Category Archives: Science

Fast Tracking

It’s easy enough to make a train go fast but much harder to make it stay on the rails and to give passengers a comfortable ride.

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The 0 Series Shinkansen

These are the ones Japanese remember most fondly and which so amazed the world when the Tokaido Shinkansen [東海道新幹線, lit. New Arterial Line; a.k.a. Bullet Train] connecting Tokyo and Osaka opened on 1st October 1964 just in time for the Tokyo Olympics. These first trains didn’t have any name other than shinkansen and were only called 0 Series when it later became necessary to differentiate them. O Series trains ran at speeds of up to 200 km/h (125 mph), with later increases to 220 km/h (135 mph). More than 3,200 cars were built but by 2008 none remained in service. 

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The buffet car was always a special treat.

The Series 0 shinkansen wouldn’t have been possible without various 1950s innovations that raised bogie performance and reduced weight and vibration so the trains could run safely and comfortably at faster speeds.

  • incorporating springs and oil dampers into the bogie suspension to significantly reduce vibration
  • mounting traction motors on the bogie frame and using flexible couplings and gears to transmit power to the wheels
  • using a press-welded structure to reduce the weight of the bogie frames
  • using disk brakes to increase braking power at greater speeds
  • using air springs in the carriage suspension to increase passenger comfort

 [Refer to this document for more about the early technical innovatoins.]

The 200 series

In 1982 the Tohoku Shinkansen Line and the Joetsu Shinkansen Line opened with 200 Series trains that resembled the earlier 0 Series trains but were lighter and more powerful for mountain routes with steeper gradients. They had small snowplows to handle snowfall and exposed equipment such as the motors and compressors beneath the train was enclosed in sealed cowling to protect it from snow. Another innovation were the special air intakes designed to remove snow from the air. The first 200 trains had a top speed of 210 km/h (130 mph) but later ones could do 240 km/h (150 mph), and some were converted to be capable of 275 km/h (171 mph). By 2007 none remained in service.

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The 100 series

The naming system for new train series gave new trains running east of Tokyo even numbers and those running west of Tokyo odd numbers. [Having 100 come after 200 defeats the purpose of numbering, but not of naming. This post will therefore order the various series according to their chronological date of first introcution and irrespective of any implied numerical value. G.] The 100 Series trains began service in 1985 and had a more pointed nose as well as two double-level cars in the middle and that powered, most likely because there wasn’t sufficient space left between the bogies to do so. By 2012 none remained in service.

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Hat trick: a 100 heading for Osaka passes Mt. Fuji during cherry blossom season.

The 100 Series prompted a remodelled front car for the earlier 200 series. Apart from the livery, the only obvious difference is the snowplow.

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The 400 series

The first mini-shinkansen series was introduced in 1992 on Yamagata Shinkansen route branching from the Tohoku Shinkansen route at Fukushima. The mini-shinkansen concept involved regauging existing 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm) gauge lines to standard gauge and linking them to the shinkansen network to allow through-running. [W.] In order to negotiate local rail networks, the 400 Series was designed to have lower clearance and to be narrower. Steps projected from below the doors to bridge the gap between the train and the platform.  The 400s had a maximum speed of 240 km/h but all were withdrawn by April 2010.

The 300 Series

The 300 Series was introduced in 1992. They could carry about 1,300 passengers at a maximum  speed of 270 km/h (170 mph). The 300 Series abandoned the bullet-like nosecone for a more automobile-like styling with wider windscreen and lowered headlights, and also had flared panels protecting the front bogies from snow. It also had bolsterless bogies for greater stability at high speed, higher running performance on curves, less vibration and greater ride comfort, smaller size and lower weight to reduce track wear. All these improvements are to do with issues fundamental to rail transportation

A bolsterless bogie has two air springs directly supporting the carriage without any other cushioning element.

A 300 set the 1991 Japanese speed record of 202.3 mph (325.7 km/h). A total of 69 were built. All were withdrawn from service by March 2012. 

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A 300 on an evening run back to Tokyo.

The unusual shape of the nose of 300X was designed to minimise noise.

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Another 300 X variant pursued aerodynamic advantage. Changes such as these and the incrasingly flush window frames and headlight casings reveal increasing attention being paid to air movement at the leading edges of the train. 

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The 300X research project involved two test runs per week at night on track between Kyoto and Maibara on which revenue-operating trains ran during daytime. Testing covered rolling stock, tracks, overhead lines, and signal communications and involved simulations, constituent technology, and test runs, or combinations of the three. The simulations made it possible to predict situations that up till then could only have been checked with on-track tests, and provided insight into “boundary” problems that span a number of technological fields.

For example, it was found that lightening the unsprung mass affected running stability and ground vibration along the tracks.

Series 300 rolling stock was about 25% lighter than 100 Series, with a 30% lighter unsprung mass.  This led to 1998 track maintenance expenses being only 85% of those in 1993, despite a 50 km/h increase in speed. [ref.]

Boundary problems aren’t uncommon in railway transportation as it depends upon civil engineering, mechanical, electrical, and information systems that need to be designed and administered as a total system in a unified manner. It’s easy to see how boundary phenomena can be difficult to spot as a change seemingly insignificant in one field might have (good or bad) consequences for another.

The E1 Series

This was originally going to be designated the 600 Series. E1 trains were introduced in 1994 to alleviate overcrowding on the Tohoku and Joetsu routes. They had 3+3 seating in standard class and also had double-deck carriages. The first four upper deck non-reserved cars had 3+3 seating without individual armrests and did not recline. All E1 trains were withdrawn by September 2012.

The 500 series

These entered service in 1997 and had an operating speed of 300 km/h (185 mph). Innovations included the use of computer-controlled active suspension for a smoother and safer ride, and yaw dampers fitted between cars to prevent excessive sway. 

It had a revolutionary wing-graph pantograph.

In the case of the pantograph noise, air rushing over the struts and linkages in the mechanism was forming into so-called Karman vortices, also known as a Karman vortex street, and this turbulence was causing most of the noise. Karman vortices are created at all scales, from islands in the ocean to car aerials, and are manifested wherever a single bluff body separates the flow of a fluid. Alternate and opposite eddies swirl downstream of the obstruction, swinging back and forth as the force of one dominates and then the other. 

Vortex streets are a basic dynamic and some animals such as bees are thought to take advantage of it in their flight. Eiji Nakatsu is the bird-enthusiast and engineer credited with applying this physics to train aerodynamics. He studied the owl and its noise-dampening feather parts (fimbriae) that are a comb-like array of serrations grown on the leading edge of the primary wing feathers. They break down the air rushing over the wing foil into micro-turbulences that muffle the sound that typically occurs in wings without this feature. From 1994 a new “wing-graph” replaced the traditional pantograph and was a great success. The train could now run at 320 km/hr and meet the stringent 70dBa noise standard set by the government. [ref.]

There was also the more intractable problem of trains entering tunnels creating sonic booms at the other end of the tunnel. Japan’s rail tunnels are somewhat narrower than their European counterparts and often begin and end vertically, so when the shinkansen enters a tunnel at speeds above 200 kilometres per hour, the sudden increase in air pressure can cause a loud “boom” at the other end of the tunnel. In some cases, such shock waves are thought to have damaged tunnels in Japan, ripping chunks of material from tunnel ceilings.

Its counterintuitive at first for the boom to happen at the exit when the train enters the tunnel.” [It seems to suggest the piston effect can’t be sustained. G] This German video gives both the boom and the train later leaving the tunnel.

