Monday, November 12, 2012

Quality of Light, Quality of Life

Since I began working with LED startup Soraa in December of 2011, I've gotten a completely new perspective on lighting as a part of the built environment. In many ways it's something of a last frontier on innovation, because, like HVAC systems, few disruptive innovations have surfaced in lighting in recent decades, until now. Solid state lighting is truly revolutionizing lighting- this isn't really news, but the most recent technology development - native substrate LEDs, (GaN on GaN) as developed by Soraa - is a true disruptive factor in the industry.

What's significant about this development is how it focuses the discussion on quality of light. The last major shift in general lighting technology was compact flourescents. Though energy efficient, they have failed to be adopted widely, at least in residential use, because of their poor quality of light. Flourescent light is missing many key parts of the full spectrum we require to provide a satisfying, quality experience of light. Unfortunately, first generation LEDs were also deficient in light quality and ran the risk of not reaching full adoption for the same reason as CFLs.

The first commercially available LED light sources were based on light chips made with non-native substrates (typically GaN on silicon carbide or sapphire). These LEDs have impurities in the basic material that reduce efficiency and require relatively large areas on LED material to produce enough light. This is why you see many LED light sources that are clusters of little yellow things speckling whatever form that is chosen to deliver light- most are somewhat inelegant design solutions at best. Another key problem with these first generation LEDs is that they have a very high "blue spike" in their spectral distribution, which makes them appear overly blue.

Soraa's fundamental native-substrate approach solves both problems- it is smaller and brighter, and, in combination with a unique three-phosphor design, produces for the first time a real full spectrum LED light source. Smaller brighter light sources provide a clean, single beam with crisp shadows that is easily controlled and eliminates the need to extensive mechanical solutions to control and block excessive light that are the mainstay of almost all current lamp and fixture designs with incandescent, flourescent or other light sources. In the average lamp/fixture configuration today, it's not uncommon to have 50% or more (much more in some cases) of the light produced by the source never reach the intended destination. This translates into huge energy waste across the installed base of lighting all over the globe.

It is counterintuitive for most of to believe that products can be more energy efficient (or less fattening) without some kind of sacrifice or tradeoff.  I wrote about quality and eficiency recently HERE. Such tradeoffs are always present at the outset of disruptive innovations, but they often fade away as the technology improves and "commercializes". In the case of both LEDs and CFLs, early versions had many shortcomings that made their energy efficiency irrelevant. CFL quality has improved, but not enough for people to love them. With the advent of native substrate technology, LEDs have now reach an improvement threshold in quality that will allow their widespread adoption.

The bottom line is that LEDs now have the potential to replace incandescent and flourescent sources over a broad range of lighting applications, reducing energy use dramatically while also providing light that is of much higher quality in beam and spectrum. High quality lighting is widely understood to be connected to increased sales in retail, higher productivity in office environments, and better health and well being in all indoor environments.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

A Machine for Light

When I was growing up in Southern California in the 1960s, my mother took me to see an exhibition of the work of the Bauhaus at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. The work was strange and vibrant, by turns playful, formal, and ironic. Along with other experiences, like the films and furniture of Charles and Ray Eames, ideas from the Bauhaus made a big impression on me and must have lodged in my subconscious. Southern California at the time was ripe with experimentation- the predominant aesthetic model was modernism, expressed in the work of architects like Schindler, Neutra, and Eichler, summed up in Corbusier’s phrase “a house is a machine for living.”

