Let’s ignore dark matter – we don’t know what it is anyway. Let’s hear it for Helium! It’s the second most abundant element in THE Universe. So YAY! PARTY ON!, and etceteras. Helium is 24% of the mass of all elements. Most helium in the universe is helium-4 resulting from the Big Bang but the nuclear fusion of hydrogen in stars – not unlike our own – also creates large amounts of new helium. Your voice would sound very funny on the surface of The Sun. Post a video to YouTube. I dare you.


Hydrogen is the only element lighter than helium and its increased buoyancy made hydrogen an economical choice for airships. In hindsight, this was not a good idea.


The use of helium in more recent, smiley airships is well known. Hurrah!


We have treehugger to thank for this rundown on what airship proposals are currently on offer. HybridAirVehicles are responsible for the Airlander.


Worldwide Aeros Corp is also doing some good work. The attraction of these craft is that they require much less fuel to take off and stay airborne. Their disadvantage is that their necessarily less streamlined shape limits their speed.


Greendiary presents us with some less-grounded visions of future airship transport but we’ll stop it there.


One new use for helium is in hard drives. Solid state memories may one day make hard drives obsolete but, until then, helium-sealed hard drives have advantages over conventional ones.


The lower density of helium lets the disk spin with less turbulence. Less turbulence means less vibration and less noise. Lower turbulence means less friction which means less heat which means less cooling which means lower power consumption. Nice.

Regardless, the currently most important use of Helium is to cool certain metals to the extremely low temperatures required for superconductivity. The Large Hadron Collider at CERN requires 96 metric tons of liquid helium to maintain its temperature at 1.9°K.


The most vital example is the superconducting magnets used for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A typical MRI scanner uses 1,700 litres of liquid helium, which needs to be topped up periodically. You may need one of these one day.


Helium is useful.

On our beloved planet, Helium is only 5.2 parts per million in the atmosphere. Helium-4 nucleii formed by the natural radioactive decay of mainly thorium and uranium are trapped with natural gas in concentrations of up to 7% by volume and extracted commercially by a process called fractional distillation. Like oil and gas, Helium is a finite resource and is one of the few elements with escape velocity, meaning that once released into the atmosphere, it escapes into space. Never knew that. It cannot be artificially synthesised.

A company called Cyrogenic has developed a way to use far less helium to cool superconducting magnets. Apparently.


On the left side of the image above, you can see Helium produced by the decay of Uranium and Thorium. Much of this gets trapped in natural gas reserves and is extracted as a by-product when the natural gas is tapped. A natural gas source must contain at least 0.3% helium to be considered as a potential helium source.


Helium Resources (Billion Cubic Meters)(from USGS Mineral Commodity Survey)

United States 20.6
Qatar 10.1
Algeria 8.2

Russia 6.8
Canada 2.0
China 1.1

Here’s where it is in the US.


Here’s the trends for its extraction, production, export and consumption. It’s running out. We’re using it faster than the planet is making it. By 2050 there won’t be any more. I’m not the first to point this out, but I’m in good company.

Another Cambridge lecturer, William Nuttall, called for the establishment of an International Helium Agency to prevent squandering the resource.

Royal Institution’s 2012 Christmas Lectures, Peter Wothers, will use the series to argue against wasting valuable helium gas in party balloons.

Don’t want be a party pooper, but it might be an idea to save some.


Whimsical media fillers aside, architecture has little dependence upon helium.


• • •

• • •


Food as Art

In Alicante there’s a restaurant named after it’s founder-chef Quique Dacosta Restaurant. You can find out more about Dacosta’s food on the excellent alifewortheating site from where these next images came. Here’s a taster.


Dehydrated watermelon re-hydrated in charred piquillo sauce with mustard seeds.


A collection of mushrooms and greens laced with black truffles julienne growing from an edible dirt floor.


Lobes of foie gras mixed with raw local prawns, decorated with candied leaves and flowers.


A miniature sweet pea forest of almonds, mushrooms, small flowers, black truffle, and edible dirt.

Dacosta’s food is pretty and tasty. The emphasis seems to be on excellent seasonal produce, which puts it in the same realm as Japanese kaiseki-ryōri懐石料理) except the courses all come separately.  With kaiseki-ryori, you just appreciate the seasonal flavours, write haiku about the fleetingness of transitory pleasures and so on. It would be considered vulgar to get full on it – as it is with sushi.


Until recently, there had also been the legendary restaurant El Bulli which perhaps took food a bit further out there than Dacosta or even the Japanese did. There’s a film. el-bulli

According to Entertainment Weekly, it’s “a celebration of the human desire to turn food into art”. Hmm.

The El Bulli website lives on.

In the mid-1990s a new style of cuisine began to be forged. Today, this style has been wholly consolidated and may be defined in the following terms:

1.  Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.2.  The use of top quality products and technical knowledge to prepare them properly are taken for granted.3.  All products have the same gastronomic value, regardless of their price.4.  Preference is given to vegetables and seafood, with a key role also being played by dairy products, nuts and other products that make up a light form of cooking. In recent years red meat and large cuts of poultry have been very sparingly used.5.  Although the characteristics of the products may be modified (temperature, texture, shape, etc.), the aim is always to preserve the purity of their original flavour, except for processes that call for long cooking or seek the nuances of particular reactions such as the Maillard reaction.6.  Cooking techniques, both classic and modern, are a heritage that the cook has to know how to exploit to the maximum.7.  As has occurred in most fields of human evolution down the ages, new technologies are a resource for the progress of cooking.

8.  The family of stocks is being extended. Together with the classic ones, lighter stocks performing an identical function are now being used (waters, broths, consommés, clarified vegetable juices, nut milk, etc.).

9.  The information given off by a dish is enjoyed through the senses; it is also enjoyed and interpreted by reflection.

10.  Taste is not the only sense that can be stimulated: touch can also be played with (contrasts of temperatures and textures), as well as smell, sight (colours, shapes, trompe d’oeil, etc.), whereby the five senses become one of the main points of reference in the creative cooking process.

11.  The technique-concept search is the apex of the creative pyramid.

12.  Creation involves teamwork. In addition, research has become consolidated as a new feature of the culinary creative process.