The other way around is tweaking tunnel portals to the same considerations. Victor

Nakatsu once again searched for an answer in nature when a junior engineer observed [uncredited, as is the Japanese way] that the test train seemed to “shrink” when it was traveling through the tunnel. Nakatsu reasoned that it must be due to a sudden change in air resistance, from open sky to closed tunnel, and wondered if there was an organism that was adapted to such conditions.

From his birdwatching experiences, Nakatsu remembered the kingfisher, a bird that dives at high speed from one fluid (air) to another that is 800 times denser (water) with barely a splash. He surmised the shape of its bill was what allowed the bird to cut so cleanly into the water. The design reduced the sonic boom effect, and allowed the train to run at higher speeds and still adhere to the standard noise level of 70 dBa. It also reaped further benefits immediately. The new Shinkansen 500 had 30 percent less air resistance than the preceding 300 series. A measured actual train run (maximum 270 km/hr) showed a 13 percent reduction in energy consumption. [ref.]

Sadly, this wonderful story dumbs down to this.

The unhappy ending is that each train cost approx. 5 billion yen and only nine were ever built. Although technologically innovative, the cost-peformance was poor and so the 500 Series thus went the way of the Sukhoi SU-47 and the F22 Raptor [c.f. Architectural Myths #8: Clean Lines].

The E4 series

These dual-level 8-car trains were designed as the second mini-shinkansen to replace the E1. They also began service in 1997 and had a maximum speed of 240 km/h (150 mph). 

The E2 Series

The E2 was introduced in 1997 and had a maximum speed of 275 km/h (170 mph). The most noticeable improvement was the shift from small windows for each seating bay to wide windows as with the E4 . The pantograph now had a single arm with an aerofoil-shaped mounting that did not need shrouding. Its exposed components were only those that had a reason to be exposed to the air. Even the horn of the pantograph (the curved ends of the slider or that top bar thingy that glide on the wire) had wavy holes drilled through them to generate vortices to suppresses the pantograph noise at high speed. [ref.]

A total of 53 were built but withdrawals began in 2013 when they began to be replaced by E7 Series trains.

The E3 Series

This is the fourth of mini-shinkansen designed with reduced width and clearance and to run on gauges for lower loads. Doorway steps fold out to make up the difference width when stopping at regular shinkansen stations. All were replaced by E6 Series trains by March 2014.

The 700 series

Introduced in 1999, with a maximum operating speed of 285 km/h (175 mph), the 700 series is immediately recognisable by its flat ‘duck-bill’ nose designed to reduce the piston effect when the train enters tunnels. The design owes much to the 300X research program. As with the 500 series trains, yaw dampers are fitted between vehicles, and all cars feature semi-active suspension for smooth ride at high speed. These trains were designed to deliver high performance and better ride comfort and interior ambience than the 300 Series but at 20% less cost than the 500 Series. [W.]

Between October 2008 and June 2009, JR Central’s fleet of sixty 700 series sets underwent modifications to increase the acceleration from the original 1.6 km/h/s to 2.0 km/h/s (0.44 m·s−2 to 0.56 m·s−2) on the Tokaido Shinkansen in order to improve timetable planning flexibility.

This trains were the core trains on the mainline shinkansen routes 2006–2011 but were gradually withdrawn and replaced with N700 Series trains and 800 Series trains.   

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An 800 Series Train.

The N700 series

N700 series trains have a maximum speed of 300 km/h (186 mph), and tilting of up to one degree allows the trains to maintain 270 km/h (168 mph) even on 2,500 m (8,200 ft) radius curves that previously had a maximum speed of 255 km/h (158 mph). The enhanced acceleration of the 700 Series (1.6 km/h/s to 2.0 km/h/s ) must have produced significant benefits for timetable flexibility because maximum acceleration rate of the N700 Series is 2.6 km/h/s. This means a 715 tonne train can accelerate from 0–270 km/h (170 mph) in only three minutes, and that it can travel between Tokyo and Osaka in 142 minutes, eight less than before. [W.]

This image of the N700 pantographs shows the (yellow) horn of the pantograph with its small holes that create the noise-surpressing vortices.

The E5 series

The E5 Series was introduced in 2011 and is still in service. Maximum speed is 320 km/h (200 mph). Pantograph improvements continued.

Until the E5, mini-shinkansen innovations had mainly been for width and clearance but the east-west routes through the Japan Alps have more and longer tunnels so the tunnel boom problem was more significant with these trains. The E5 is the latest attempt to solve the problem without incurring the expenses of the 300 Series or the undue attentions of biomimeticists.  

• • •

Doctor Yellow

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“Doctor Yellow” is the name given to trains specially customised for track checking and diagnosis. Doctor Yellow trains are dispatched to check track immediately after earthquakes and also when track sections are experiencing severe weather conditions. Unlike regular shinkansen, these trains are sometimes operated at full speed (up to 443 km/h ~ 275 mph). [ref.]  It’s a good day for a train enthusiast when they see one. Here’s six loving shots of the two 923 Series Doctor Yellow trains developed from the 700 Series, plus a 0 Series Doctor Yellow from fifty years ago.

• • •

Takeways: 

  • Eiji Nakatsu is remarkable for not only for observing Nature but also for listening to the straightforward observations of said junior engineer who was first to articulate the problem in terms of the relevant physics.
  • Boundary phenomena are nasty, especially as it’s not part of our psychology to look out for and take responsibility for the effect our actions have on others. Our culture of subcontracting and outsourcing may make some of them easier to identify but at the same time impossible to do anything about. (“Excuse me, there’s nothing in it for you but would you mind changing your way of doing things to solve a problem we’re having?”) Simply exchanging information between disciplinces is not teamwork.
  • Two boundary phenomena stood out. One was how reducing the unsprung weight led to track maintenance economies. The other was how the sum of mechanical and physical factors that resut in improved acceleration is recognised as allowing for increased timetabling flexibility. This is probably a Japanese euphemism for “more trains more frequently” but identifying that the two are linked is awesome.
  • With different routes needing different solutions for different conditions, the story of technical improvements across the Shinkansen fleets is not linear in the way the development of Sukhoi fighter planes was [c.f. Architectural Myths #8: Clean Lines]. The main revenue-earning lines were not always the identifies or problems or the initiators of innovation, as shown by the tunnel boom solutions.
  • What’s also impressive is that not one shinkansen innovation has been aesthetic for its own sake. Their various noses and front ends have never tried to be beautiful. How a very fast object goes through the air is very important in terms of energy efficiency and the noise it generates, and much research and development understandably went into optimising the shape of Shinkansen lead carriages and the nose in particular. It is a pity these highly visible “faces” of the shinkansen overshadow the effort that went into reducing the noise made by the pantographs that also travel through air at the same high speed.
  • And let’s not forget the research and develpment intelligence embodied in the bogies that make high-speed train travel comfortable as well as make it safe and viable by keeping the train on the tracks in the first place. In fifty years and over 10 billion passengers, there have been no Shinkansen fatalities due to derailments or collisions. That’s some track record.