Modernism never quite lost its hold on the Western American imagination, possibly because of its insistence in pure, geometrical, non representational forms and focus on the centrality of human endeavors as the primary way to create meaning. In the US, and California in particular, this was consonant with the self made, pioneer spirit, and found a voice in writers like Ayn Rand. The archetypal modernist shelter was the iconic expression of “prospect and refuge,” and nothing epitomized this aesthetic better than the above photograph by Julius Shulman of the Stahl House by Pierre Konig. Soaring over the sparkling grid of the Los Angeles basin at night, the picture of ease and elegance is cemented in my imagination by two elegantly dressed women who look precisely, exactly like my mother did in that era, down to the hairstyles and shoes. I can even smell her perfume! One of the enduring effects of images like these was to inculcate architects with the love of glazing. Sometimes it seems that they all decided, as I am fond of saying, that if it’s worth doing it’s worth overdoing. The aim wasn’t necessarily what we think of as “green” today, as in daylighting, it was more like they did it because they could, and it looked fabulous in the magazines. Still the effect was to suddenly flood homes and offices with daylight, for better or for worse (often both at once).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the fundamental function of shelter through a completely different perspective, I’m beginning to understand the building not only as a strategy to stay warm (or cool) and dry, but also as a “machine for light:” a way of delivering appropriate light in appropriate, controllable levels. Architects must have understood this basic function intuitively ever since architecture has been around, but the relatively recent invention of electric manmade light ( lighting designer Jim Benya holds that all light is natural, it’s just that some of it is manmade) has had perhaps a more profound impact on building than we realize. Since manmade lighting is undergoing its next disruptive upheaval with the adoption of LEDs, we’re really beginning to look at light in a completely different way: we have an unique opportunity to reengage with it. So reimagining lighting naturally leads to reimagining architecture, yet again.

Because lighting technology is undergoing a massive disruptive change, we’re examining the technical, energy, design, and health aspects of lighting in great detail. We’re only beginning to understand the primacy of light, how it impacts circadian rhythms, cognition, mood, and behavior. If you examine lighting only, or initially, from a standpoint of energy efficiency, you realize that the impact here is on a very large scale, for instance, LEDs (in optimized systems) can eliminate 80% of lighting energy use across a wide range of technologies. Since lighting is perhaps the single biggest use of electricity in non-industrial buildings the potential scale effects of this level of efficiency are huge. Lighting is the most ubiquitous and visible use of power - lighting and electricity are inseparable. The history of electrification is the history of lighting- people’s desire for artificial light was the driving force behind the building of the electrical grid. With the emergence of whole building design practices, lighting has the potential to lead the design process, not only from an efficiency standpoint, but from a standpoint of total environmental quality.

But problems with current lighting design practice and technology are legion. For starters, it’s easy to believe that most buildings are not designed by architects (an assumption worth questioning- see this Certainly, of all buildings actually designed by architects, relatively few of them have lighting designed by lighting designers. So a very small percentage of all buildings have lighting designed by dedicated professionals. This appears to be borne out by a quick look at the built environment- most lighting really sucks. It’s glaring, too dim, too bright, poorly colored, wildly inefficient, and sometimes close to intolerable. (It’s hard to imagine any living organism surviving for long under those orange sodium vapor streetlamps). Most lighting is so bad, and we experience really good lighting in the built environment so rarely that we don’t really know what we’re missing. Fortunately, this is about to change.

Part of the reason for widespread poor quality of lighting has to do with the economics of building design practice. I know from personal experience that when building professionals put together project teams and budgets, special consultants at the end of the food chain (this unfortunately may include lighting designers) are likely to be eliminated - as architects see their profits drain away when budgets get chopped, they figure they can do the lighting themselves. Or electrical engineers do it, as they understand wiring and power use, but not necessarily good lighting design. Also, on big complicated projects, having fewer consultants to manage can be a very good thing for project managers. Electrical contractors or distributors may provide lighting design for free in order to get on projects. None of these practices necessarily incentivizes good lighting design.

The current state of design of lamps and luminaires exacerbates the problem somewhat. In view of the potential technological advances on the horizon, today’s technologies can seem somewhat primitive. In many key ways, lighting has not evolved much since the first Edison lamp. Often the cheapest, most ubiquitous lamps and luminaires are tragically inefficient or really ugly or both. There are significant color and spectral issues with many, if not most, classes of lamps. Performance varies considerably, and often falls well short of requirements across many technologies in terms of consistent lumen output, lifetime, starting, temperature, and other measures. The design of many lamps and luminaires involves what I call “provisional coping strategies”- often elaborate and inefficient schemes to overcome fundamental design flaws. To give two examples: omnidirectional lamps are routinely baffled, filtered, shaded, and otherwise diluted so that only a fraction of the light they produce actually gets delivered to us as usable light; and halogen MR16s use dichroic coating on their reflectors to filter out harmful IR and UV. Another key aspect of inefficiency is that many incandescent lamps (like the MR16) typically produce light outside of the visible spectrum, or light with highly unbalanced spectral signatures.