13.  The barriers between the sweet and savoury world are being broken down. Importance is being given to a new cold cuisine, particularly in the creation of the frozen savoury world.

14.  The classical structure of dishes is being broken down: a veritable revolution is underway in first courses and desserts, closely bound up with the concept of symbiosis between the sweet and savoury world; in main dishes the “product-garnish-sauce” hierarchy is being broken down.15.  A new way of serving food is being promoted. The dishes are finished in the dining room by the serving staff. In other cases the diners themselves participate in this process.16.  Regional cuisine as a style is an expression of its own geographical and cultural context as well as its culinary traditions. Its bond with nature complements and enriches this relationship with its environment.17.  Products and preparations from other countries are subjected to one’s particular style of cooking.18.  There are two main paths towards attaining harmony of products and flavours: through memory (connection with regional cooking traditions, adaptation, deconstruction, former modern recipes), or through new combinations.19.  A culinary language is being created which is becoming more and more ordered, that on some occasions establishes a relationship with the world and language of art.20.  Recipes are designed to ensure that harmony is to be found in small servings.

21.  Decontextualisation, irony, spectacle, performance are completely legitimate, as long as they are not superficial but respond to, or are closely bound up with, a process of gastronomic reflection.

22.  The menu de dégustation is the finest expression of avant-garde cooking. The structure is alive and subject to changes. Concepts such as snacks, tapas, pre-desserts, morphs, etc., are coming into their own.

23.  Knowledge and/or collaboration with experts from different fields (gastronomic culture, history, industrial design, etc.,) is essential for progress in cooking. In particular collaboration with the food industry and the scientific world has brought about fundamental advances. Sharing this knowledge among cooking professionals has contributed to this evolution.

Food and shelter are the fundamentals for human existence so I was wondering if any of the above has any meaning or lessons for shelter – I mean, in a real sense and not as some loose-fit architectural analogy. Here’s my picks.  

1.  Cooking is a language through which all the following properties may be expressed: harmony, creativity, happiness, beauty, poetry, complexity, magic, humour, provocation and culture.

When food is being sold as art/experience/performance, it’s not surprising nutrition is ignored. In the world of art architecture, physical comfort isn’t considered a property worth expressing.

2.  The use of top quality products and technical knowledge to prepare them properly are taken for granted.

This kind of thinking guarantees the role of the artisan and the continuation of value-added products. Buildings would be prohibitively expensive if all construction materials and processes had to be of the highest possible quality? The situation we have is one where expensive buildings are flaunted by their owners. The Lloyds Building wasn’t cheap. Neither was St. Mary Axe, for what it’s worth.

3.  All products have the same gastronomic value, regardless of their price.

If this is rephrased as “all building materials have the same architectural value, regardless of cost” then this happens. Every now and then some formerly low-rent material gets used in a pretentious or possibly ironic way. Remember the OSB wall from MVRDV’s 1994 Double House in Utrect? In passing, it’s strange how little influence such usages have. This was a good idea but nothing much changed in the 20 years since. Avant-garde is a misnomer. It’s rarely a precursor of garde.


4.  Preference is given to vegetables and seafood, with a key role also being played by dairy products, nuts and other products that make up a light form of cooking. In recent years red meat and large cuts of poultry have been very sparingly used.

Could we perhaps say “Preference is given to inexpensive and sustainable materials, with a key role being played by renewable timbers, recyclables and other inexpensive products that make up a light form of architecture. In recent years, rare stone and hardwoods have been very sparingly used?”  We possibly could say that in the case of the buildings of Lacaton & Vassal, but otherwise … no.

lapatie house interior

6.  Cooking techniques, both classic and modern, are a heritage that the cook has to know how to exploit to the maximum.

6.  Construction techniques, both classic and modern, are a heritage that the architect has to know how to exploit to the maximum.

This goes without saying, although I question the use of the word “exploit”. Nobody expects more than they input. And it’s not right to use the language of capitalist economics to describe supposedly artistic endeavour. “To use”, and to use appropriately and efficiently is sufficient. Perhaps I’m old skool. I may stand corrected.

7.  As has occurred in most fields of human evolution down the ages, new technologies are a resource for the progress of cooking.

7.  As has occurred in most fields of human evolution down the ages, new technologies are a resource for the progress of building.

I’m fine with this even though what constitutes progress is a question still to be hashed out in architecture. We’re being led to believe it’s a series of diverting novelties serving no greater purpose than mild media titillation – which is fine, if acknowledged by purveyors and consumers as such. Do we just get what we’re given? Is there nothing more substantial on offer?

8.  The family of stocks is being extended. Together with the classic ones, lighter stocks performing an identical function are now being used (waters, broths, consommés, clarified vegetable juices, nut milk, etc.).

The use of less-expensive and less-complicated substitutes is a good thing in any industry. If something else does the job just as well then there’s no need to continue using something just out of habit.

10.  Taste is not the only sense that can be stimulated: touch can also be played with (contrasts of temperatures and textures), as well as smell, sight (colours, shapes, trompe d’oeil, etc.), whereby the five senses become one of the main points of reference in the creative cooking process.

10.  Sight is not the only sense that can be satisfied: the five senses become the points of reference in the architectural experience.

Looking at photos of buildings is a bit like looking at photos of food. It only tells us one fifth of what we can experience.

17th Course: Beets

11.  The technique-concept search is the apex of the creative pyramid.

We’re familiar with this one. I still disagree and maintain that creativity can exist in creating something from fewer or less-expensive resources. If the objective is merely sensory pleasure, then creativity is merely the invention of novel ways to achieve that. Sadly, this is the working definition of creativity we have now.

12.  Creation involves teamwork. In addition, research has become consolidated as a new feature of the culinary creative process.

This sounds familiar. If the creative endgame is to produce an endless stream of novelty without copying oneself then I guess working on new ways to be novel is going to take up a lot of your time.

16.  Regional cuisine as a style is an expression of its own geographical and cultural context as well as its culinary traditions. Its bond with nature complements and enriches this relationship with its environment.

16.  Regional traditions are an expression of its own geographical and cultural context as well as its architectural traditions. Its bond with nature complements and enriches this relationship with its environment.