Acknowledgements:

  • to www.allaboutjapantrains.com and japan-talk.com for helping me make some sense out of the series numbering
  • to Isao OKAMOTO for his 1999 article on Shinkansen Bogies in Railway Technology Today
  • to Hiromasa TANAKA for his 2001 paper, High-speed Rail Technology as Revealed by the Shinkansen
  • to trainoftheweek.blogspot.ae for the interesting stuff about pantographs, and also the many references
  • to www.greenbiz.com for the most convincing version of the kingfisher story.
  • In this post I hope I’ve managed to communicate something of the amount of ongoing and focussed intelligence and research and develpment that has gone into making these trains. Many people out there know much more about them than me. I’ll be grateful to anyone who can help me correct any inaccuracies or who can think of more examples of design intelligence that might not be not immediately visible.

 

 

Waste in Venice

Waste was one of the ‘fronts’ Aravena identified in his opening statements for the 2016 Venice Architecture Bienalle. wasteBy now we’ve all either seen or seen images of the exhibition entrance features – you know the ones. 

You’ll probably also have been told those installations were made from 10,000 sq.m of plasterboard and 14 km of metal studs from the previous Biennale – the one curated by you know who.

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What Aravena has done is turn old waste into new waste and, in the process, make it represent waste as well. He’s also wasted his time and ours. The plasterboard might have been more reusable if it hadn’t been cut into tiny pieces, as might those metal studs if they hadn’t been bent. If this is the best the best of architecture has to offer, then sooner or later we can expect to see the aestheticization of waste as architectural ornament. It was sooner than I expected, for immediately outside was another example of someone arranging stuff into a pointless representation of waste. What does it mean? What does it do? Why did they do that? It’s more cutting-edge contentless content. 

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Aestheticizing something by making its representation more important than the thing itself is one of architecture’s many dysfunctions stemming from the belief it’s an art. Art however, is much better at aestheticising raw materials because what it does it take materials and uses them to represent something independent of those materials. It also adds value, albeit a highly subjective one.

At the Prada Fondazione in Milan is an exhibition of works by Edward and Nancy Nienholz who assemble found objects into rather disturbing collages.

This most definitely is art. Something new and having a different kind of value has been created. Their intention was never to reduce some global oversupply of disused carnival paraphenalia. Elsewhere at the Prada Fondazione, unwanted art is being repurposed into new art.

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The Pirelli Hangar Bacocco in Milan currently has an exhibition titled Architecture as Art. [Grrr.]

One of the works on display was this ‘architectural’ space made out of shredded books. You could climb it and find a space to – what else? – read a book.

This isn’t a response to some global surfeit of shredded books but nor does it pretend to be one. Who knows what will happen after? Perhaps it’ll become part of a permanent exhibition somewhere, or perhaps it’ll be reconstructed elsewhere from different trash at some later date.

The fashion industry is currently attempting to come to grips with recovering fabrics (at the level of fibres) and remaking them into high-value garments. This is good in that arable land can be used for things other than growing cotton but it’s bad if the main object is to maintain a high churn ratio at a marginally lower environmental cost we will all hear about. Getting more wear out of clothes is a sensible idea. Geting rid of the concept of fashion and its obsession with trends and novelty is a better one.

Outside Hangar Bacocco is a temporary pavilion built out of the packing crates artworks arrive in. It will be eventually dismantled and its pieces distributed to where they can be put to use.

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The pavilion is a structure with a limited degree of utility and no small amount of artistic/architectural pretension but there is at least a plan to use it for something else afterwards. It’s a better way of doing things. Its designers understand that the best way to generate less waste is to give things a purposeful next life and prevent them from becoming waste in the first place.

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This thinking is evident at the Austrian pavilion at the 2016 Architecture Biennale.

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The first room contains piles of posters depicting refugee housing projects at three locations in Vienna. In the second room is a large display table that, after the Biennale, will be divided into three parts for re-use at those locations. There’s an exhibition website and a comprehensive exhibition newspaper.

The Austrian pavilion isn’t the only one having this it’s-not-waste strategy. The Portuguese pavilion contains hardly anything and is in a building that, after the biennale, will be repurposed (for its original purpose) as housing. The exhibition has stopped the building from being waste.  

The space is sparse, the only installations some projection screens, models of the projects shown, and plinths with handouts. Maximum effect was extracted from next to nothing, mainly due to the engaging films of Siza talking to the occupants of three of his housing projects.

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Rural Studio is the only US ‘practice’ to have be invited to exhibit at VB’16. Having never worked outside of Alabama in their twenty years, they must have been bewildered at having been invited to exhibit. They chose to show The Architectural World two things. The first was some videos of who they are, what they do and why they do it. These videos were presented in a small theatre delineated by suspended bed frames and with stacks of insulation panels as benches. The Theater of the Usefull, they called it. 

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Rural Studio used the money they’d been granted to purchase things that, after the Biennale, were to be given to the Assemblea Sociale per la Casa association that provides shelter for the homeless in the Venezia-Mestre-Marghera area. Again, this eliminates waste as a concept and also happens to do maximum good. Besides being a simple and honest thing to do, it’s consistent with the Rural Studio ethos. It’s also worth noting that, compared with some of the more high-profile set pieces, it was all done with zero freight/air miles.   

The same connection between medium and message was there in the German Pavilion I mentioned in the previous post. The visual content of the exhibition was just posters and text on the walls, supplemented by a book and a comprehensive website that’s also a database/resource of housing projects. Again, this is low-impact, low-cost, and you learn stuff. The furniture is not custom designed and made.  

The little pavilion at Hangar Barocco, Rural Studio’s Theater of the Usefull and the Austrian Pavilion at the Biennale are preventing resources from becoming waste by planning for a degree of utility for different people further down the line. This isn’t the case with Aravena’s installations. I’m curious. Didn’t Koolhaas have had a refuse management plan? Does all that stuff just lay around until someone decides to throw it away? Or did Aravena say, “no, don’t throw it away – I have a point to make”? We’re definitely being asked to reflect upon the amount of waste a bienalle generates and I most definitely am. Aravena’s just kicked the can two years down the road to when this waste might well be in our faces again as something useful. Or it might not.

Not that it matters. You can probably learn more about waste management from just walking around Venice.

  • The buildings are designed and made to last. Their life-cycle is set at Forever.
  • People and what they do fit into the buildings available.
  • New buildings are never frivolous.
  • There is none of the aesthetic churn characteristic of architectural activity elsewhere.

On a different level, every day and night enormous quantities of food and drink are produced and consumed yet all the waste just seems to magically disapppear.

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VESTA (Venezia Servizi Territoriali ed Ambientali) is a limited company of Venice Municipality and is responsible for drinking water supply, urban and industrial wastewater treatment, waste collection and treatment, public and private cleaning, management of green areas and cemeteries, and environmental reclamation work. Veritas is responsible for rubbish collection.

  • Dry waste and wet waste is placed in tightly closed bags of any kind, that can be given directly to the rubbish collector or left near the outer door of your building between the hours of 6-8 am.
  • Paper, cardboard, tetra-pak is placed into paper bags tied with string and collected on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
  • Glass, plastic and cans are placed in plastic bags marked with blue stickers and collected on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Collection, management and recycling are all good but some there are also cultural factors that work to limit the amount of waste and prevent things from becoming waste in the first place. These are things we’re currently rediscovering.

  • Footpaths in Venice have very few wastebins yet there is no litter. If people need a drink or something to eat, they sit down somewhere and order it. People don’t generate trash as they move throughout the city.
  • Restaurants purify and gasify their own water in refillable bottles.
  • Fabric tablecloths and napkins are the norm.
  • Much of what you eat will have been cooked from raw, unprocessed ingredients that have never been wrapped, packed, bottled or canned.