Of course, despite the many shortcomings of lamps and luminaires, the best lighting designers work wonders with current technology, and better design is certainly not all about new technology. This is very much the case with the HVAC industry, which also hasn’t really seen innovative new technical developments in a long time, and better design practices are perhaps needed there more than new technology. The lighting industry, however, is very different, as the LED revolution is now in full swing, and the big changes are based on a fundamental shift in technology.

There are really 2 classes of LEDs- what I call 1.0 and 2.0 (first generation and next generation). Many LED 1.0 products are just as bad, or worse than the technologies they are meant to replace in terms of light quality and performance, and LED 2.0 products are much better in those areas. While  LED 2.0 products are mostly still rather expensive compared to other lighting technologies, they’re going through what we might call a rapid maturation process, and because they’re based on semiconductors, we will see significant advancements in performance and a steady drop in price in the next few years, may be sooner. Although it won’t be anywhere near as dramatic as price/performance curves seen in semiconductors used in computers, forces are aligning to put the manufacturing technology and infrastructure into place to allow global scale production of affordable, high quality LEDS in the near future. We may not know what hit us until it’s well underway. LEDs are already utterly disrupting lighting, and the questions facing designers now are how to design with them, and how to make architecture more responsive to high quality lighting - how to expand the services delivered by the “machine for living” to include better light than we ever dreamed possible.

We need to see past the temporary high cost of this new technology, which will change very soon, and get our minds around what may be counterintuitive for most of us – the fact that LED 2.0 products can offer everything at once: energy efficiency, controllability, longevity, and quality of light. We’re used to too many tradeoffs and shortcomings in new technologies, so it’s kind of hard for us to believe that we can get it all: if ten or fifteen years ago someone were to describe to you today’s iPhone and all the functions it provides at its current cost, you couldn’t possibly imagine it, yet it doesn’t compromise on anything important, there are no real tradeoffs in quality, it’s all there. The same is becoming true with LED lighting (with the exception of high “blue spike” LEDs based on non-native substrates, which have had rapid and widespread market penetration). I’ll outline some of the ways I see this happening.

For starters, a lot of LED technology can be “plug and play,” that is, it can fit into the existing lighting infrastructure and work immediately, delivering better light at significant energy savings . This is not true of other classes of building services, like HVAC. Highly inefficient installed infrastructure is a pervasive problem today, as capital for financing building projects is still hard to come by. It’s much easier to build a really energy efficient new building than it is to retrofit an older one with deeply embedded inefficient HVAC equipment, a low performing building skin, too much glazing, and bad siting. Even if retrofitting is preferred to “greenfield” development, the overall costs of extensive HVAC retrofits are too high for most owners to bear. Lighting retrofits on the other hand are usually much easier to do. This is not as simple as it sounds, however- even though LEDs in optimized systems can use something like 70-80% less energy, the average building’s electrical infrastructure, like most systems, is overbuilt for the older incandescent or fluorescent technology, and overbuilt in general beyond that. Eventually, electrical equipment designed specifically for LED technology will work its way into the market and the infrastructure.

Next, LED technology allows for exquisite control of all the elements we care about in lighting: color, temperature, direction, starting, dimming, size of source, long life, and stable output. The efficiencies in LEDs come from many factors: they produce only visible light, meaning that energy is not wasted in delivering wavelengths that we don’t need and can in fact be harmful; they produce considerably less heat than other light sources, which means more energy goes into producing light; GaN on GaN LEDs (definitely 2.0) can now behave essentially like “point sources,” very bright and very small, so that beams can be controlled and directed much better, wasting much less light in spill and other non- beam areas; what is essentially digital light is much more responsive to many different control parameters, including dimming, temperature, occupancy sensing, and intelligent energy management. Since the spectral signatures of LEDS are also now much more controllable, we will be able to design sources specifically with better light for human health, friendly to our circadian rhythms, eyeballs, brains, and souls.

Smaller, more powerful, more controllable sources will aid in the decentralization of lighting, improving efficiency and light quality. Point source performance allows for much smaller, lighter lamps and luminaires, meaning that lighting can be considerably more flexible, less intrusive, and require a lot fewer accessories to control light – this aspect of LED 2.0 technology can have an amazing scale effect, where all kinds of things will change dramatically, starting with one little dot the size and color of the yolk of a hummingbird’s egg. Smaller sources mean smaller, lighter lamps, smaller fixtures, less material used for construction, more ceiling space, more usable space per floor, more floors per building, more building per construction dollar, smaller heat load from lighting, smaller HVAC systems, less energy use per building, fewer power plants, and on and on.

