The information society promises to dematerialise society and make it more sustainable, but modern office and knowledge work has itself become a large and rapidly growing consumer of energy and other resources.
The modern glass greenhouse requires massive inputs of energy to grow crops out of season. That's because each square metre of glass, even if it's triple glazed, loses ten times as much heat as a wall.
However, growing fruits and vegetables out of season can also happen in a sustainable way, using the energy from the sun. Contrary to its fully glazed counterpart, a passive solar greenhouse is designed to retain as much warmth as possible.
Research shows that it's possible to grow warmth-loving crops all year round with solar energy alone, even if it's freezing outside. The solar greenhouse is especially successful in China, where many thousands of these structures have been built during the last decades.
Combining the old local heating practices with modern radiant and conductive heating systems could lower energy consumption, improve health, and increase thermal comfort. This is especially true for uninsulated buildings, where air heating is particularly disadvantageous. Local heating sources can be applied on their own, but can also be used in combination with air heating. This may mean, however, that thermal comfort standards need to be redefined.
However, restoring the old way of warming would not make sense without new technology. Most heating systems from the old days were inefficient, polluting, dangerous and impractical. Today, we have better options available, which can be combined in interesting ways.
The steadfast rotating fan has been employed to keep people cool since the eighteenth century, and it remains highly effective, requiring much less energy and providing more comfort than air-conditioning. Cooling people by increasing local airflow is at least ten times more energy efficient than refrigerating the air in a given space, and it also adds the benefit of a personally controlled thermal environment.
If used in combination with air-conditioning, fans could lower energy use by 30-70%, even in incredibly hot climates or during heat waves. Circulating fans, which have become very energy efficient in their design, can be readily and cheaply applied in both new and existing buildings. Recent changes in international comfort standards have paved the way for their comeback.
Architects all over the world have demonstrated the usefulness of buildings which are heated and cooled by design rather than by fossil fuel energy. What has received much less attention, however, is the possibility of applying this approach to entire urban neighbourhoods and cities.
Designing a single, often free-standing, passive solar house is quite different from planning a densely populated city where each building is heated and cooled using only natural energy sources. And yet, if we want passive solar design to be more than just a curiosity, this is exactly what we need. Modern research, which combines ancient knowledge with fast computing techniques, shows that passive solar cities are a realistic option, allowing for surprisingly high population densities.
You could fill a library with reports and books describing the importance of energy-efficient heating systems and home insulation. However, not a word has been said or written about the energy savings potential of clothing, even though there has been a lot of progress in this area too. Modern thermal underclothing offers the possibility to turn the thermostat much lower without sacrificing comfort or sex appeal. The potential energy savings are huge; the costs are almost nil.
This article explains through science and statistics how to maintain thermal comfort at any given indoor temperature using only clothes.
From the earliest civilisations right up to the start of the Industrial Revolution, humans used sheer muscle power, organisation skills and ingenious mechanics to lift weights that would be impossible to handle by most power cranes in operation today.
About a year ago we presented a medieval building technique that could save large amounts of brick and thus embodied energy in construction: timbrel vaulting. Turns out that there is also a 19th century brick and tile production technique that is surprisingly energy efficient: the Hoffmann kiln, a giant version of the medieval oven stove.
The craftsmanship associated with timbrel vaulting has long vanished, but the achievements are still with us today.
Brick, stone and concrete are materials strong in compression (you can pile them up almost indefinitely), but weak in tension (if the structural breadth increases, the material has to be supported by many columns or it collapses).
Nowadays, this problem is solved by steel structures or the use of steel reinforced concrete - the tensile strength of steel is significantly more than that of bricks, stone or plain concrete. Pre World War II, the weak tensile strength of brick was compensated for by superior craftsmanship.
The "timbrel vault" allowed for structures that today no architect would dare to build without steel reinforcements. The technique was cheap, fast, ecological and durable.
How to downsize a transport network: the Chinese wheelbarrow For being such a seemingly ordinary vehicle, the wheelbarrow has a surprisingly exciting history. This is especially true in the East, where it became a universal means of transportation for both passengers and goods, even over long distances.
Firewood in the Fuel Tank: Wood Gas Vehicles Wood gas cars are a not-so-elegant but surprisingly efficient and ecological alternative to their petrol (gasoline) cousins, whilst their range is comparable to that of electric cars.
How to make everything ourselves: open modular hardware Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials. The parts of an obsolete generation of products can be used to design the next generation, or something completely different.
Power from the Tap
Power from the Tap: Water Motors Just before the arrival of electricity at the end of the 19th century, miniature water turbines were connected to the tap and could power any machine that is now driven by electricity.