This is good. The alternative is Globalization food (or multi-national food) as in one-food-suits-all. Here in the UAE we have the MacArabia

macarabiaand over in Japan they have the Teriyaki Burger, but that’s not the point.


Meanwhile, over in India …


19.  A culinary language is being created which is becoming more and more ordered, that on some occasions establishes a relationship with the world and language of art.

19.  An architectural language is being created which is becoming more and more ordered, that on some occasions establishes a relationship with the world and language of art.

In the middle of the 1970s some architects, Peter Eisenman not least of all, championed relationships between architecture and language. It fizzled out. Or rather, everybody jumped ship to Post Modernism and the cachet gained from its loose-fit analogies with Post Modern literature. This was followed by the Deconstructivist bandwagon. Nobody seems to be aligning themselves with anything anymore. It’s not a bad thing. Although what’s taken its place in the worlds of art and architecture is the belief that if you make a big noise then you must be good. Like artists do.

Damien Hirst

This is a bad thing, but it’s no worse than before. It’s just more noticeable.

21.  Decontextualisation, irony, spectacle, performance are completely legitimate, as long as they are not superficial but respond to, or are closely bound up with, a process of gastronomic reflection.

21.  Decontextualisation, irony, spectacle, performance are completely legitimate, as long as they are not superficial but respond to, or are closely bound up with, a process of architectural reflection.

We also tried this once at the end of the 1970s and into the 80s – it was pants. It couldn’t help but be superficial. Here’s Venturi’s 1963 Guild House complete with its ironic golden television aerial-sculpture-commentary/insult.


23.  Knowledge and/or collaboration with experts from different fields (gastronomic culture, history, industrial design, etc.,) is essential for progress in cooking. In particular collaboration with the food industry and the scientific world has brought about fundamental advances. Sharing this knowledge among cooking professionals has contributed to this evolution.

23.  Knowledge and/or collaboration with experts from different fields is essential for progress in architecture. In particular collaboration with the building industry and the scientific world has brought about fundamental advances. Sharing this knowledge among architectural professionals has contributed to this evolution.

We can only hope. This post is an attempt to see what ideas can or might be shared between food as art and building as architecture. These quick reflections do hide some major differences between the worlds of avant-garde food and architecture.

  • Adrian Ferrià of ElBulli ensured that, through his prices and his booking system, it was possible for anyone (who had the time and means to access his restaurant) could in theory get a table. Prices were held to €200 per head which meant running at a loss. The pre-booking system was by all accounts fair. He was selling rare experiences but they were accessible to all. It is not so with architecture.
  • Ferrià used to close his restaurant for six months each year to research and test the menu for the following six months. This does not happen with buildings. Research and production are concurrent and dislocated. A building coming online might be the result of dead-end themes and explorations of half a decade earlier. What gets built may not be the genuine product of research performed even though it may be presented as such.

Ferrià’s business model has been scrutinised by Harvard Business School here.

  • The inconvenient location of El Bulli made the two-hour drive through the mountains into part of the dining experience.
  • If one listens to customers then it will never be possible to surprise them.
  • Quirks and inefficiencies are part of the appeal.

I’m not suggesting everybody eat food like this. This are experimental food experiences for interested persons. Food like this is not going to eradicate world hunger. Notice how there was no mention of nutrition? It’s all about the flavour and the look. There’s every reason not to like food like this but what I admire is how it doesn’t pretend to have any kind of social function. And how its creators aren’t claiming that theirs is the only true food and that all other food in the world doesn’t deserve to be called food.

• • •

If there is a place in the world for art-food, then there is also a place in the world for many other types of food. We’re familiar with fast food. We know all about convenience food even though sometimes it quicker to make something from scratch than boil something in a bag. We’ve had various restaurants offering regional cuisines. There’s the Danish restaurant Noma that, according to their Wikipedia entry, uses local and seasonal ingredients foraged from the seashore and forests. (Check their website here.)


We are already exposed to the full range of international food. We are used to vegetarian restaurants and organic restaurants that emphasise an ideological and/or health dimension to what we eat. There are now gluten free restaurants as well. And restaurants where everything on the menu is 500 calories or less.

Grilled mackerel

Grilled mackerel with green beans – 335 calories

If all these different ways of doing food can exist on the same planet, then I think there’s room for an architecture that’s good for us. It’s always been there at the top of this blog.

The built environment is always going to have its bread buildings and its cake buildings, its caviar and its junk. Somewhere in the middle, there has to be a “nutritious” architecture that makes us feel good because it is good for us – an architecture that does The Shelter Thing well and that doesn’t cost the earth. This is what we care about.

Food & Shelter

Over the past few decades we’ve learned a bit about how to satisfy our need for energy without screwing up the planet, even if we fall down in the actual practice of it. Reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is great but all the building rating systems, recycling initiatives, car pooling schemes and passive design aren’t going to fix the upper atmosphere tomorrow. They’ll just delay the time until we’ll have do some rather serious and probably unpleasant adapting ourselves – at least at the beginning. We’ll get used to it.

Our cities currently take their food and water from other ecosystems, depleting them. And dump their waste in other ecosystems, destroying them. Waste is waste because it’s waste – it brings no benefit to whatever ecosystem it’s dumped in.


In his book The Vertical Farm, Dr. Dickson Despommier proposes shifting food production to urban areas and conducting it intensively in hyrdoponic or aeroponic farms stacked vertically. He sets out his case here: http://www.verticalfarm.com/learn-more/ and in several videos available on Youtube.

What he wants to do is make cities a part of ecosystems instead of existing outside of them as they do now and (hence) destroying them.

image from "Manahatta"

image from “Manahatta”

This means that inputs (energy, water and food) have to be taken from the system and waste (including bodily waste) fed back into that system. My previous post, The Microbial Home was about an idea/proposal for this at the domestic level. Dr. Despommier makes a good case.

Advantages of Vertical Farming

He’s thinking of buildings perhaps about four storeys high maybe like this. He doesn’t really know and it’s not that important.


In their book Agricultural Urbanism, Janine de la Salle and Mark Holland describe another way of getting food closer to where we live.


