Friday, June 26, 2009

Some Sustainable Musings (of my former architectural career)

I worked as an architect/designer for some large and well-known firms in NYC (Gruzen & Partners and Davis Brody & Associates) and Rome (The Architects’ Collaborative TAC), and worked on some large and complex projects, on most of which I was the head designer. I won an interoffice competition at Gruzen to design for a limited competition for the US Pavilion at the 1967 Expo at Montreal. The program was strange as they stated that it had to be able to display anything from a microscopic computer chip to a Titan rocket 150 feet tall. I created a transparent/translucent cube of steel tension elements (that predated the Pompidou Center in Paris) with various kinds of glass and fiberglass infill panels, an open courtyard in the center where larger objects could be displayed, and a unique crowd control device where people would feed into channels sloping underground, into huge elevators with multi-media displays on all four walls, up to the top of the building and then they would circulate in spiral patterns down and out. It was a great success and won the jurors’ vote but subsequently failed as the head of our firm was caught trying to “buy” one of the judges before the fact.

After working in Rome for TAC and working on the Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (which I didn’t design and is a bit 60s-ish), I came back and worked for Davis Brody on the South Street Seaport master plan and a proposal for a sixty-floor tower to be called the Atlas Building. Being young and questing and not liking contemporary International Style buildings much at the time, I wanted to completely review how skyscrapers were thought through, especially environmentally. One major idea I worked with was to utilize the elevator shafts as ventilation ducts (I think that there were something like 40 elevators in four banks, and they took up a huge amount of the space), so that they would in effect utilize convection currents to cool and building in summer by pumping the warm/hot air from below up and out, and in winter would use geothermal heat from the bedrock of Manhattan to warm the ambient temperature. Needless to say, this idea was dismissed as being way too elaborate.

The second and even better idea involved the skin/fa├žade of a skyscraper. While at work on the Atlas building, a salesman came who represented a company that made the very thin and strong skins for the lunar landing modules and space vehicles for NASA. They were a special fiberglass a few millimeters thick that were amazingly strong, tensile and, in their natural state, translucent to the point of being almost transparent. His pitch was that they could be any color, any texture, however I wanted them to be their natural translucent way. I imagined the HVAC ducting snaking up behind the skin of the building, painted various colors, so that the building itself would look like a prism, refracting the light of the New York skyline. Then I suddenly thought that this three-foot deep HVAC/curtain wall could itself act as a duct, taking the heat from the sun and allowing it to rise up, even possibly running small turbines within the skin to generate electricity (a bit like solar panels wedded to convection device). I think now that the combination would be profound, like a solar panel within a thin passive solar receptacle that would contain the heat. It could even have commercial applications and as I look around the internet, it seems like no one else is thinking this way.

Anyway, these are my musings. I would love the chance one day to get research funded to take these ideas further as I think that they could be paradigm-changers.

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