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Venice is of necessity a water supply and waste management hotspot. This year the city will be hosting the Water Technology and Environmental Control Exhibition & Conference September 21-23.

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Since 2006, Venice has also hosted the biennial International Symposium on Energy from Biomass and Waste.

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One hot topic is the generation of energy from lagoon agla caused by inadequate waste management in the first place. Tackling the same problem from the other end, organic waste from the many kitchens and restaurants is collected and sent to a mechanical-biological stabilisation plant at Fusina not too far away.

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What happens there you can read about here.

• • •

Further reading:

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Rocket Science

The Rocket Stove is the application of pure thought to solve a problem that affects the health and lives of about one third of the world’s population.


Smoke from cooking fires kills two million persons per year, mostly mothers and small children. Stoves and open fires are the primary means of cooking and heating for nearly three billion people. In India, some 400,000 people die each year from the toxic fumes. In Africa, 500,000 children under the age of five die from pneumonia attributable to indoor air pollution, according to the WHO. Most of these deaths are attributable to cooking indoors over a three-stone cooking fire.

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• • •

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The Aprovecho Research Center

For over 30 years, Aprovecho Research Center (ARC) consultants have been designing and implementing improved biomass cooking and heating technologies in more than 60 countries worldwide. The Center was formally established in 1976, and is dedicated to researching, developing and disseminating clean cookstove technologies for meeting the basic needs of refugees, impoverished people, and communities in the developing world. For decades, ARC has been the world’s leader in open source development of all aspects of improved cooking stoves.

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Dr. Larry Winiarski works for the Aprovecho Research Centre. He’s known as the inventor of The Rocket Stove but it’s more correct to say he identified the principles that a Rocket Stove makes use of to work as efficiently and elegantly as it does .

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  • Air flows in from the fuel intake and is pre-heated for better combustion
  • The fuel partially blocks the air intake, allowing for a better fuel/air ratio.
  • The intake air is preheated for more efficient combustion.
  • Fuel burns horizontally at the bottom of the combustion chamber. Any smoke is drawn upwards through a high temperature zone, ensuring more complete combustion.
  • More complete combustion means less smoke.

  • The stove can burn relatively green wood. Moisture near the surface of the wood turns to steam that, when it comes into contact with hot charcoal, forms CO and H2 which are both combustible. Their combustion reaction further increases the temperature of the high-temperature zone, to ensure even more complete combustion, and even less smokeDr. Winiarski explains the mechanisms of combustion and heat transfer in this paper.

“One of the first things to recognize is that solid or liquid material does not burn directly. It must be converted to gasses in order to burn. Most biomass is hydrocarbons which, when heated convert to oil and oil vapors of many different types. Some oils such as fragrances, turpentine are visible or smelled even before the biomass is heated. Green, wet wood may contain as much as its dry weight in water and, in order to burn water, must be evaporated. Up to about 1000 BTUs of energy is used to evaporate each pound of water. At sea level and atmospheric pressure, the temperature of boiling water is limited to 212 degrees fahrenheit.

“Similarly heat energy must be provided to evaporate or distill each of the hydrocarbons formed from the wood. The lighter hydrocarbons are easier to change to the gas phase, heavier hydrocarbons like creosote take more energy, however if too much fuel surface is heated and the gases cool before they can intermingle and ignite with hot air or oxygen they will condense back into a fog our cloud of oil droplets. This is the smoke we see. It is analogous to the fog or cloud that forms when water vapor condenses. Heat must re-evaporate the oil droplets before they can burn. After the many different types of oils are combusted only charcoal remains. The hot charcoal first reacts with oxygen to form gaseous carbon monoxide. Then the carbon monoxide burns with the air to make carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide is the final result of a clean burn. Smoke and carbon monoxide are wasted fuel.”

  • Twigs and other types of low-grade wood scraps not normally classed as firewood have a proportionally larger surface area to supply fuel for these reactions.
  • Low-grade scrap wood works better than high-grade firewood.

  • The horizontal burning of the wood allows for better monitoring and tending.
  • The stove can be designed to have an angled gravity feed.
  • Variations can be made to have a secondary heating “element
  • The flue can be vented through a thermal mass element that functions as a heat storage device for space heating.

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  • The stove can be made for practically nothing. 

  • You can make one yourself out of three cans.

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  • Four concrete blocks.
  • About 30 bricks.

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  • You can make a rocket-stove inspired architectural feature if you like.

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  • But, judging by the size of that air/fuel opening and the type/size/shape of fuel, it won’t function as efficiently one made of mud and using twigs for fuel.

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• • •

ashden-awards

Dr. Larry Winiarski & The Aprovecho Research Center

for having an idea for an object that’s as perfect as an object can be
and for releasing it to the world to be used wherever it brings benefit

misfits salutes you!

It’s Not Rocket Science #12: Getting Some Rays

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Socrates disapproved of that new craze for writing things down. He thought people who used reed pens and papyrus to write things down no longer made any effort to remember.

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Despite Socrates’ misgivings, Plato did manage to remember a thing or two in The Republic.

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Xenophon was another furtive note-taker. He recalls Socrates describing the perfect house.

  1. oriented towards the south to take in the sun,
  2. an overhang to block the summer but allow it in winter, and
  3. a sloping roof to protect from prevailing cold winds from the north.

SocratesZenophon

“It is pleasant to have one’s house cool in summer and warm in winter, is it not?” and this proposition also having obtained assent, “Now, supposing a house to have a southern aspect, sunshine during winter will steal in under the verandah, but in summer, when the sun traverses a path right over our heads, the roof will afford an agreeable shade, will it not? If, then, such an arrangement is desirable, the southern side of a house should be built higher to catch the rays of the winter sun, and the northern side lower to prevent the cold winds finding ingress; in a word, it is reasonable to suppose that the pleasantest and most beautiful dwelling place will be one in which the owner can at all seasons of the year find the pleasantest retreat, and stow away his goods with the greatest security.”

Thanks to Alex in Copenhagen for sending me that quote and prompting this post on receiving sufficient daylight. Thanks also to Dennis Holloway for the above image plus additional insights as he’s already written the brief history of solar design I thought I was going to. He notes that when Socrates was making the above statements circa 400BC, there was a shortage of firewood in Greece. It seems a human trait to talk about saving energy only when there looks like being less of it around.

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The firewood shortage can’t have ended because Greek houses came to be oriented with their courtyards to the south. As did courtyards in many other times and places.

We may think a sunny courtyard a pleasant place for lunch al fresco but, back then, a sunny courtyard would function better as a place for drying foodstuffs and preserve them as an early form of food security. For shelter however, a courtyard on the south side means less obstruction to low-angle sunlight hitting the windows and walls of the living spaces. The invention of courtyards was a good idea that made things better.

In early 20th century Europe, things weren’t getting better. The commodity with the largest shortage was space. The housing density was so high courtyards became light wells only without much light. (These next few images are from Karel Teige’s The Minimum Dwelling.)

Here’s a new building in Madrid 1930. It has one staircase and one elevator for 1,500 people. Five out of six apartments have no windows other than across those 3m gaps. Spatially, what’s happened is that the floor of the corridors has been partially removed to create lightwells. Grim.

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This next building was also built in 1930. It tries to get the light right, as well as space. This was a constant theme of certain architects in Europe and Russia.

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And not just there, in LA there was Richard Neutra’s Lovell House completed in 1927 just prior to the practical completion of Le Corbusier’s sunlight providing machine in Poissy.  Misfits’ man-on-the-spot in Brussels, Karel Teige, reports on the goings-on at the Third CIAM Conference with the them of “Low-, medium- or high-rise dwellings”.