As the cover implies, their objective is to see more produce grown, marketed and consumed locally. They focus on local government processes and identify ways of achieving it. In addition to Rural Areas and Suburban Neighbourhoods where (to a certain extent) it already happens, they make proposals for integrated food cycles in Urban Villages, Inner City Residential Neighbourhoods and Food and Agriculture Precincts.

All feature areas or districts for Production, Processing, Distribution, Retail, Consumption & Celebration, Waste Recovery and Education – none of which are a bad thing.


All are good ideas that can be relatively easily applied and which to some extent already are with domestic vegetable gardens, farmers’ markets and restaurants that grow some of their own herbs and vegetables.

BFM produce for blog book

De la Salle and Holland have some ideas for how this is going to fit around and into buildings. These range from designing restaurants with garden space or fitting cafés into office buildings but what’s important is that a food system strategy for a particular neighbourhood be clearly articulated. To ‘raise awareness’ of food and where it comes from, they would like to see building design and facades reflect what goes on inside. They’re for:

  • eating and drinking everywhere
  • pedestrian-orientation
  • the presence of food and agriculture activity on the street
  • productive edible landscapes
  • signalling nearby agriculture
  • transparency
  • habitat creation for pollinators and beneficial insects
  • stormwater management for agricultural irrigation
  • green streets
  • interpretative signage
  • farm equipment consideration

In Appendix B, they mention the Southeast False Creek Neighbourhood Development in Vancouver, Canada. It received the highest ever LEED score (in 2010). You can find general information about the development here or many other places. It’s a high-profile development built around the 2010 Vancouver Olympics Olympic Village.


At Southeast False Creek at least 30% of dwellings have at least 24 sq.ft of growing space. This is mostly provided as courtyard plots as shown above or as green roofs on the site. There is a 24,000 community demonstration garden. It is within a 10-minute walk of a farmers’ market. The public open space on the site can have its own farmers’ market.


It’s all about the plants and community. Dr. Despommier is more concerned with feeding people than the feelgood factor. For him, it’s more important for the farm buildings to:

  • Capture sunlight and disperse it evenly among the plants.
  • Capture passive energy for supplying a reliable source of electricity.
  • Employ good barrier design for plant protection.
  • Maximise the amount of space devoted to growing crops.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Designing a large, secure home for plants requires intimate knowledge of what a plant needs and how it all works together to allow for maximum growth.

We exist because the chlorophyll (the green stuff) in plants converts photons into chemical energy that links the carbon in carbon dioxide to make sugar and other plant food and discarding the oxygen into the atmosphere and (hence) our respiration cycle. When we eat plants, we get that sugar and other stuff and when we breathe we combine the oxygen we breathe and the carbon from the sugar to produce CO2 and a form of chemical energy called adenosine triphosphate. It’s a remarkably mutually linked association.

There’s more to it than biophilia or we ♥ plants. Our existences are linked. But, if a push came to a shove, plants would fare better without us than we without them. It’s in our own interests to learn more about plants and live together. Using sunlight is of course best but efficient artificial light can be used since, depending on whether they have chlorophyll-a or chlorophyll-b, plants only need wavelengths in the blue 400nm or red 700nm range.

Here’s what we know so far about how these things are going to be configured. I won’t say “look” because it’s not about how it looks.

  • In order to maximise sunlight, farm buildings will be oriented north-south and as long as possible. For the same reason, they’ll be translucent but probably not glass because, for what it is required to do, glass is too heavy. The Eden Project does fine with EFTE. Plants don’t need to see the sky. They just need the appropriate wavelengths.


  • EFTE is our best bet so far because it doesn’t yellow over time and deprive plants of those wavelengths. Farm buildings are going to have incinerators. If there’s to be no such thing as waste then end products have to find their way back into the system. Composting is too inefficient.
  • Giving 80 to 90 of the energy contained in rotting organic waste to the microbes in exchange for a 10% “return on investment” in the form of methane is a no-win technology.
  • Plasma arc gasification.
  • The configuration of the actual growing floor and technology will depend upon the crop.
  • Water vapour will be harvested as a closed loop system.

My only sadness is about the degree of security required. Plants grown without pesticides have to be kept isolated from opportunistic insects, bacteria and microbes. There’s a long list. This means pressurised airlocks, paper suits and decontamination procedures. It’s a long way from romantic ideas of being at one with Nature and talking to the plants. We’ve already become disassociated from where our food comes from.

What we have are two reasonable and well-thought through ways of growing food closer to the point of consumption, yet they are opposites. 

One is concerned with awareness, community and celebration, and the other is concerned with feeding populations and fixing the planet.

There’s always the danger this useful idea will be debased and discredited by buildings that give mimic the look of nature instead of its processes.

header 2

Buildings or bits of buildings that mimic biological organisms are a media staple. We’re biological organisms ourselves, as it happens, and there’s much to learn from how organisms work with other organisms to ensure they have sufficient of what they need to grow and flourish and without poisoning or killing themselves with the waste they generate.

Belgian architect Vincent Callebaut however is thinking something more like this.


The virtuous idea of growing food next to where it will be consumed is being used for media sensationalism posing as “awareness raising”. [Try to ignore the scary birds with the storey-high wingspans.]

As with green roofs as green metaphor, the idea of growing food to eat is being subjected to the architectural treatment. We’re well over roof gardens that aren’t, we’re skeptical of green roofs that though green aren’t much else, and we’ve been momentarily diverted by vertical forests in Italy. It’d be a shame if the growing of useful plants into buildings is quickly reduced to representations of growing of plants in buildings. It’s already happening.

I’m not surprised. Cultivating land, like building on land, is one of those ancient signifiers of OWNING land. It doesn’t really matter what’s cultivated. Lawn will do and did do for centuries around buildings or on top of them as we have now. The new thing is the cultivation of edible plants but whether this goes beyond the representation of cultivation remains to be seen. Have you heard of Verde 25? The column as tree thing is a minor crime when compared with how, like pornographer Callebaut’s “dragonfly” building above, it architecturalizes AND, IN DOING SO, TRIVIALIZES useful ideas to feed people and fix the planet.