Since we’ve had very little time on an evolutionary scale to adapt to manmade light, we don’t yet know much about how it affects our genetic structure and physiology. We still envision daylight as the ultimate light source to replicate in manmade light, but daylight itself varies widely depending on time of day, direction, and a host of other factors. Sunlight contains lots of harmful UV radiation that we need protection from, hence architecture. We’re as intimately connected to our shelters as are bees to their hives, and clearly shelter provides the key way in which we manage our light intake. Ancient forms of architecture devised many ways to manage light without manmade electric sources: in modernism, suddenly many of these practices were forgotten, ignored or overridden, especially with the advent of overglazing. Part of making better, more sustainable buildings involves the rediscovery of older design practices for managing the delivery of light and other services. Decentralizing lighting and controls will help designers to effect better daylight balance in buildings and provide higher quality manmade light where it is most effective.

New, dramatically better lighting technology, the increased awareness of the primacy of light, and more intelligent design practices will redefine architecture, making it more adaptive to climate, energy use, shifting patterns of settlement, and human needs for health, wellness and security. Better buildings are essential for better light, and better light is essential to life.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Fat of the Land

My first pig. 
Several weeks ago I had my Michael Pollan moment and shot my first wild pig. For those not familiar with him, he’s best known for food activism of sorts, and for his many books which include The Omnivore’s Dilemma (which was actually recommended to me by a vegan friend several years ago). In this book he chronicles his quest to prepare a completely foraged meal, in the course of which he shoots his first wild boar. Around that time I had become quite interested in the pursuit of such, and his blow-by-blow account of the hunt clinched the deal for me. Still, it took another year or two for me to get around to it, mostly because I’m usually too busy hunting ducks or fishing when I’m not indoors working. Hunting pigs is on another level entirely, and I quickly learned much about hunting and preparing bigger game and quite a few other things along the way.

My experience was quite different from Pollan's, maybe because I'm more familiar with hunting than he was, but in any case my hunt was by all accounts a supreme success: this had as much to do with the skill and experience of our guides as with my mental preparation and visualization. Before the hunt I spent quite a bit of time at the range with my rifle, a nice little 7mm short mag Winchester, a flat shooter. I knew that rifle shooting was very different from shotgunning, which I’m used to from hunting waterfowl and upland game. Different in one very good way at least, in that you have time to think about your shot, to zero in and really feel the target, which unlike most waterfowl is large and not moving in an unpredictable course above your head in the rain at 40-50 mph. Still I knew there would be unique challenges in finding and stalking a pig, getting off a shot, and making a clean kill.

My excellent friend Roy Howell had a spot open for me on a hunt with Rhinos Guide Service, an outfit with property up in the mountains west of Cloverdale in southern Mendocino County, south of Booneville, near Malliard Redwoods State Park. We met in Cloverdale for lunch on a Friday afternoon in late April, then caravanned out to the property, following logging roads for 30 or 40 miles into the remote backcountry, legendary for the cultivation of primo bud, and, as it turned out, pig hunting. After passing several locked gates and crossing some beautiful clear steelhead spawning streams, we arrived at the hunting camp, situated by a creek in a clearing in one of the many canyons that run through the property. Here we unloaded, camoed up, and prepped for the hunt, which would begin that afternoon.         
Kerry Griffith of Rhinos Guide Service
I met with our guide Kerry Griffith, the owner of Rhinos and a consummate outdoorsman. He gave us many invaluable pointers on stalking the pigs, staying quiet and upwind of your quarry, and optimal shot placement. Wild pigs have a highly developed sense of hearing, and an even more highly developed sense of smell, but they can’t see very well at all. This last deficiency turns out to be a good advantage when stalking them. Most of the time, the pigs are constantly moving, browsing and feeding. In the late spring, when the woods and meadows are filled with young delicious sprouting things, they’re gorging on things like wild oats, rattlesnake grass and clover. They basically live in a huge supermarket of free food, and they grow fat, prosper, and multiply. Kerry also explained that we were to carefully pick our pigs, and avoid shooting nursing (or wet) sows, as doing so would not only deprive several piglets of nourishment and condemn then to probable starvation but would create a messy field dressing situation.