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(Modernism had barely begun and Walter Gropius was shifting its emphasis away from its core goals of the quantitative provision of space and light and towards his version of “social and psychological” fulfilment. This makes Gropius the first Post Modernist.)

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Richard Neutra moved to America in 1923. Neutral was a man who saw the bigger picture and did not become a refugee like Gropius, a collaborator like Le Corbusier or,  like Mies van der Rohe, both.

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In 1920, three years after joining what was to become the Nazi party, Hitler organised its biggest ever meeting of 2,000 people. Hitler Youth was a reality in 1922, the SS in 1923. Time to leave.

I do like Teige’s summary of the 3rd CIAM and can’t help noticing how true it still is.

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Despite the jostling at the 1930 CIAM, daylight moved higher up the architectural agenda and some architects worked to ensure people had a certain amount of light where they lived. It didn’t take long for them to arrive at building solutions that provided people with sufficient light and space.

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Gropius did do some work on the heights and spacings of buildings but only to make a case for the higher buildings we wanted to design. The consistent sun altitude of 30° meant all his alternatives were equal in terms of sunlight.

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More useful was the work Hannes Meyer did for a trade school in Bernau, near Berlin. This is starting to look familiar.

Meyer Sunlight

In another post I’ve mentioned this next image which seems to be the calculations to go with a  diagram such as the one above. I don’t know of anyone else who was concerned about things like this in 1926, before CIAM and the official architectural agenda.

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Here’s another light-inspired design from the 1920s. This is one of Moisei Ginzburg’s designs for communal housing. It features multiple staircases that function as inclined light wells. Here’s the principle.

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Here’s how it worked.

These inclined light wells direct sunlight to places that would otherwise not receive any. Moreover, the cascading staircases connect everybody to the communal floors in a way that makes everyone feel directly connected all the time. These staircases are doing two important things that elevators can’t. Compared to the earlier Spanish example that partially subtracts  floors yet gives back nothing, this building makes the communal rooms additionally function as corridors and the stairs additionally function as lightwells. This is a good example of a nutritious building that does the shelter thing well. Intelligence was applied to produce new benefits from simple and uncomplicated technologies.

This new recognition of the importance of sunlight in buildings was responsible for regulations to ensure minimum quantities of sunlight depending on the type of building. The goal was to achieve a minimum quantitative standard using a minimum of resources and it was generally successful in the eastern European countries and Russia. Let’s go to Yekaterinburg where, in midwinter, it’s daylight for seven hours 9 til 4.

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Misfits’ man-in-Yekaterinburg, Victor, supplied me with the following information on the Sanytarnye Pravila i Normy (Sanitary Regulations and Norms) issued by the Russian Health Ministry. Here’s some extracts relating to sunlight in apartments. (СанПиН 2.2.1_2.1.1.1076-01)

SanPiN 2.2.1/2.1.1.1076 The following have to be met by at least one room in the apartment.

  • north of 58° N – at least 2.5 hours a day between 22nd of April and 22nd of August
  • 58°N – 48°N – at least 2 hours a day between 22nd of March and 22nd of September
  • south of 48°N – at least 1.5 hours a day between 22nd of February and 22nd of October.

SanPiN 3.1 Insolation requirements must be met by at least 1 room of 1 to 3-room apartments, and at least 2 rooms of 4 or more-room apartments.

SanPiN 3.3 Interrupted insolation is acceptable but if the span of any period of interruption is over 1 hour, the summary insolation must be increased by 0.5 hours.

I like how balconies and overhangs are factored in.

Here’s an article highlighting the current state of those Russian San-Pin regulations. The gist is that such strict control over the quantity of sunlight is no longer needed for the purpose of preventing tuberculosis. The author asks, “Why is it that only one of the rooms should have sunlight, and then only in summer?”  The author notes that quantity of sunlight is no longer a health issue but an issue of quality that does not need to be enforced by health regulations. Even in googletranslish the meaning is clear.

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Insolation has long ceased to be sanitary requirements, becoming a qualitative characteristic property. A qualitative characteristics should not be regulated SanPin and technical regulations, it is not a security setting. In fact, the degree of illumination apartments only affects its price – if it is dark, it is a reason to ask for a big discount on the sale. And normalized insolation in buildings under construction does not make sense: if the developer wants to make due to the higher density, it will inevitably lose in the price of real estate. So it’s just a matter of agreement the seller and buyer, the issue price and quality, there is still a question of honesty of the seller and buyer awareness of what he buys.

This is true, but housing undersupply also tends to make landlords adopt a “take it or leave it” approach, giving potential residents little or no power to negotiate lower prices. Undersupply also results in extreme buildings such as the Spanish example or Kowloon’s walled city (mentioned on ArchDaily in 2013) that was only demolished in 1994. Greg Girard‘s site has some excellent photographs of what architects now know as slum porn.

The market approach however, is generally what we have. The reason why ratings systems such as LEED include standards for building daylighting is to change the way buildings are built yes but also to increase the value of buildings.

  1. It’s not about the people because the standards relating to daylight provision can be satisfied just as easily by making the rooms smaller.
  2. And it’s not about the planet because those standards can be satisfied equally well by expensive means or inexpensive means.

Expensive vanity buildings built for no great purpose seem to regularly achieve LEED Platinum. At first it seems ironic that a building should become more “green” the more money that’s thrown at them but, if the objective of building rating systems is to increase building value, then a high rating accurately indicates a high-value building. It all depends on one’s definition of value.

There’s no incentive to use inexpensive materials and resources or simple and readily available technologies. The danger here is that people might lose the incentive to provide quantitative light through inexpensive means. Why make the effort if the system is against you? Instead, they might choose to satisfy requirements using whatever means are most cost-efficient, despite their cost. People might even stop trying to achieve the quantitative supply of light and instead work towards achieving “qualitative” supply of light because it adds more value. If that happens, we will be heading for another dark age.

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a non-compliant habitable room

It’s Not Rocket Science #11: Keeping the Water Out

Back in February 2013 I wrote about the ancient Persian yakchal buildings for making ice in winter and storing it until summer.

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These buildings used a combination of night sky radiant cooing in conjunction with the thermal mass and insulating properties of mud brick. I wrote

Insulation: The walls of the dome were at least two metres thick at the base, and made of mud brick coated with a special waterproofing mortar composed of sand, clay, egg whites, lime, goat hair, and ash. This render had excellent insulating properties. I can’t find any information for how the optimum ingredients or mix for the mortar were discovered. I can imagine the goat hair may have functioned like the glass fibres do in fibreglass, but what properties do the egg whites add to the render? And how did anyone know they had those properties? 

Erica [Ritter] Wisner tracked me down and kindly explained what’s going on. It’s more fascinating than I’d imagined.

I suggest an answer in two parts:

Protein gels and starch gels are among the general categories of materials known to be compatible with clay-based plaster mixtures. Bodily fluids of all kinds have been used as paint fixatives and binders since the stone age; traces of blood, saliva, urine, egg, milk, etc. have been found in ancient petroglyphs and cave art. Vegetable materials like cactus juices/gels, wheat paste, and oils are also used.These binders are still used for natural paints, some more than others, and also can be added to finish plasters to make them more durable or more compatible with a given paint.  

