What do you want to know about building green?

tl;dr We are organizing a workshop where we’ll discuss “green” / ecological houses and buildings with experts. If you have questions around that, you’re welcome to add them below, we’ll discuss them, and I’ll post all results after the workshop here. The workshop happens this Saturday, 2019-11-23. Consider it an offline conversation starter for the online conversation here. :slight_smile:


On Saturday, 2019-11-23 we will hold a workshop to explore the tech aspects of green urban living as intended by The Reef project, and of converting buildings for green living. It will take the form of a brainstorming session with two experts: Bernardo from Mama Brussels, an architect working about “building maintenance as architecture”; and Michele from Superlab Engineering, which is a deluxe makerspace made with refurbished industrial machinery. (For those interested in the workshop itself: see here.)

Here, you can add any question you have for the workshop participants about topic of technology of green urban living. I’m adding some example questions as a starting point. As a general point, focus on questions that you need an expert for, not simply an Internet search engine. Otherwise, anything goes.

Anyone on the edgeryders.eu forum is welcome to add their questions. It does not matter if you will be at the event or not – all answers will be posted online afterwards. As this is a brainstormimg session, expect answers to be quick pointers by our experts, pointing you into the right direction to explore further (tools, techniques, publications, organizations etc.). Also expect that for some questions, we won’t have an ad-hoc answer, and that’s ok. Lateron, our experts will hopefully join us here on the forum to continue the discussion, but for now, the questions and the workshop format is what we’ll focus on.

For starters: my questions

1. The Calafou broken roof

The picture shows an industrial complex in the countryside near Barcelona, built in ~1900. The roof of the central warehouse / manufacturing building burned around 2005 and collapsed. The lower story is already in use (by Calafou, a “post-capitalist, eco-industrial commune”). What would be architectural ideas for putting this building back to use for a communal living scenario? Preferably with not much monetary investment, nice final looks, and DIY work. Assume the walls are still good to be salvaged / repaired. Note, the building does not necessarily get its roof back. It just should be useful again for a communally living group.

2. Natural building in Belgium

What would be a the right approach to build with unusual, natural building materials in Brussels? “Right” as in, as little friction and time loss dealing with “authorities” as possible. Assume a material that is not yet certified on a national level for use in residential buildings. For example, that may apply to strawbale insulated wooden buildings. Unusual or extreme solutions welcome.

3. Recycling insulation

We would like to re-use insulation materials for adding to the building during the “green conversion”, to reduce the embodied energy and emissions of the building. These can come from any suitable waste streams, for example glass wool and styrofoam from old buildings, PU foam from broken fridges etc… What would be good ideas for materials to use, and sources for them in Brussels? What would be DIY-friendly techniques to re-use or recycle them?

4. Approaching building maintenance

When you approach a major job of building maintenance / refurbishment, what are your basic steps and priorities of approaching such a a project? What are mistakes you try to avoid? Assume the budget is a constraint.

5. Eco-friendly furniture system

We are looking for a DIY-producable, ecologically sustainable furniture system. It should be simple furniture that uses open source designs, simple enough to create the designs ourselves. It should use local materials and be DIY repairable.

We are looking for a material and processing technique that suits such a furniture. Any tips for us? Example answers, open for comments: locally grown bamboo, joined with glue (“technical timber” fashion), weaving, and 3D printed adapter parts. Or: cardboard furniture, cut with a large 2D CNC machine.

6. Architectural uses of second-hand PV panels

PV panels are becoming a part of the waste stream – they are very cheap that way, and with the right converters can still produce power. This should allow new applications as a long-lasting building material with a certain aesthetic. What would be architectural ideas for such uses during a green building conversion project?

7. Hiding piping and wiring

A challenge when converting an existing building is to keep the interior visually attractive even when installing a lot of new wiring and piping (solar, ventilation for heat exchangers, floor heating, low-voltage DC lines etc.).

What are architectural ideas to make these elements visually attractive, or to make them disappear? Quick and DIY solutions welcome. Extreme and unconventional solutions very welcome.

8. Resource waste in urban living

From your perspective and experience, what are the neglected major ways in which urban living in Brussels wastes resources? Especially electricity, heating energy, water, embodied energy and embodied emissions.

