Why is it ‘news’ when someone applies the rules of nature to architecture, climate change, or even national energy policies?
Common sense is returning. Recently The Economist profiled the new U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu in the July 2, 2009 issue (see earlier post). Secretary Chu being a Nobel Prize winner in physics is a rare commodity in national policy making. He is a scientist in a leadership policymaking position. For a little perspective, there are 535 members in the U.S. Congress – only 11 have a science background.
Secretary Chu’s comments in the profile are startling because they are so basic and yet so outrageous at the same time. He suggests we paint roofs white, invest in electric cars in the U.S. and create a smart grid. Now, a green (plant) roof seems passé. However, recognizing that nature doesn’t change – we must be the ones to change. His comments allow for us to think out of the box. But – is it really thinking outside of the box?
Are these truly new ideas or just new concepts for public policy? Who paints any roof white? I answered my own question when a postcard from Santorini Island in Greece came to mind. In a climate with temperatures ranging from 28 degrees Celsius to 29 degrees Celsius – in the summer – the typical architecture in Santorini is white washed buildings with an occasional blue roof. No black to be seen.
In Egypt, one may consider Imhotep the famous Egyptian architect because of the pyramids. However, Hassan Fathy, is the famous contemporary architect and one of the original ‘green’ architects. He studied the sun, wind and humidity factors – individually and combined to develop the right structure for living. He applied what direction the housing structure should be placed in order to maximize protection from the sun as well as what building surfaces would be appropriate be it black, red brick, yellow brick, white brick, glass, bright gilt, dull copper, polished copper and highly polished aluminum. With temperatures ranging from 32 degrees Celsius to 34 degrees Celsius just in Cairo – how to build the right housing structure is important. In his book, Natural Energy and Vernacular Architecture: Principles and Examples with Reference to Hot Arid Climate, Hassan Fathy with more than 60 years of experience wrote in 1986, “A roof coated externally with white paint gains less heat from the sun than if it were a dark color.”
In contrast, Tibet during the summer has wide ranging temperatures from 29 degrees Celsius during the day to 4 degrees Celsius. The nomads live in yak wool yurts (tents), which typically are all black and hold in any possible warmth.
As for investing in electric cars a special case should be noted. In Bellinzona, Switzerland, electric cars are available for rent at the train station. Bellinzona coordinated a unique multi-pronged project to minimize the pollution in the region due to the Italian – German trucking route, which ran right through the middle of the canton. A collective agreement was negotiated between the insurance industry, the health providers, the local government and the business community. They joined together to offer incentives to the residents (and visitors) to use electric cars; scooters and bicycles in order minimize the pollution. The ability for various sectors to work together to find a common solution is extraordinary.
At the same time – contributing extra energy back to the grid is common practice in Switzerland. Solar powered boats are available in Lausanne, which carry commuters and tourists up and down the lake. Noiseless and smooth – riders enjoy the beauty and sounds of the water until they reach their destination. When not transporting passengers, the system shares extra solar energy with the grid and gets paid for the supplied energy.
So is what Secretary Chu saying truly outrageous? No, it just hasn’t been spoken on the national level in the U.S. Perhaps publicly identifying possible alternatives is a shift. Or, possibly it is recognizing that one solution is not appropriate for everyone everywhere. However, the radical shift may be creating the reverse infrastructure to first utilize local solutions to meet energy demands; apply common sense climate change solutions to all industries; all the while minimizing the demands for national resources. Positive changes are possible in developing common sense energy and environment policies especially when skillful leadership is combined with an understanding of the laws of nature.
By Keri Douglas, writer/photographer, Washington, DC