For clay-based plaster work, these materials act as improved binders, adding hardness and resistance to erosion (and sometimes also for glossier finishes). Proteins and starch gels can be used in larger proportions than oils, without disrupting the clay-based bonds which makes an earthen plaster work. Clay swells with moisture to seal out further erosive moisture incursion; using too much oil (or mixing with too much Portland cement) reduces this self-sealing property, while the natural gel-type materials can work in tandem with the clay in a similar way. This wet-condition self-sealing prevents water erosion, yet allows breathability and release of moisture in dry conditions.

It’s not hard to see why the plaster for the ice domes should be extra erosion resistant.  Most desert climates are subject to the occasional storm deluge. The cold of the ice could also cause increased moisture condensation, and possibly (in combination with night-time cooling) lead to frost damage. The process you suggested of covering with straw would also call for a durable finish plaster.
Eggs are definitely in this category, one of the higher-performing additives for hardening natural paints and plasters. They are expensive but highly effective. 

But why egg whites particularly?

Egg whites are one of those things that get left over when someone is using egg yolks elsewhere. Egg yolk is an emulsifier, contains richer-tasting oils, and in general has more food value than egg whites. Egg yolks are used as an emulsifier and binder in natural paints, most famously the Italian frescos. Egg white is a protein gel. Its ability to hold a froth suggests relatively tough long-chain molecules such as are also found in glutinous flour and plastic polymers. 

Its very dearth of nutritive value might be a plus for structural uses, since it would not be as “tasty” to vermin as the whole egg. You would be in a better position than I am to verify whether the Persians used large quantities of egg yolk in paints, desserts, or other artisan or culinary uses, but I would not be surprised. There are just not that many natural emulsifiers that are as easily identified and produced. 

This I did. There’s a kind of Persian quiche that’s fairly popular but this next dish is also good candidate for producing a surfeit of egg whites.

Chelow kabab or Chelo kabab (Persian: چلوکباب‎) is the national dish of Iran. The meal is simple, consisting of steamed, saffroned basmati or Persian rice (چلو chelow) and kabab, of which there are several distinct Persian varieties. It is an old north-western tradition that a raw egg yolk be placed on top of the rice.
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Erica also provided a conjectural history for the origins of yakhchal.

You are an ancient Persian entrepreneur, working on a building design that basically makes its own weather. You run into plaster/mortar performance problems, and after a few experiments, you call on a local master plaster-and-paint artist for help with the formulation of a high-performing plaster. He might be recommended by your patrons because his family did the excellent and durable plaster work on a favorite folly, or an artist of good reputation who also does decorative fresco, faux-painting, mural, and sculptural plaster. As a master tradesman, one would expect him already to know a number of excellent plaster formulae for both indoor and outdoor work. He would know the value, use, and price of performance-enhancing additives. He might even be in the position to personally procure significant quantities of egg whites at the right price, after using the egg yolks in mural or fresco projects for other high-end clients.

I haven’t found any examples of ancient Persian frescoes but the frescoes in the Baptistry of the Dura-Europa Church in Syria are probably the oldest Christian paintings in existence, dating as they do from sometime between 233 and 256AD. Here’s Christ walking on water.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe nearby Dura-Europaos Synagogue also dates from 250AD but its paintings were painted onto dry plaster and so technically aren’t frescoes.

Goat hair (or any animal hair) is a very common ingredient in both lime and clay-based plasters. The cheaper clay-based plasters often use straw or dung for the cellulose-type fiber, but animal hair lasts longer, is finer to work with, and makes it easier to get a solid, erosion-resistant, crack-free surface with plenty of fiber and binder. Any of the materials you mentioned would be stock-in-trade for a master craftsman in an era where natural plasters were state of the art.

Erica also mentioned anecdotal suggestions that the civilizations of the Middle East used blood to strengthen mortars (the Western sailors’ rumors being that it was slaves’ blood). There remains a high-end Spanish technique for earthen floor finishing using bulls’ blood, freshly slaughtered onto the floor.

I don’t have a Spanish example, but traces of blood were found in this clay floor from mid-18th century Montpelier. Here’s the floor, reconstructed.

clay_floor_dm_jpg_42010-60 In countries with a history of the ritual slaughter of animals, it’s easy to imagine how blood would be used to waterproof clay floors. As a general rule, if your dishwasher or washing machine struggle to remove it, then it’s probably a good candidate for a natural binder for a paint or plaster. 

So much for clay-based plasters and renders. Tadelakt (a transliteration of the Arabic “تدلاكت”, meaning “massaged”or “rubbed”) is a traditional Moroccan waterproof surface created by polishing a lime-based plaster with a stone and then rubbing it olive oil soap into it. The olive oil soap provides oleic acid which, I learn, is “a fatty acid that occurs naturally in various animal and vegetable fats and oils.” Making tadelakt is very labour intensive and time consuming.

Tadelakt-ouarzazate-morocco-1 This example is probably synthetic tadelakt as it looks rather high-end with those recessed halogens. We’ve know the look of tadelakt even if we’ve never seen the real thing.

Les Grands Bains du Monêtier, le hammam Another reason for tadelakt substitutes is that the real thing is made from tadelakt lime washed downstream from the Marrakech Plateau. Over at realfinishes, Patrick Webb writes

The limestone is argillaceous, meaning it contains a relatively high percentage of clay. Also, there is a small infiltration of amorphous silica making Tadelakt lime slightly hydraulic. Combining its natural properties with traditional application methods, Tadelakt’s waterproofing qualities were subsequently put to decorative use in exterior façades, small drinking vessels and famously the “hammams” or public bath houses.

moroccan.plasterer writes of the medluk of Fez, quoting David Amster’s site A House in Fez,

“…the outer walls of houses were finished with medluk, made of extremely fine sand, lime (jeer), egg white, and sabon beldi (traditional soft soap made from olive by-products). Medluk develops a beautiful marbled effect over time. Simple geometric patterns are sometimes pressed or carved into the medluk. In Marrakech this mixture is called tadlakt, which is slightly finer and shinier due to the difference in the sand and lime from the two cities.

These fine regional distinctions and different names for the same substance or technique are typical of vernacular. Erica suggested there might be some similarly fortuitous geology upstream to account for the Yemeni people’s many ways with render.

11yemen-span-articleLarge-v3I wonder about that waterproofing material derived from river sediment. Is it because of the size of particles, the sifting action of the river? Something the water deposits along with the minerals that makes it work better, like a hard water or algae coating on the silt particles?  I wouldn’t be surprised. I returned to Salma Samar Damluji’s The Architecture of Yemen – my only reference.

51IA7URwmvL._SY300_The transliterations of the various names in Arabic below probably barely approximate the regional Yemeni Arabic but it’s not going to matter. All I want to show is the detail, the many classifications and the regionality of the thing named, and a glimpse of the general knowledge, built up over centuries, of the properties of local materials. The builders may not know why sand taken from a certain river at a certain time has those properties but they’ve learned how to make good use of them.

