FIXING CONCRETE:  URBAN EDEN PROJECT

Over the past 10 years as climate change has continued to rear its progressively uglier head, my focus has turned more toward its mitigation as a design challenge. In terms of the built environment, concrete is center stage. On the one hand, it is responsible for a huge percentage of our collective carbon footprint, on the other it has great potential to save energy as part of an intelligently conceived building envelope. Concrete is, after all, a traditional material with thousands of years of history. It is hygroscopic and massive like the lion’s share of the systems I had been studying for years. While I was a graduate student at UNC Charlotte, we designed and built a project that I consider a step in the direction of “fixing concrete”. We applied research being done on campus to use a new kind of concrete, geopolymer cement concrete, that represented a massive reduction in carbon footprint in a high performance envelope of our own design. The project was UNCC’s entry in the 2013 Solar Decathlon which required it be a small, completely solar-powered house. We conceived it as an urban infill project for Charlotte and wanted to create a building that claimed its own private outdoors. We did this by essentially combining indoor and outdoor rooms into a single living environment. To read my more extensive architectural description, go here.

UrbanEden promo video
UrbanEden context interviews
WHY?
I grew up in the intense heat of Central Texas where everything living is in a constant search for shade. Whether a cow under a tree or a dog under a porch, the rationale was consistent and obvious. This logic was carried through by us humans in the older neighborhoods where houses with large front and screened back sleeping porches were nestled under the spreading canopies of oak trees clearly older than the houses themselves. This changed. Maybe it was the arrival of air conditioning and the money to be made by replacing trees with more houses. Whatever the reason, newer neighborhoods were treeless and porchless and HOT. The contrast was stark and unequivocal. The newer neighborhoods (tellingly relabeled “developments”) locked in a dependence on fuel driven, breakable mechanical systems and set a hefty baseline energy usage. They also defined two completely distinct environments, with the inside becoming a sort of prison of comfort discouraging inhabitants from venturing outside as part of their daily home life.  The older neighborhoods, on the other hand, used passive strategies (trees, overhangs) to adjust the microclimate around the buildings toward the human comfort zone, lowering cooling loads and therefore baseline energy demand while creating a “third environment” around the house that encouraged a lifestyle that included being outside.. I didn’t realize it then, but this was my first lesson in passive design and it set the tone for my future work in sustainable design. Though I see mitigating climate change as a central macro-rationale for my work, I believe that the sensible path to efficiency leads to a better, healthier lifestyle. Over the years I’ve gotten deeper into science of building envelopes and increased the scale and scope of the projects and materials that interest me, however the throughline in my research has remained constant and can be described by the motto: passive first, then active.
WHAT?
I conduct research into materials, assemblies, and systems in the context of building envelopes. I am particularly interested in high performance assemblies and how to configure them so that they interact with site conditions to minimize heating and cooling loading while maximizing durability. My associated research life has comprised essentially three phases: (1) site harvested and waste materials modeled on traditional hygroscopic systems; (2) mass produced materials and assemblies that increase functionality within the existing construction industry while maintaining certain benefits of traditional systems; and (3) concrete technologies, specifically with the goal of improving concrete’s carbon footprint and maximizing its thermal performance potential in building envelopes.
HOW?
How? I generally try to connect all research I do to a design project and connected publication. Sometimes this cycle has been very personal. For example when I lived in a two room mountain log cabin for three years and took a self-directed course in homesteading. Most often it has been tied to residential design and publication projects. As my interests have moved toward the larger scale and industrial, I have moved into a traditional academic lab research and journal/conference publication paradigm.