One tasty item on the Pig menu- rattlesnake grass.
We teamed up three to a guide, on quads and ATVs, and I went with Roy, and his son David, who I’ve known since he was a baby. David, like me, was on his first pig hunt and was hoping to get a large boar. We drove along a gravel road at the bottom of a canyon, following the creek for a few miles upstream before heading north to climb a ridge, from which we would gradually work our way downhill back toward the creek on vehicles, then on foot, as we scouted for pigs. We stopped several times as we spotted them grouped up hundreds of yards off in the distance- the black, grey, or brown specks of the sows and boars and the piglets much smaller specks swarming around the wet sows.

Scouting for pigs.
We eventually got out of our ATV and headed downhill on foot, the evening light fading to dusk along the gently sloping, intermittently wooded slopes of the canyon, through fresh green meadows and stands of oak and buckeye and madrone. We knew we were likely to encounter groups of pigs in cover, and we did our best to tread lightly as we entered the oak glades. We heard a deep booming call coming from a stand of Oaks, and our guide stopped , puffed out his chest, and flapping his arms like a rooster, silently signaling “Blue Grouse.” I had heard this call before, but thought it might be a boar. The presence of game put us on alert, and we glanced down at our feet occasionally to avoid snapping twigs. 

Suddenly we spotted a large group of pigs browsing within range in a small open meadow between stands of oak. We stopped and waited, as we assessed the situation. Several pigs were in range, but we needed to get our shot (or more than one if we were very lucky) set up, which meant picking out an appropriate pig, then getting into position for a clear shot. I had brought a barrel mounted pair of shooting sticks to provide stability for my rifle-these were very good but were also designed to be used sitting down. I tried to sit and to move into position, scooting on my butt, trying to be quiet and get set up, but it wasn’t working. Roy and David were also trying to get a clear shot, and we wanted David to have the first shot, but he wasn’t quite ready to commit to a shot yet. Several times I would site in on a pig, only to have it wander behind a tree or boulder, or turn out to be a wet sow. It was a difficult, tense situation as we tried to stay quiet and set up a shot. At one point, one pig to our left stopped munching, lifted his head and stared right at us, sensing something. We all became statues, barely daring to breath, until he went back to grazing.

I knew I had to make a supreme effort to relax, but as all hunters know this is a real challenge when you’re on game- the adrenaline is pumping and you have to find your Zen moment and focus on your breathing, as this affects your aim, especially with rifles. I was laser focused, clearly visualizing my shot, in a state of hyper awareness, thinking about the delicious meals I would be putting on the table in the future. In a corner of my mind I also begin to contemplate death in a strange way, and I thought about the scene in the Clint Eastwood movie Unforgiven (one of my all time favorite films) where the trio of hired guns is stalking their prey and is hiding behind some boulders in a gully, just as we were. It’s a supremely un-heroic moment, and to me perfectly captured the prosaic, squalid, bumbling way in which we kill with guns. I knew I was about to take the life of a fairly large animal with a very powerful weapon, but beyond that, there was not much to think about. Kill animal, eat. All good. It’s not accurate to say I don’t feel remorse, I do feel something for the game I kill, and my own particular reverence for life does not preclude taking it when appropriate. When hunting I experience the full clarity of focus and purpose: it’s liberating and calming and thoroughly normal all at the same time. I could say it’s hard to describe, but I just did, so there you are.

After perhaps 20 minutes of our trying to set up shots on several different pigs, our guide finally pointed out a young non-wet sow and whispered to me “you can shoot that pig.” I agreed and was just barely able to get her in my scope- I think her head was behind a tree, but I had a clear shot at the point just behind the right shoulder that is the ideal spot for the bullet to enter. I got up on my knees, and aimed without any extra support on my gun. My aim was steady, and as I have learned to do, just felt the connection with the target somehow- I knew when the moment to pull the trigger was right. My gun flashed fire in the twilight, the pigs all started running, and as the smoke cleared I saw my pig sprint for about 20 feet and then roll over dead. A near perfect shot, clean kill.