  • khulb: the general term for mud coating but the quality depends upon the type of turab (earth or clay) and the place of its extraction.
  • khulbah: a mixture of earth and water used for plastering the exterior of a flat roof. Inside, khulbah is mixed from soft or ‘light’ mud with water and used for plastering or finishing the walls.
  • tibil: the chopped straw, hay or chaff mixed with clay to make mud bricks
  • haddah: soft stalks of the tamarind tree mixed with clay to make mud bricks
  • mahdah: mud plastering carried out in the kitchen and living room during the month of Sha’ban.
    • In the area of Ghayl Ba Wazir, the mud is extracted from the saylah flood course silt that is fine and viscid.
    • In Yafi, a white-coloured earth from mountains called quri is known to give the best results. It is strengthened with wheat, chaff or animal dung.
  • qiddah: used for damp proofing. It is made by quarrying stone, cutting it into small pieces, firing it over wood and then burying it until it turns to a fine powder which is then mixed with water and small pebbles.
  • qatat: a grey-blue coloured clay extracted from the bed of Ghayl Habban in the area of Ghurayr and mixed with fine bullrushes to make a damp-proof course.
  • nays: sea sand
  • ruwaynah: fine red sea sand with soft grain
  • kafi nafsahu:  sea sand with medium-sized grains that doesn’t require mixing with any other kind of sand
  • nurah: a refined lime whitewash and plaster used as a damp-proof course. In some places, nurah is used internally and polished with a stone as with Moroccan tadelakt. After burning, nurah is pounded and left to soak and “ferment” before being beaten to a creamy paste.

nurah is generally preferred by master builders as it takes other plasters and renders better than cement, is malleable for longer, ages well without losing its shape and hardens over time. The downside is it takes much longer to dry. Small sections of wall have to be left for maybe as much as two months. This means a house rendered in nurah takes three years to build whereas one using cement render takes only one year. The general trend is for cement-based mortars and renders to replace traditional renders.

It is a similar story with paints. The Buqshun Palance is the major building in Khalyah. It was overpainted with oil-based “emulsion” rather than rendered with time-consuming nurah and its inherently softer pastels.

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BUGSHAN KHAILA PALACE, WADI DOAN, YEMEN
This is the fate of the vernacular. The same process that led people to use one type of sand taken from a particular river at a particular time to produce a building more suited to immediate but largely unchanging circumstances, is the same process that leads people to eschew it in favour of another product with obvious advantages for circumstances newly immediate. We do it all the time and call it progress but, if cement render, oil-based paint and, for that matter, parametric rainscreens were to disappear from the face of the earth tomorrow, there’d still be some people who could make good use of what’s at hand to keep the water out.
• • •

It’s Not Rocket Science #9: Natural Ventilation

Dhaka, Bangladesh is at 24.5°N, near the Tropic of Cancer. Its has 60 inches of rain, mostly in the hot and humid summer. Wind is mostly from the south-east.

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Wind speed is higher in summer.

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It’s no surprise then, that apartments are designed for natural ventilation, and for maximum cross ventilation for bedrooms.

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  • Typically, there are one, two or four apartments off of a single stair and elevator.
  • Apartments usually have windows on three sides which means the stair and landings can be naturally ventilated.
  • Additional ventilation on the fourth side is often provided via the open corridor.
  • All kitchens and all bathrooms are located on external walls, and have windows. This is the largest difference with a “western” apartment plan that would place them on access corridors walls in order to maximise daylight. Oh OK, “view (= $)”.
  • The walls of these service spaces also act as a thermal buffer.
  • Bedrooms are located on the outer corners where cross-ventilation is best. This means the living room gets positioned close to the entrance, with the dining area in the middle of the apartment. These spaces are neither dark nor stuffy, but sunlight and view is not a priority.

If the point is to have a good night’s sleep in such a climate and without the use of air conditioning, then there’s a lot that’s right about these apartment plans. The downside is that there is often little distance between living room (and sometimes bedroom) windows of neighbouring apartments.

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Here’s a plan by noted Bangladeshi architect Rafiq Azam of Shattoto architects. The principles can still be seen there as the plan hasn’t been completely Westernised.

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It’s for a project called Alif Breeze that’s been getting a bit of media attention. And rightly so – it does all the good stuff. 

Here’s a maxim I just invented: “Behind every successful architect there’s either a successful client or a successful property developer.” Here’s Shattoto’s S.A. House on Archdaily. It looks nice enough, and comes with all the right words.

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I much prefer Shatotto’s South Water Caress, again on ArchDaily. Again, it’s doing all the right things. I wouldn’t overestimate the evaporative cooling effect of those signature pools but they at least give the impression of coolth to the people who look at them. Including us. (Although it’s not the done thing in many countries, I wouldn’t underestimate the evaporative cooling effect of hanging laundry outside one’s windows.)

Exposed concrete frame with brick infill is a nice and inexpensive way to build – especially when you don’t have to worry about thermal bridging. Rafiq Azam would qualify as a misfit were it not for the fact that these techniques are standard practice – a type of modern vernacular, as it were. At least they are for the property developers, the strategically-named South Breeze Housing. Look through their projects and you’ll find Alif Breeze and South Water Caress. Many of their other projects feature the same principles of construction and layout. This tells us that there is a market for apartments that are comfortable to live in.

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You’ll also see Shatotto’s South Water Garden which also does all the right things. It’s probably no fault of the architects that we (and everybody else) can see evaporative air conditioning units for the master bedrooms. The noise of these units will probably force people nearby to do the same. And that will be the beginning of the end of these comfortable and low-energy apartment layouts.

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Green Computing and the Smart Shed

It’s been said before. The microprocessor is not trying to look beautiful.

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BECAUSE OF THIS, microprocessors have had the exponential performance increases Moore’s Law describes.

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Computer scientists are now conceiving of exascale computing systems capable of at least one exaflops which is one thousand petaflops or one quintillion (1,000,000,000,000,000,000) floating point operations per second. One of the largest challenges they face concerns power consumption. Here’s a link to a paper discussing this – it’s interesting. Green computing aims to develop

NEW ARCHITECTURES

that reduce power consumption whilst still delivering high performance. This is a NOBLE ENDEAVOUR.

Freedom from the constraints of visual aesthetics has already enabled phenomenal increases in microprocessor performance. Further increases will be made but those increases will have little meaning unless it is cost-effective and energy-efficient.
COST-EFFECTIVESS IS BECOMING PART OF THE DEFINITION OF PERFORMANCE.

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The Green 500 list ranks supercomputers according to flops/watt. The list was begun in 2005 to increase awareness of other specifications that included performance per watt. It soon became apparent that computers with better performance were not very energy efficient. The 2012 list was different, with the IBM Blue Gene/Q at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory being top for both performance and the Green 500. Here’s the IBM BlueGene/Q. 

IBM_Blue_Gene_P_supercomputer

It only took seven years for cost-effectiveness to become an integral part of computing performance. 

Let’s have a look at the buildings that house these data and computing centres because they are a new building type that, like railway stations then and space stations now, we have no preconceived notions about what they should look like.

Mare Nostrum is the name of the supercomputer at the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre located inside the converted Torre Girona chapel. [Some more pics here, courtesy of darkroastedblend.]

barcelona supercomputing centre

The computer hasn’t been squeezed inside. Here’s a cable run.

BARCELONA SUPERCOMPUTING CENTER

Some of the work at the Barcelona Computing Centre involves the use of ARM architecture to realise high-performance computing systems with low energy requirements.

ARM

It’s good to see a disused building being reused. I imagine the new function required an additional layer of entrance and it’s good to see that added in a matter of fact way that, incidentally, tells us we’re probably not entering a chapel. I’ll leave it to other bloggers to wow over the function shift and try to work out what it could possibly mean with phrases such as “expressing our ‘reverence’ for the new”. It’s a re-used building. Get over it.

torre girona

Albert France-Lanord Architects produced this next 2013 proposal that combines a data centre and performance space inside a converted building. We don’t know why. It was a proposal. 