The Microbial Home

It was hard to miss Philips’ Microbial Home when it was announced in 2011. It was everywhere. Like me, you probably appreciated the idea of domestic ecosystem, thought it looked a bit over-designed, and turned your attention elsewhere.


Fortunately, the Philips website has full descriptions of the Microbial Home project as well as some generously high-res images so I’d like to take a longer look at the concepts involved. I’ll first paraphrase some things from the website and then let’s talk about them.

The Microbial Home

The Microbial Home takes a systemic approach to many of the domestic processes we take for granted and questions how we deal with resources. It’s a proposal for an integrated cyclical ecosystem where the output of each function is the input to another. The home is seen as a biological machine to filter, process and recycle what we conventionally think of as waste – sewage, effluent, garbage, waste water. It proposes strategies for developing a balanced microbial ecosystem in the home.


The Biodigester Island

The Biodigester Island is a repositionable kitchen island having a chopping surface with a vegetable waste grinder, gas cooking range, a glass tank showing energy reserves and glass indicators showing pressure, and the volume and readiness of compost sludge.


‘Bio-gas’ is produced by a culture of suitable bacteria living on organic waste material from the home. The gas they generate is collected and burnt. This arrangement is called a methane digester and has been used in various configurations for centuries.

The gas from the methane digester is fed to the cooking range and gas lights. Water pipes are preheated by the digester and channeled to other components in the Microbial Home system. The digester needs a constant supply of waste material and water. The dehydrated sludge from the digester can be removed and used as compost.

The Larder

The larder is a space whose environmental factors are manipulated and controlled to extend food shelf life by natural processes. The larder consists of an evaporative cooler and vegetable storage system built into a dining table.


In its centre is a twin-walled terracotta evaporative cooler with compartments and chambers having varying wall thicknesses and volumes to keep different types of food at different optimal temperatures.

The outer surface of the cooler is warmed by pipes carrying hot water pre-heated by the methane digester. Above the table is a ceramic garden and larder where vegetable groups are grown and stored on the basis of their symbiotic chemistry. 

I won’t mention the Urban Beehive, the Apothecary home medical diagnosis system, Bio-light and the Paternoster Plastic Waste Upcycler as they’re external to the food and waste cycle. The Filtering Squatting Toilet is not.

Filtering Squatting Toilet

The concept of the filtering squatting toilet incorporates a handrail to support a person (and improve comfort) in the squatting position. The filter array, comprised of charcoal, sand and ceramic filters, supports a range of plants to clean effluent. The flush mechanism is based on the 1 litre flush toilet technique developed by the Sulabh Foundation in India.


• • •

I think we’ve seen enough. It’s difficult to see past the looks. The Microbial Home  is designed to be attractive and to raise awareness of useful stuff. The website is quite clear on that.

Microbial Home is a far-future design concept. It is not intended as a production prototype nor will it be sold as a Philips product. Like past Design Concepts that have stimulated discussion around a range of issues, this concept is testing a possible future – not prescribing one.

I’m generally not keen on ‘awareness raising’ for too often it’s an excuse to avoid specifics such as quantities and net energy balance. It draws attention away from the development of practical things that really work. The Microbial Home suffers from this. Everything it contains is a good Idea.

  • The bio-digester is a good idea but I want to know quantities. How much organic waste is it going to need to generate the methane to cook with, heat water and generate light? How many people’s worth of inputs and outputs are we talking about?
  • With the Larder Table, Philips rightly admits that what works in one part of the world will not necessarily work in another but the evaporative storage principles seem both sound and achievable. The mention of symbiotic chemistry led me to to this site. I didn’t know apples emit ethylene gas that has the effect of speeding up the ripening process of fruits and vegetables kept with them. If placed with potatoes however, apples prevent them from sprouting. I like it when useful things we once knew but forgot, are rediscovered.
  • The image of the Larder Table is cheekily lit like a Vermeer but I’m not so sure about the growing stuff above the table. Plants need light at 500nm or 700nm wavelengths and I don’t think a methane lamp is going to cut it. 500nm is green light. (Plants are green because the green isn’t absorbed, it’s reflected.) 700 nm is bordering on infra-red. That aside, there’s more to food than basil, thyme and wheatgrass.
  • I’ve no problem with squatting toilets and know of their ergonomic and health benefits. I’m just not convinced by the water cycle. Sure the plants make a nice representation of grey water purification but again I have this problem with quantities. I understand how the grey water is collected below the basin and used for flushing and I expect fresh water comes out of the copper pipe and hand-washing level even though it’s the same copper pipe as the grey water input. It’s a design thing, I know. I’d be interested to know how the shit gets uphill to the bio-digester. The arrow on the schematic is silent on that.

• • •

These niggles aside, I do very much like the attempt to develop a contained system for energy, food and waste at the domestic level. Most of us have energy supplied at the national level, waste dealt with at the municipal level, and food sourced at the neighbourhood level from supermarkets highly likely to be the end of a larger and possibly global, supply chain. I know I do.

It’s a slow process, but we’re trying to become more autonomous. More of us are making more of our own energy. We haven’t seen much domestic responsibility being taken for waste disposal or sewage treatment but on the other hand more more people who have the space to grow vegetables do so. I think Philips is right when it says that

The home of the future will need to accommodate a likely food supply chain that will include a much greater proportion of local and home-grown food. 

All the devices in Philips’ Microbial Home are consciously designed objects but, to their credit, have a pleasing low-tech feel about them. This is refreshing. If it makes those images of a shiny white and silver future look not only dated but totally divorced from reality and fair extrapolations of it, then that can only be a good thing.

• • •

I said I wasn’t going to talk about the Paternoster Plastic Waste Upcycler but it’s interesting in a steampunk kind of way.


The paternoster waste up-cycler concept utilizes the properties of fungi that have powerful enzymes and decomposing power. Plastic waste is ground into small chips and mixed with a fungal starter culture in a glass canister, which is slotted into a compartment of the ‘paternoster’ system. A hand-cranked conveyor moves the canisters along a circuit inside a dark cavity where ground-up plastic is mixed with the fungi and decomposed and metabolized over several weeks. 

