have never had plumbing or electricity. But it is possible to overcome these conditions by applying the simple technological advancements made by various disconnected groups (often by the users themselves) scattered throughout the world. Many items such as clay water filters (which effectively screen out the most common types of bacteria), clean fuel stoves (reduce smoke related lung disease), and dome pit latrines (low-cost sanitation) address the critical needs of many communities through inexpensive solutions. Escher GuneWardena’s LivingKit project proposes a knowledge distribution system that will make it possible to share such information and develop local expertise, allowing poor communities around the world to improve their physical living conditions and quality of life.

It's not a practical project, per se -- and in any case, sites like the Open Architecture Network and approtech wiki are already built to serve this purpose, so why reinvent the wheel? -- but it was somehow heartening and inspiring to see a whole suite of the kinds of tools we've talked about here brought together into one system: ideas like rainwater harvesting, rural lighting, better water barrels, better stove design, pot-in-pot refrigerators, better toilets,clay water filters and the use of plastic bottles to sterilize water. If existence is the best proof of the possible, seeing the suite of tools available to help people who are struggling meet their essential needs reminded me again of how possible rapid and dramatic improvement in the well-being of all people actually is. It's a cool concept on those grounds alone.

The second mindblower wasn't even a part of the exhibit, but rather a part of the building itself. ACCD has remade the structure, an old wind tunnel, into a beautiful new building with some impressive sustainability features, including a green roof and the coolest skylights I've ever seen.

skylight.jpg They consist of layers of patterned sheets of Texion foil, dappled in patterns designed by Bruce Mau.The patterns are "male" and "female" -- when overlaid, the form a continuous shade. So, when air is pumped between the sheets, and they inflate, light can penetrate between the markings an light the spaces below; when less light is desired, the air is let out and the sheets settle, the patterns synch and the sun is blocked.

I don't really know how the sheets are inflated and deflated, so I can't swear to the energy savings involved, but it's a damned clever idea, taking advantage of unexpected simplicity to solve a problem. In that way it reminds me of the FreeAire system, which Blaine described in an email thusly:

Now that energy consciousness is becoming increasingly widespread, one cannot fail to notice common practices that call for more energy-efficient solutions. One of these practices involves refrigeration within cold climates: a process that involves cooling goods within a heated space, which is highly impractical considering the amount of time that 'free cooling' exists outside.

The Freeaire Refrigeration System is designed to provide such free cooling for walk-in coolers, freezers and cold storage warehouses. The system utilizes an electronic controller to finely tune the operation of standard refrigeration equipment, and this controller simply monitors the outdoor temperature and desired temperature settings and stops refrigerator evaporator fans when not needed, which also reduces the compressor's refrigeration load. Proper airflow is maintained when the evaporator fans switch off by operating one or more energy-efficient circulating fans. Roughly half the electricity consumed by a typical convenience store is used for refrigeration. The Freeaire System is designed to save energy year-round by allowing refrigeration equipment for a walk-in cooler or freezer to run only as much as it has to. Once the system is installed, evaporator fans typically operate 50 to 75% less often, and reach-in door heaters operate 90% less frequently. Condensing units also usually experience a 10 to 20% reduction in operations. Moreover, a Freeaire System saving 20,000 kilowatt-hours annually can prevent 40,000 pounds of CO2 from being emitted to the atmosphere.

All in all, a fruitful trip. Thanks to my hosts at ACCD and the students I met there: they were both fun and smart, and I left knowing more than I did when I arrived.

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