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Exploration Architecture Exploration Architecture

Exploration Architecture

by Cliff Kuang
June 19, 2009

Michael Pawlyn's pioneering designs mimic nature's closed-loop systems to help us thrive in extreme resource scarcity.

Most "green building" solutions are actually obvious: extremely good insulation, smart ways to use natural ventilation, and, perhaps, ways to reduce water use or recycle water. If you want to get fancy with it, throw in a solar panel or two; add on a couple of smart energy meters.But what's next? What's the future of green, after we address those basics outlined above?The architect Michael Pawlyn has created some of the world's most intriguing answers.Pawlyn spent 10 years at Grimshaw, one of the country's largest architecture firms, helping lead its sustainability efforts. In 2007, he founded his own firm, Exploration Architecture, dedicated to one single idea: to create buildings that mimic biological processes. Rather than being lone structures that suck resources from the grid, they're embedded in closed loops of resource management.Perhaps the best example: Pawlyn, working alongside inventor Charlie Paton and engineer Bill Watts, recognized that by joining two cutting-edge technologies they could create a facility that would bring water and arable land to the Sahara Desert. The so-called Sahara Forest Project, which Pawlyn has been developing for the last few years, would be powered by a concentrated solar power plant. There, a field of mirrors concentrates the sun's rays into high-intensity light that's then used to generate steam, which in turn powers an electricity-generating turbine.That's where things get exciting.Some of that electricity generated would be used to power a Seawater Greenhouse, which Paton invented. The electricity would be used to pump cold seawater inland, to the greenhouse. There, fresh air passes over tubes housing that seawater; the interaction condenses fresh water from the air, which can then be used to grow biofuels and rehabilitate the surrounding desert.It's not ridiculous, not at all. The Seawater Greenhouse already exists, and it generates five times more fresh water than required by the plants inside. Meanwhile, concentrated solar plants are going up across the world, and they're twice as efficient as photovoltaics. But the ingenuity lies in realizing that by lashing these technologies together, we create something close to a "free lunch": clean electricity and clean water, through a self-sustaining processes. That basic idea should sound familiar; closed-loop interdependence is the bedrock of the natural world."I first came across closed-loop systems as a teenager studying biology in school," writes Pawlyn over e-mail. "It seemed so elegant, but far removed from the workings of manmade systems. Twenty years later, I started to realize that mimicking the remarkable efficiencies of ecosystems was possible." He insists that the economics make sense. He points out that mainstream economists have consistently been wrong about the environment-for a long time, they dismissed the idea that ecosystems had economic value, although they clearly do. (Just witness the wreckage left by Katrina, which would have been been lessened if the Mississippi River's wetlands hadn't been decimated.) If the true carbon cost of buildings were factored into their budgeting, green buildings would become common sense.The change that really needs to be wrought, argues Pawlyn, is in the timescale over which we make decisions about our building: "Many are now realizing that, by taking a longer term view, it is possible to create buildings, communities, and businesses that are better for people, profit, and the planet."Watch video of Pawlyn explaining the Sahara project:
Top image courtesy Exploration Architecture.
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