 • • •

Further reading:

Anaerobic digestion & methane digestion

How to Make a Home Methane Digester

Dubai Deconstruction Update

July 24, 2014: Today we’re going to make an eroded cube.

Or rather, back in 2007 we were going to. When it’s finished, it’s going to be another of those buildings that was “ahead of its time a decade ago” so who knows what it’ll be in 2016 when it’s supposed to come online? In 2009 the cube was quickly put on ice until the property market heated up again :S Hence the current developer, media and architect impatience to see the bloody thing built so everyone can move on to more of the same.

Zaha-Hadid-Opus-Office-Tower-Abu-Dhabi-UAEAs with many buildings, you start with some columns and slabs. See how the cube will appear to be what passes for “floating” in the world of architecture? This is how it’s done. Have some recessed columns and then, when your building is sufficiently floaty, have big concrete corbels pick up the load of the columns above that are sufficiently out of the way to not lower the office rents, but not sufficiently up to the edge so they mar the essential cubeness. Best wait before deciding if it was worth the effort.

Those little bits of space between the column and the glazing can’t be used and so can’t be let. The area is usually deducted from the rentable square footage and the question is if the end aesthetic effect will enable this office space to be rented at a premium that compensates? It might. Photobombing Opus below is the O14 building by NY architects Reiser+Umemoto.

P1020122It’s got a load-bearing external wall with loads of holes and loads of steel around those holes. That load bearing wall is basically a “screen” that’s largely detached from the floor loads it carries, meeting the slab only where there aren’t holes. 50%?

Building a structural wall and then denying it half its opportunities to support the floors was never going to be a low-rent way to build. Nevertheless, the building’s mostly let at above market rates despite being over around the arse end of Business Bay.

Opus is located behind Executive Towers, across the road from the “Bay Avenue” car park, local supermarket and restaurants. It’s not a great place, but architects don’t usually get to decide what their clients want built and where.


Anyway, here’s where it was up to this morning.

P1020129It’s getting a bit shapey now. It’s basically two buildings that’ll have a steel bridge connecting them at the top at the front, and a glassy roof covering a large lobby between the the two cores so you can admire the hole above. You start to get an idea how all this is going to join up.

P1020178Inside the internal curves will be corridors providing more opportunities to admire the hole. These’ll have to be the only corridors if there’s to be any hope of achieving a floor plan efficiency around 15%. I don’t think it’s going to look much like this image.


The crevice on the south side has been undeconstructed, presumably to claw back some value.

P1020180ZHA’s website has an image with the inside of the curvy bit all lit up like the Belarus National Library. That’s something we can look forward to.

435_BelarusNationalLibrary (1)

3 August 2014

Oops, Opus is an hotel now. Almost as an aside with the August 6 announcement of the lobby feature thing, was the mention that it will be an hotel without any acknowledgement that it was ever to have been otherwise. (“It is an hotel. It has always been an hotel”.)


Not that it matters. Property developers develop property and it makes no difference to them whether it’s retail, commercial, leisure or residential. One might have thought that difference might matter a bit to architecture, if not architects, but no. A lobby’s a lobby whatever the website. The function of the lobby art thing is A) to remind us to look forward to this building we’d forgotten about and B) to forcibly reframe the frame of reference in terms the architects are comfortable with.

We’re seeing more of the back in this current PR nudge. It’s never going to photograph well from the already over-exposed front view from Al Amal Street. When it’s completed, it’ll be interesting to if Iwan Baan can make it look as fab as he did the Heydar Aliyev Monument to Dynastic Kleptocracy.




OPUS_Hotel_Bedroom_dezeen_468The render of the hotel room and view must be one they’d made earlier as it places the building 16km (10 or so) miles down the road in Dubai Marina – here, specifically –


and not in Business Bay in what would have been the shadow of Dancing Towers. I’m unsure if this is just sloppy work or nobody can be be arsed to get it right anymore as the PR value of the building was compromised by its 2008 stillbirth. What we’re seeing is minimal effort to extract whatever value can be extracted before a short fanfare of local publicity upon opening.

Not that any of this matters either. It reminds me of Tom Heneghan‘s winning entry in the 1975 Japan Architect housing competition

with a house for Raquel Welch. What was a superstar, he reasoned, if not a media fiction? The house, therefore, existed only as a magazine article; the entry (non-conforming, of course) gave the fictional house from the compositor’s point of view. Image signifies image. It was so postmodern it was positively prescient.

SchoolWorkHenegan’s final entry showed the final (TIME) magazine article being read outside the stands. The mock article was illustrated with an image of a cottage something like this


and a Bruce Goff interior. It was brilliant and scary and true.

tumblr_lymw6wF2KJ1r7xcd6o1_500People put the two together in their heads to imagine something that didn’t exist and was never going to. Job done.

What I find interesting about OPUS is that the idea of it was put in our heads long ago and processed. Now, when we’ve processed it and mostly forgotten about it or otherwise dismissed it, it’s actually painful to watch the thing get built. In the great fiction that is architectural progress, whatever the design was supposed to do has already been done. All that remains to be seen is the reality bit.

Waste . . . zzzzt . . . Energy.

Waste disposal’s suddenly gotten sexy! Here’s the lowdown, with much thanks to waste-management-world.com.

Plasma arc gasification is a high-temperature process whereby the waste solids (a.k.a. carbon-based material, organic matter, shit, etc.) are superheated in the absence of oxygen and converted into a synthesis gas – syngas – that is mostly carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Leftover inorganic materials and minerals produce a vitrified slag. The required high temperature is created by an electric arc that converts a gas into a plasma. [FFS!] The reactor temperature is typically 4000°C – 7000°C (7200°F – 12,600°F). FFS.

FYI, the average surface temperature of the Sun is 5505 °C ( 9941 °F). Here’s what a plasma arc gasification plant looks like. It’s not so horrible.

originalHere’s the process.


Here’s the plasma arc gasification reactor/furnace. Not much to it, really.


Here’s the full plant.


You needn’t use syngas for electricity if you don’t want to. You can use chemical processes to extract elements and fuel compounds, or biochemical processes to extract fuels such as methane and ethanol. Let’s not forget the original Ford T could run on either gasoline or ethanol but the motor industry chose to go down the gasoline route. This wasn’t a good idea, in retrospect.