9. Indoor thermal mass

In a low-thermal-mass building (read: the PU insulated box body of my truck), I made the experience that the furniture and equipment inside provides a good amount of thermal mass that buffers heat, preventing temperatures from becoming too high during hot summer days.

If we want to use this in refurbished buildings, large amounts of water placed indoors would be suitable, preferably with a high surface area and good, passive heat transfer between air and water.

What are architectural ideas how to integrate that water into the indoor living environment?

10. Building for DIY maintenance

What are the major things that absolutely cannot be DIY maintained or repaired in modern “eco-friendly” buildins? And what are DIY friendly alternatives for that?

11. How to transform a building while living inside?

To have quick feedback about the usefulness of a “green building innovation”, we want to test them and see them as they are built, and change them where needed. Also for economic reasons, we will need to live in (parts of) the building while transforming it.

Transformation is a bit like building maintenance, just more extreme, as more gets changed. Still, any lessons for how maintenance and occupation for living purposes get along properly will help to integrate this.

12. Beautiful edible wilderness

One of the most ecologically destructive and also most ugly parts of urban housing is front or back lawns, nicely trimmed but dead. People seem to not like wild nature. But if done right (permaculture), it’s both edible and low-maintenance.

What are architectural and design ideas to integrate natural wilderness in the outdoor areas? How to deal with the little annoyance that people usually cite as reasons not to have wilderness (stinging insects, mosquitoes, mice / rats, ranking plants and roots destroying walls etc.).

13. Where to accumulate soil?

Since full food self-supply is not realistic in urban settings, food will be bought, and the residues will be composted. Over years and decades, this will create a lot of soil through on-site composting. In addition, a lot of paper and cardboard can also be composted, and will only add to this.

What are architectural ideas to integrate this soil into the building in an incremental, ecologically beneficial and optically pleasing way? Because why transport something away when it can be of use locally.

14. Low-tech styrofoam remanufacturing

Styrofoam is great for insulation and currently most of it is just discarded when this type of insulation is removed. How can it be re-used or re-manufactured as building insulation in an efficient, DIY friendly way? Also, can other styrofoam items like packaging pieces etc. be used as input materials for that as well?

15. Are there limits for insulation?

Are there any physics related limits to the amount of insulation that makes sense to use? Assume that space consumption is not an issue at all. Then what would speak against 5 m thick walls of re-used styrofoam?

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What can most effectively be done about humidity, condensation, and mold risk?

Could for example IR cameras be used to incrementally work towards solutions?

What sort of common materials pose the biggest problem of leaching problematic chemicals in the long term? Can some of them still be used with proper precautions?

How to integrate (electric) bikes into building design (convenience, charging, path optimization, door (holder) optimization!!!)?

Architecture interventions for unsupervised kid activities? (The way we handle family in industrialized nations sometimes strikes me as an afterthought)
How can you support a good & healthy childhood and access to friends?
Child light requirements to avoid shot-sightedness - currently an epedemia. Solutions?

If you don’t want to heat and insulate everything to be at 20C - how do you best strike balance?

How do you plan for temporary visitors? What can you do to “softly expell” problem cases?

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Where do you get used ETFE film, large and small? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/ETFE

Are there approaches (building codes) that allow for “benign failure modes” during strong winds? The idea is to avoid having to “overengineer” everything in order to brave the 50 or 100 year storm, and rather manage the damage in a cotrolled way.

How could you use (damaged) car glass in either gardening or living applications most effectively?

How could you get used wind power rotor blades and use them, e.g. in load bearing functions? (Denmark has used them in noise reduction already)

What about noise reduction? IMO a critical and far too little emphasized point for communal living. Materials, shapes, maintanence…

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Sheep wool for building insulation?
Issue could be around smell, esp. when wet, and insects starting to build their own houses in it.

Could one turn this into a research project? What are recipes to mitigate, control, or eliminate these problems? Could they work better on one orientation than another?

What can be done about fire hazards now that we have far, far better and connected sensors? Can we make more from wood again?
(The cigarette fire is on the leave, but the power cable fire is on the rise, what should be done? What is going to be the next problem, e.g. due to re-used lipo batteries?)
There are now decentralized sprinkler systems…

What small businesses are likely to be nicely integrated into such a venue (e.g. package distribution sub-center, recycling & repair sub-center)

When LED lighting fails it is in the fewest cases because of the LEDs themselves - their aging is mainly epoxy discoloration. What can be done to repurpose them in scale?