Pigs constantly root for food, regularly tearing up
large swaths of the landscape.
After the shot, our guide immediately gave a startlingly realistic pig call. To my amazement, the fleeing pigs all stopped in their tracks, giving us potentially another shot. But David and Roy were unable to get one set up, and eventually set off to follow another group of pigs just beyond us in the next glade after the current group eventually dispersed. (David eventually got his Monster Hawg-see below) our guide and I went down into the clearing to look at my pig. She was a black, sleek young sow of about 125 pounds, perfect for eating. our guide showed me how to gut the pig, lightly scorng the skin on the belly, opening it up and removing the innards. Her stomach was about the size and color of a soccer ball, firmly stuffed with wild grasses and clover. Our guide finished the field dressing, saving the heart for me. I would have saved the liver and kidneys, but it was getting dark and we needed to get back to camp and I didn’t have any plastic bags to carry them in. He showed me how to slit the pig’s tendons above the ankles to make a hole for rope to go through so he could drag the pig by its hind legs to the road, where he would pick it up later in the ATV.

We met up with David and Roy, who weren’t able to get another shot at pigs. We hiked along the stream at the bottom of the canyon in the soft darkness of early evening. As we came to a bend in the stream, Kerry suddenly stopped and pointed with his flashlight to a large group of pigs across the stream in a flat meadow- there must have been 40 or 50 of them, boars, sows and piglets, happily feeding. They moved off slowly from our flashlights but didn’t seem overly concerned. Our guide began talking to them in pig talk, and they gradually approached us again, grunting and chattering away. We stood in the darkness there for 20 minutes or so, chattering away with them before moving on and hiking back to camp.

Hanging the carcass.
Back in camp we hung the pig up by the hind legs and began to skin it, starting at the hind legs and working our way down. After the pig was skinned, we let the carcass cool overnight in the crisp night air of the canyon. Around the campfire, Kerry told the story of Cookie, his pet wild boar, from whom he learned Pig Talk. Cookie, orphaned as a piglet on a hunt one day last year, was rescued by Kerry, who fed her a mixture of cookies and milk, which she hovered up right out of his palm- hence the name. He took her home and raised her in a pen. He said that after being around her for enough time he learned to imitate her sounds, and that he eventually was able to have extended conversations with her. As I experienced firsthand, Pig Talk comes in quite handy in the field. Kerry also demonstrated a masterful ability to imitate many other animals both domestic and wild- a skill I’ve always considered to be essential and worth practicing at any opportunity.

The next day, after tagging along with Roy and David in the morning hunt, we quartered my pig and packed it in ice and plastic bags, helpfully provided by Roy and his friend Bruce. I thanked my friends and the guides, and drove home with a cooler full of top quality pig meat. Along the way I stopped to pick a few large handfuls of fragrant wild fennel that I knew I would use to cook up the first taste of boar over the barbecue.

Roy and David scouting for pigs.
When I got home, I was faced with the task of breaking down the carcass of a medium sized pig- it was a somewhat daunting task, but I took stock of my tools, got some fresh hacksaw blades, and set to it with my filet knife and hack saw. I’m familiar with dressing waterfowl, fish, and rabbits, as well as chickens, upland birds, and other crittters, but pigs are simply on a different scale. I generally cut as close to the bones as I could, looking for what seemed like logical cuts, and keeping the meat in large clumps as much as possible. I sawed the ribs in half lengthwise, then separated them from the spine, creating four sets of rib cuts. I kept the shoulders and hams whole, thinking I would perhaps make a lonzino or cured ham, or at least a larger roast or two at some point. I sawed the hooves off the shank bones, knowing I would braise the shanks for a long time in a Dutch oven for a wild boar osso buco style dish, Parts that ended up smaller and scrap like, I vacuum packed together, as I knew I would be embarking soon on an extended sausage making binge. The leftover spine and neck bones I sawed into short pieces for stews and stock.

I did not do a perfect job of butchering, far from it, but when I was finished I ended up with quite a respectable pile of excellent meat. I did not use any of the head or skin, for obvious reasons- too difficult to deal with in the field. I had originally intended to take everything to a butcher, but I’m glad now I jumped right in and did it all myself. I will definitely study butchering more thoroughly before I shoot another pig and break it down, but it wasn’t that hard really, and I really enjoyed learning about the pig anatomy and about breaking down carcasses. Grilling up the first cuts of pig produced a tasty preview of many fine feasts to come.