This next project, also by Albert France-Lanord Architects and was completed in 2008. It’s housed in a converted nuclear shelter 30m beneath Stockholm. There’s more on the project here. It’s not hard to find.

I like the idea of reusing a disused nuclear shelter but the Bahnhof data centre is trying to be something we think it ought to be and this, to my mind, makes it seem slightly desperate. An image is being imposed upon something that as yet has no image or even a need of one – although I admit that that image has a commercial function in attracting customers (of which, btw, Wikileaks is one). 

bahnhof

Guess what? Here’s an image of the NSA’s Fort Meade data centre [“Hello!”] from a March 2012 Forbes article. It’s a shed.

fortmeadeI can’t find any images of the interior. [“May I have some please?”] But let’s get technical. ITConstruct tells me that your average data centre requires the following.

  • UPS (that’s Uniterruptible Power Supply, to us)
  • DC and AC Power Systems
  • Standby Generators
  • Air Conditioning and Humidification Systems
  • Smoke Detection and Fire Suppression Systems
  • Leak Detection Systems
  • Raised Access Flooring
  • Suspended Ceilings
  • Transformers and HV Power Systems
  • Access Control and Security Systems
  • Racking Systems
  • Data Cabling and Infrastructure
  • Power Management
  • Building Management Systems (BMS)
  • Environmental Monitoring Systems

Many of these items concern power supply because what a data centre can do to reduce its power costs is important because these are the costs that will be passed on to their customers. Reusing old buildings that have thick masonry walls and small, few or zero window openings will have advantages for this. That reused chapel doesn’t seem so whimsical now. Here’s another image of the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre.

barcelona supercomputing centre

See how there is a separately air-conditioned space inside the building? And that it has double doors? Even the underground data centre had separately air-conditioned spaces for people and computers. Separating the two volumes and their air conditioning requirements means that the a/c systems can be respectively optimised, with advantages for reducing total power consumption. If this can’t be done, then reducing the air conditionable volume is also good. Remember that low ceiling for the BlueGene/Q, above? This is probably not the way to do it. It’s a data centre in the Middle East. This is called ‘free air’ cooling.

data-centre-efficiency

It’s called that because the air moves freely around the data racks whilst being drawn vertically across them.

hotaislecoldaisle

The gaps at the ends of the aisled can be completely enclosed for greater efficiency. Stultz are good at solutions of this type.

stulz_en

The goal is to make each rack its own contained system, so that the volume of air to be cooled is minimised. Cooling can be targeted even more with arrangements such as the self-contained Chatsworth Towers that take cooling air from bottom to top without the air touching the rest of the air in the data centre.

chatsowrth tower

Those computer rooms in data centres always look a bit cold. They’re not. In certain climates, running your data centre at a higher temperature might mean you can use free air cooling without targeted CRAC (Computer Room A/C) units. For example, if you choose to run your data centre at 86°F (30°C), an external air temperature of lower than 77°F (25°C) might be cool enough to require no additional cooling – as long as moisture levels remain within required limits. ITWatchdogs.com recommend keeping the temperature between 68 – 71°F, with 50° and 82° being the extremes. Here’s another way of doing it. It’s a smart shed.

This next image is of the NSA’s Utah Data Centre. It’s a shed too.

ap132411996867

One Fox News report says as much as 5 zettabytes — 1 zettabyte = 1 billion terabytes = 1 trillion gigabytes — and with just 1 zettabyte (1024 exabytes) of space, the NSA can store a year’s worth of the global Internet traffic (which is estimated reached 966 exabytes per year in 2015).

Supporting facilities include water treatment facilities, chiller plant, power substations, vehicle inspection facility, visitor control center, and sixty diesel-fueled emergency standby generators and fuel facility for a 3-day 100% power backup capability. The chiller plant will keep the souped-up system from overheating. Here’s a close-up of those chillers!

NSA chillersA lot of energy is being spent in keeping everything cool. Was Utah really the best choice of location? Here’s some weather data for Salt Lake City 25 miles to the north.

salt lake city weather

It’s actually fairly mild. These aspects of its energy performance are far more interesting than pondering what would be the best way to architecturally represent our new and excitingly modern world of the globally interconnectedness of communications. It’s the least of our problems. Having said that, this lamely swooshy entrance just doesn’t seem to do justice to this building and its cutting edginess. I’m sure Patrik Schumacher would agree. In his own way.  

NSA architecture

Nevertheless, the energy performance of data centres is an issue and, because it affects the commercial attractiveness of data centres, is receiving attention. What we can say is:

The data centre is not trying to look beautiful – it has more important things to think about. Data centre is a new building type. We have no idea what they should look like. And nor do we care. It is the least of our problems.

Looks are not high on the scale of priorities of data centre operators. You can usually tell when you’re looking at a data centre. This is Apple’s iCloud data centre in Maiden, North Carolina. Notice that it doesn’t look like a cloud.

iCloud data center

This is a Facebook data centre in Forest City, North Carolina. (I smell economic incentives!)

Facebook-to-Build-a-Second-450-Million-Data-Center-2Here’s an Amazon data centre in Virginia.

amazon data centre, virginia

Here’s a Microsoft data centre in Dublin.

microsoft-data-center-dublin-ireland-640x424

People, listen! Our world is being reshaped by these buildings, not by shopping malls, culture centres and opera houses – as architects might like to have us believe. Functional connectivity and function fields are just quaint ideas from the past. Finding new architectural representations for “can you bring me that file please, Miss Jones?” or “come over here and look, feel and buy this!” are concepts as outdated as Miss Jones bringing it or feeling something before you buy it. Complex architecture is said to be needed to represent this new and complex world we live in, but that’s clearly a lie. THESE are the buildings that are making our world new and complex and, as you can see, they don’t care what you think of them. I wouldn’t trust them even if they did. These buildings are the new vernacular of our times. Everything else is just representational retro. 

Some people like to keep up with these new developments in architecture.
searchdatacenter.com will get you up to speed on data centre design and construction, energy efficiency, etc. In fact, here’s a handy link to the pdf brochure, Energy Essentials: Rethinking Power and Cooling for the Modern Data Centre

This is Google’s 2009 data centre in The Dalles, Oregon. Take a good look. It’s not the shape of your future. It’s the shape of your now. 

google_data_center_the_dalles

Dave here, finds a performance beauty in neat cabling.

dave

Others just want to know what the future might be like. Here’s a schematic included as part of patent for a floating data centre.

google floating data centre patent

The patent was filed by Google in 2003 and awarded in 2007. Although I can’t find any images, Google is said to have built an offshore data centre as early as 2005, based on this patent.

A system includes a floating platform-mounted computer data center comprising a plurality of computing units, a sea-based electrical generator in electrical connection with the plurality of computing units, and one or more sea-water cooling units for providing cooling to the plurality of computing units. 

So here, in two years, we have a workable solution to the problems of how to cool and power data centres and, as spin-off benefits, with none of the property costs or taxes that are, by their very nature, associated with buildings.

  • The problem of high performance and energy-efficient computing was solved in seven years. Such advances are possible because microprocessor architecture is not trying to look beautiful.
  • The problem of how to build and operate an energy efficient data centre was formulated and solved within two decades. Such advances are possible because data centre architecture is not trying to look beautiful.

There’s only one conclusion.

It becomes easier to have real and significant improvements in energy performance when we are unconcerned with what something looks like.

Oil_platform_P-51_Brazil

[cheers Ben]

After ducks and decorated sheds come smart sheds.