Main advantages of plasma technologies for waste treatment are:

  1. Thermally efficient
  2. Can process a variety of different solid wastes
  3. There is minimal pretreatment and presorting of solid wastes
  4. The syngas can be converted into other energy sources such as steam, electricity and/or liquid fuels
  5. There is environmental appeal as syngas can produce various energy products
  6. There are no toxic emissions. The extreme temperature of the plasma followed by quick cooling inhibits the formation of dioxins and other nasty stuff called furans.
  7. Unlike competing technologies including conventional incineration, there are no environmental issues regarding the disposal of slag.
  8. The slag can be be used to produce value-added products such as metals, construction aggregates and abrasives.
  9. It either minimises or eliminates the need for landfill.
  10. Existing landfills can be mined.

Here’s a comparison of plasma arc gasification with other technologies courtesy of waste-management-world. MSW stands for Municipal Solid Waste.


PAG delivers the most energy per tonne of MSW. Here’s a cost comparison.

pennwell.web.600.390PAG comes out on top.

What’s not to like?

  1. large initial investment costs relative to landfill[18] and
  2. the plasma flame reduces the diameter of the sampler orifice over time, necessitating occasional maintenance.[19]
  3. Some environmentalists say the ability to fully dispose of waste will discourage recycling and the development of renewable products.

I’m not sure what to make of the third disadvantage. If somebody makes themselves a business recycling rubber tyres into beach sandals or such then good for them.

sandal-sandalz-za-pixiePAG recycles compounds, molecules and atoms. I don’t think that’s a negative for this is what Our Universe does. It can’t be a bad thing. PAG is the closest we’ll get to throwing all our garbage down a black hole. If PAG does becomes incredibly inexpensive then goods handmade from recycled and reused goods and/or repurposed products will gain the status of value-added craft goods. They’re sort of going that way now. A 150,000 tonne/year PAG plant will employ 42 full-time operators. Let’s keep it real.

The second disadvantage can be discounted. A PAG plant is not clever enough to maintain itself and it’s unfair to expect it to. Here’s what a plasma torch looks like btw. The anode is good for 1,000 hours, the cathode 500. It’s the price one pays. No problem.


“Courtesy of PyroGenesis Canada Inc.”

More to the point, if landfills worked perfectly nobody would even think of deconstructing waste into atoms. It’s the landfill thing that’s stopping PAG becoming more mainstream. Dumping stuff in a hole and forgetting about it isn’t without its problems. For an accurate comparison, we need to cost landfill to the stage where all toxicity has been removed and the land can be safely built upon or cultivated.

Despite these downers …

The onboard system is known as a PAWDS (for, Plasma Arc Waste Destruction System – what else?) and is manufactured by Pyrogenesis Canada. They’re on facebook. Check it out. You can find out interesting things like this. Note the military-friendly language linking winning the war on waste to winning wars.

We shouldn’t be surprised by such language. Everyone wants to flog their product to those who can pay the most. Frank Lloyd Wright tried to market his low-density Broadacre City to the US government as patriotic insurance against atomic attack. Mies van der Rohe wanted Hitler to adopt (his) Modern architecture as a symbol of a progressive regime, as Mussolini had done in Italy. It still happens today with architects trawling China, the Middle East and the former Soviet states for clients with deep pockets. It’s one of those facts of life. 

The bigger problem I see with Pyrogenesis Canada talking the same language as the US Navy is that they have less incentive to make their system cheaper for non-military use. 

The bottom line

Waste-management-world tells us the break-even point when income from electricity sales covers running costs is 180–270 tonnes waste/day (200–300 tons waste/day). Economy of scale matters. Pyrogenesis Canada also make a PAWDS for military land use. [Download the brochure.] It fits into five 20-foot containers and can process 400lbs (180kg) of MWS per hour. Sounds fab. It’ll easily sort out a medium-size apartment building generating the American average of 4.4lb (2kg) of waste per person per day.


“Courtesy of PyroGenesis Canada Inc.”

Misfits would like to see one PAWDS per building. We’d also like it to include the energy recovery module that’s currently optional for the military.

Footnote: Here I’ve only mentioned what PAG can do for waste disposal. Not only does it destroy waste but it converts it into energy and other userful stuff. It can run off of existing landfill if we can be bothered. It can also help clean up our planet in other ways such as destroying refrigerants and the nasty fluorinated chemicals. That’s not a bad thing. PAG’s wonders never end. These things also eat chemical weapons for breakfast. Two mobile 20 foot containers can safely destroy up to two barrels of CWA per day. This is more than waste disposal, it’s the righting of wrongs.

The Internet of Things

You know sometimes I wonder if I haven’t fallen asleep and woken up in some strange world where new things aren’t invented fast enough to keep up with our desire for them and we don’t notice the blindingly obvious being fed back to us as innovation.

Behold my July 7-14 issue of TIME magazine purchased out of misplaced nostalgia for the magazine itself and also for the rosy future it promised.

timeThe house of the future will have

  • Walls that can weather a hurricane!
  • A garden that filters your air!
  • Solar panels that eliminate your energy bills!
  • A yard that keeps you active!

The cover image doesn’t inspire. Nobody’s expecting the future to look like The Venus Project but, as illustrated, the house doesn’t make a very good case for a beauty of performance. It gets worse. Step inside.

Smart 2 Before we go any further, can I just object to the position of that toilet relative to the kitchen, dining table, and living room?

Inside we have:

  • Energy saving shades
  • A customizable lightbulb
  • Hurricane-proof walls
  • A home controlling hub
  • A filterless coffeemaker
  • Natural air purifiers
  • A 3-D printed shelf
  • A hands-free toilet
  • An all-knowing plant monitor

Walls that won’t blow down, curtains that save energy, a filterless coffeemaker … are all epically underwhelming and because of that all the more worrying.

The only feature that might interest me is the “all-knowing” plant monitor. I don’t really need or expect an oracle. I’d be happy with a few sensors linked to a water source and if they came with the package, a mobile app and webcam so I can supervise and enjoy my plants in remote realtime. Currently, lacking this technology, I usually ask a friend or neighbour if they wouldn’t mind watering my plants when I’m away. It’s a soft and social way of solving a problem. The Internet Of Things will eliminate the need for such soft solutions and erode our capacity to devise them.