Morning light in the canyon.

The entire experience of the hunt involved very much thinking and learning about what the pigs are eating, understanding their habitat, movements, behavior, and even language, and gave me a much deeper appreciation for how we connect with animals in an environment where we don’t intervene much- how they find and consume food, and how we find and consume both similar food and the animals who do this work for us. The Mendocino mountains in late spring are an exquisite landscape that is filled with things to eat for opportunistic, highly adaptable, wily species like pigs, who are a prime example of what I call a “revolving door” species- they go in and out of domestication repeatedly, and have for thousands of years. We have co-evolved with them and many other species in a deeply interconnected way. Tasting the wild oats and rattlesnake grass, I could understand why the pigs gorge on it. Sometimes when I’m fly fishing on a river I eat the bugs that the trout are feeding on to get a more complete idea of what they’re going after.

Mr. David Howell with his trophy boar, one of two he shot.
Killing larger game also has changed my attitude about hunting. When you hunt it’s very common to be competitive with your fellow hunters- in fact if you’re not, something’s wrong. This natural tendency, plus the practices both of catch and release and trophy hunting, contribute to a concept of hunting as something we do not do primarily for food. I specifically chose a smaller pig because I knew it would be tastier, but I also wanted a bigger one, well…just because. I still practice catch and release fishing, but am increasingly conflicted about it, especially after I learned that it’s banned in Germany and Switzerland and can often do a lot more damage to fish than we realized.

As my friends and family know, I dearly love to cook, and hunting and fishing have a deeper meaning for me than simply sport- since I do it so often, I’m basically filling my freezer as appropriate with hormone-free high quality meat and fish. Michael Pollan certainly has influenced me in my thinking about food in general, but the guy who has really turned me on to wild game cooking is Hank Shaw. I met his girlfriend Holly Heitzer last winter duck hunting at Delevan, but at the time I didn’t realize it was she who has been Hank’s partner in crime for so many years. Hank’s book Hunt Gather Cook came out in the last year- I highly recommend it. His website Hunter Gardner Angler Cook is an awesome achievement and something I refer to frequently for some of my favorite recipes. Although I’ve never met him, he’s like my soul brother in his passion for hunting fishing and cooking, and he has done it all and taken it to a completely new level.

The more I learn about hunting and foraging the more I realize that there’s food everywhere for the taking, all you have to do is keep your eyes open. When it comes to certain species like deer, turkeys, and pigs, hunting is actually a crucial part of the ecological management. These species are all experiencing population booms, and controlled harvesting of this wild game can only be a good thing in my mind. Hunting is not an atavistic artifact of pre-industrial society, it’s a vital way for us to be in touch and in balance with our environment. Unfortunately because of the prevalence of the industrial food supply chain and the increasing urbanization of society, we’ve lost touch with it as a way of life-overly politicizing gun issues isn’t helping either.

For me harvesting wild food has become much more than a hobby or purely sporting or recreational pursuit, it’s kind of a holistic practice because it involves ensuring that I collect and process by myself the highest quality food I can find. I love nothing better than to share my game with friends and family in a big feast, where some may be tasting wild game for the first time, ideally complimented with some foraged greens or other treats. To those who don’t understand our connection with wild animals and wild food, this is the best way to begin an explanation.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Design Brief for the Deep Green Desktop

Decentralization, miniaturization, and the integration of energy with information are all macro trends that converge in many locations where energy is used. One of these is the office desktop- where most of us make many (mostly unconscious) interrelated energy use decisions every day. These macro trends point suggest a wealth of new opportunities for better products, services, and systems. The expanding benefits of improved environmental quality and energy efficiency in the office environment are now widely understood and include increased employee health, safety, productivity, and retention; higher value in commercial real estate; and improved morale. How can we take advantage of these opportunities and push radically efficient new products past limiting cost barriers? What might an integrated platform for these products look like?

Rather than take the usual approach, starting from a central point and delivering services across a wide area (the office space), let’s start at the point of use of the services, the individual user at the individual desktop. The categories of products and devices here include: lighting (task and ambient light sources); ventilation and cooling (personal fans and filters); heating (personal heating devices); and to control these and optimize energy use, sensors, software and control systems.

