Long before I was a builder, I was fascinated by space. In fact, my first career goal was to become an astronaut. To help me get there, as a middle schooler I was fortunate to attend Space Camp in Huntsville, Ala. – and I still have my flight suit! I commanded a simulator mission in which we had to land in an Iowa cornfield, but like that flight, my space career soon drifted off target. Instead, I’ve put my technical knowledge to use in solving the challenges involved with creating buildings, especially how to enable them to have less impact on the environment. But I never fully let go of the dream of putting on that flight suit again.
Space has long been a fascination of mine: here’s my Space Camp flight suit from middle school.
With my background and interests, I was surprised and delighted to recently receive an email inviting me to present about sustainability and resiliency at a joint NASA/European Space Agency conference. The worlds of space travel and construction don’t often mix, except for highly specialized work. But I submitted an abstract, which was accepted, and not too long ago I was before a crowd of engineers and administrators at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. I had 25 minutes to share some thoughts to help NASA improve the resiliency of its ground infrastructure against the looming impacts of climate change.
I focused on the idea of advancing systems from being redundant to restorative. Redundancy involves layering on duplicate layers of capacity or protection in case the primary system fails to work, or is overloaded. Think of a back-up generator. Having extra layers is often quite costly, and the additional capacity may be rarely – if ever – used.
Space station as model?
But rather than redundant, what if we focused on creating systems that were resilient: able to flex and withstand stresses without breaking. With buildings, that means facilities that depend on natural systems and strategies, instead of more layers of energy and technology. For instance, in nature things are self-sufficient. A technological equivalent of that is a cogeneration plant, a highly efficient machine that uses natural gas – albeit from off-site – to produce electricity, and it takes what otherwise would be waste heat and uses that to produce hot water or steam for heating buildings. During Hurricane Sandy in New York City, on-site co-generation enabled New York University to heat and power its campus, as natural gas lines remained intact. For true on-site, emission-free power, photovoltaics are a compelling solution, but their use is limited by site area, weather and, of course, darkness.
The International Space Station offers lessons in resiliency from which buildings on Earth might benefit. (Photo credit: NASA)
Maybe the International Space Station will show us how to combine both of these systems in buildings: The space station uses photovoltaics to create electricity and to drive an electrolysis process that splits water into hydrogen (fuel) and oxygen (air), a space version of cogeneration and a biomimicry of the process on Earth that we call photosynthesis.
But I believe the best way to be resilient is not through individual buildings, but rather groups of buildings. Collections of buildings known as eco-districts help reduce resource consumption because water, waste, energy and transportation systems can be optimized, each at the appropriate scale. Studies have shown that for every five or so office buildings running off of a district energy plant, there’s typically enough efficiency gain to also power a sixth one without added capacity. This neighborhood-scale consolidation also reduces the dependency on the single, regional systems most communities use.
Benefiting the surroundings
Beyond redundant and resilient you have restorative, which is having a building or system that actually benefits its surroundings. That was the aim of Skanska and our partners in creating Powerhouse Kjorbo, an office building near Oslo, Norway, that will produce more energy over its life cycle than it uses. Photovolatic panels on the roof, geothermal heating and cooling, and a well-sealed and highly insulated building structure – combined with very efficient integrated systems for heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting – all transform what could be an energy-guzzling office building into a supplier of pure and renewable energy. It’s also a beautiful place to work, even if you are above the Arctic Circle.
Transforming from redundant to restorative is a big step – no matter if you’re dealing with buildings or space program infrastructure. Being at this conference reminded me of all the advances that the space program has brought to our everyday lives. It gives me hope that the very organization that has a mission of going to other planets is working together with all of us Earthlings to preserve this one.