It used to be called Home Automation but home automation came to mean stupid switches and sensors acting as they’d been set to act, unable to be changed from our mobile phones via the internet. After that came Smart Homes but pretty soon everything was a smart something and all value-adding cachet vaporised like snowflakes in hell. Now, with the all-encompassing Internet Of Things, Everything That Matters (or that you’re being asked to care about – a.k.a. consumer electronics) is going to be connected via the internet. Let’s see what your home is going to be doing for you.

Smart 1 Gadgets will be triggered into action when you open the door, IF NOT BEFORE! Walk in the door and get ready to enjoy your life.

The cat will have been fed so it won’t pester you as soon as you walk in. You don’t have to worry about nurturing this creature you’ve chosen to keep for company. Mind you, my experience of cats is that a fed one is no guarantee of additional quality time either avec or sans cat.

The lights will get turned on. My primitive apartment has some light switches next to the front door and sometimes I flick them on when I come in. And sometimes I wait until I decide what I’m going to do and how much and what kind of light I need. I’m not a candle person. Dimmers are okay. In one apartment I lived in, the downlights had a remote control. First world problems.

The room will be warm. Or, depending on where you live, cool. My A/C takes about a minute to return my apartment to 23.5°C from a max. of 26° without. It’s not a big deal but, having lived in London, I can see how it’d be a good thing not having to keep your overcoat on for 30 minutes until your flat gets warm. Some air conditioners now come with a phone app for REMOTE remote control. You might have seen this air conditioner advertised.


My music will be playing. Again, for me this isn’t a game changer. How will the home hub or even me, for that matter, know if I’ll want to listen to anything, let alone what, when I get in? It amuses me when, based upon my purchase history, iTunes makes all the wrong recommendations.

A cup of tea will be brewed. Pass.

Dinner will be “finished”.  Once I had a slow cooker and it was good to come home to the smell of a soup or stew cooking and/or ready to eat. It still required preparation but it was in no way onerous, just transferred to the morning or the night before. Overcooking was an issue at first and I mildly regretted not buying the one with the timer. First world problem.

Your refrigerator can do your shopping. We’d been hearing this for a while so TIME magazine doesn’t go into too much detail. Some of us have the knack of remembering stuff. Some of us have a habit of making shopping lists. Some of us might phone the store and get something delivered. And some of us may phone a significant or convenient other to pick up something on their way home.

What I’d like to know is if, like British supermarket online shopping, your refrigerator will tell you the store didn’t have X in a small size so it got you a big X, or that spinach had sold out so it bought kale instead and here’s a fab recipe? Unless you keep your olive oil, whisky and laundry detergent in the refrigerator, you’re still going to have to keep track of all that stuff. We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to let our faculty for remembering things slip away from us. There’s precedents.

  • Late 19th century building technologies such as the elevator enabled the intensive exploitation of property via high-rise buildings. We didn’t take the stairs anymore. We grew fat.
  • Early twentieth 20th century domestic technologies were driven by the desire to save on physical labour – partly due to lack of domestic help. This gave us washing machines, vacuum cleaners, dishwashers and other domestic appliances. Jobs got done faster. We grew weak.
  • With all this time of ours freed, later 20th century domestic technologies focussed on convenience. The automatic record changer, the remote control, the built-in. We grew lazy.

The stakes are a lot higher with this new round of communications technologies.

  • For even the short time that we’ve had mobile telephones, we’ve managed to lose our ability to make appointments to meet people at specific places and times. We’re becoming selfish.
  • If, at 5pm, our refrigerator asks “Don’t you think it’s a bit early?” as you reach for the ice cubes or, not much later, say “Isn’t that your third?” then we’ll lose our capacity for autonomous decision-making.
  • If we don’t need to remember what we need to buy in order to eat, we’ll grow stupid.
  • If we won’t need to remember to water the plant, feed the cat and, by extension, the children we’ll lose empathy for other living things.


My doubts about where this is going all have to do with neuroplasticity.

The brain responds to training. It rewires itself to make it easier for it to think about things it thinks about a lot. It makes no judgment as to whether those thoughts are good for you or not. So if you think bad thoughts then bad thoughts will become easier for you to think. If you think certain thoughts for long enough, then you will become less receptive to thinking alternate thoughts. Your thinking becomes “set”, your opinions more difficult to change. People often say this about old people and, although evidence seems circumstantial, it does seem to appear that the older we get, the greater the danger we’ll get stuck in a groove that keeps getting deeper.

What’s worse is that brain resources that aren’t being used are deployed for other matters. The most serious one that’s been identified so far is our capacity for making creative associations between diverse bodies of knowledge. The internet is threatening our capacity to do this.

How often have you come across something on the internet that looked interesting and, rather than reading it and perhaps making a few notes of what you found interesting, simply bookmarked it so you can find it again?

Links between related pieces of information saves us the trouble of making our own AND POSSIBLY BETTER OR MORE CREATIVE links between perhaps more diverse sectors of knowledge. Have you never woken up with a solution to some problem or seen it in greater clarity than before you went to bed? Have you never experienced that brief endorphin rush from remembering something or making some connection you had never seen before? We’re losing that.

Skyworks Solutions makes the semiconductors and amplifiers, attenuators, circulators, demodulators, detectors, diodes, directional couplers, front-end modules, hybrids, infrastructure RF subsystems, isolators, lighting and display solutions, mixers, modulators, optocouplers, optoisolators, phase shifters, PLLs/synthesizers/VCOs, power dividers/cbombiners, power management devices, receivers, switches and technical ceramics analysts say are going to make all this possible. 

It’s not supposed to be good to get emotional about share dealings, but I did have some shares in Skyworks Solutions.


I got rid of them as soon as I saw the TIME magazine article. I don’t think I want anything to do with The Internet of Things. I don’t want to see our capacity to make decisions and care for things go the same way as our capacities for walking, bending, remembering things, keeping promises, and getting up and crossing a room. I took a modest profit and walked away.