How much should be invested in proper paints and surfaces?
Paint and surfacing makes a huge difference optically while using few resources (though epoxy paints aren’t harmless in this regard). Craftmanship is a huge factor when committing to extravagant design that can help build identity and profile - but how to go about it best? It strikes me that you’d want a digital or VR test before you commit. What tools are best for this? How do you best get the digital into the built environment without too many expensive experts on site?

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Perfect questions, @trythis, much appreciated. Will get back to you with anything we hear during Saturday’s workshop! (Love the rotor blades re-use idea for beams etc.!)

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You’re welcome! Let me perhaps try and respond to some of the questions you or I put, as that will likely spawn a bunch interesting secondary questions:

  1. Piping: embrace the enemy! Put up extra piping or wiring which has a mix of educational, aestetic, and functional motivations (LED lit algae ducts, half pipe herb gardens, vertical gardens, fun & games ropes or similar, mark the actual function of the real piping on the piping itself e.g. in nice handwriting so that it can be perceived on a different level). That way you can partially camoflage and partially “elevate” the noble functions of indoor plumbing which have kept sooo many people alive over the years.

  2. Broken reefer containers!

  3. I never take an airbnb without my pieces of foam (EVA) sleeping mats.
    How about dangling furniture? Changes the atmosphere (and allows better (automatd) floor cleaning) drastically.
    Re gluing: keep small hot glue (alsooo EVA…) sticks with a bit of alu-foil EVERYWHERE. Wrap around and heat with a lighter, 80% of repairs can be done in an instant. It is not the prime choice for difficult load bearing issues though, more of a fixer.

  4. Need something to stick the PV panels onto? Rotorblade. Bolt & tie them down standing and they’re out of low shade.
    Hang them horizontally (and allow to rotate) and you can follow the sund.

In general looking at the large open roof: put two blades together at the roots and raise them above the building and you have you load bearing structure to attach ETFE film to. Oversize the rotor blades and have only the rigid portion support the film. Of the ends that are sticking out of the “tent” to mount e.g. solar, hanging furniture, or an awning to them.

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Wow, @trythis, you are on fire. :smile:

I would also like to know how to integrate mobility concerns into the house. Trips reduction, mostly.

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We recently discussed an old idea of turning wind energy directly into heat (and I suppose “cold”, via heat pumps) using turbines to drive directly fluid friction devices or heat pump compressors - rather than generating electricity first. The idea seems attractive for efficiency gains and by matching power demand and production better. (Windy weather cools buildings down and it is often windy in winter too; the power requirements of compressors and fluid friction devices match (I think) wind turbine power outputs better than generators). Are there reasons not to? And whatever happened to vertical axis wind turbines? Finally, by extension, why the trend/emphasis on solar electricity production rather than direct solar space and water heating?


Thank you @malcolm, these are great questions!

I just found that article about direct heating with wind energy again:

It also mentions some constraints on the concept, esp. related to the transmission distance before electrical transmission becomes more efficient than piped hot water with the rather high heat loss to the environment. However, I’m wondering now if there are better ways to transport heat over longer distances, such as a kind of insulated container on electrically driven trains. Much to explore …

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That hits close to another provocation I wanted to make:

Could one do an approach where you don’t heat / cool the rooms but only the furniture or persons using them?

Think of builing your desktop pc into the chair, integrating a notebook support with its fan and a light blanket. Make yoghurt on your server…

Lot’s of thermos flasks and rubber flasks in circulation…

For cooling: flat tubs with water to put your feet into and silent computer fans hooked into powerbanks (reused 18650s). I’ve done this a lot at home and it is amazing (esp. at night).

Obviously if catchment allows large scale evaporative cooling is also a question.

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Updates, everyone! :slight_smile: I just finished going through yesterday’s workshop again and published all the notes here:

(Exception: I placed links to books and organizations rather into this topic.)

We ended up not going strictly along the list. However we discussed quite a it about @trythis’ topic of child-friendly architecture, esp. for unsupervised play. We’ll continue the discussion and then also get answers to most of the remaining questions!

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