What would the general requirements be for individual components and for integrated systems? First, all should be significantly more energy efficient than the standard configuration in today’s office. There’s plenty of room for improvement here, since the norm is overbuilt, oversized, inefficient, highly wasteful systems and components. But using the “tunneling through the cost barrier” approach, we should target energy efficiency that is on the level of 80% better than standard practice. Next, embedded energy and product life cycles need to be optimized, using biomimetic and cradle-to-cradle approaches. The industrial processes for manufacturing most office products (and most building products for that matter), are very energy intensive and fossil fuel intensive and materials like plastics and metals predominate. New materials are emerging that can be effective replacements.

Product maintenance, cleaning, and replacement cycles must be optimized. Components that require frequent replacement, updating, or adjusting carry costs that are often invisible to buyers when these components are originally specified. Components and systems should also be easy to install and access: plug-and-play, interoperability, and maximum flexibility in configuration should be key design parameters. Related to this, components and systems should be as small as possible, as the scale effects of smaller components can lead to smaller desktops and a more efficient use of the floorplate in offices, as well as energy efficiency.

Optimal user interface is one of the top requirements for the green desktop: devices and systems should be easy to use and offer a rich variety of options without confusing us with too many choices. It’s tempting to extend the iPhone user interface across all product categories that require any user interface, and indeed many building control systems are operable from your phone today. Studies by institutions like the Center for the Built Environment and LBNL show that improved individual control of building system components, like operable windows and zone control for HVAC usually results in higher occupant satisfaction and comfort as well as improved energy efficiency.

Last but not least are aesthetic criteria. The companies that are capable of making the leap into the highly evolved and innovative systems and products I’m talking about will probably be ones that already produce high value, well designed products and have strong sales channels in the markets that influence product trends- design and engineering firms. I still believe that form does follow function, and that the visual design of any individual component will evolve organically out of a deep study of its optimal function, with real people in real office situations. Establishing a design language and syntax will be integral to users’ ability to comprehend and implement new innovative products, that may require (and drive) behavioral change. The visual attributes of products should reinforce their interoperability and system effects, and reinforce desired behavior of both groups and individuals.

So what would all of this look and feel like? Let’s start with lighting, which in one way is one of the most overlooked and least understood of the various building systems. Deep green designers practicing fully integrated design have known for years that optimal lighting is a crucial component to high performing buildings. Decentralizing and downsizing lighting has many different strategies, including daylight harvesting, reducing excessive overhead ambient lighting, and improving low energy, high output task lighting. Single source LEDs can now be used for task lighting that are dramatically smaller and more energy efficient and produce much higher quality light than previous generations of task light products. What if the office task light drew only 1 watt, illuminated the entire desktop, was made largely of a nanotech material consisting of crystals grown at room temperature, had a miniature smart occupancy sensor that turned the lamp on and drew power only when needed, had perfect color temperature, was exquisitely controllable and dimmable, took up only 16 square inches of desk space, needed replacement bulbs only once every 5 years, and cost under $75? (You’d probably also want it to make breakfast and coffee for you every day, along with a five o’clock martini and plane reservations for your next trip to Davos.) The task light should be designed to be part of the building lighting system, including ambient and daylighting, and would connect to the control system through a wireless sensor.

Centralized HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) systems in commercial office buildings are routinely overbuilt and waste massive amounts of energy. Supplementing these services with devices at the desktop will reduce energy use and the cost of installing and maintaining HVAC systems, as well as enabling downsizing or elimination of many kinds of systems. Smaller more efficient personal devices for heating, cooling, filtration, and ventilation can have a positive impact on energy use and comfort when designed as part of a system, following the parameters described for the task light above: downsized, hyper efficient, beautiful and elegant, made with low embedded energy materials (in USA!), smart and interconnected.

In a typical green project (either retrofit or new construction) engineers and architects ideally optimize building systems like HVAC, lighting, facades, even structural. But until recently they haven’t looked at building energy use by non-system equipment like copiers, computers, and other kinds of gear. When plug-load studies are undertaken by the design team as part of a whole system design approach, (especially in equipment intensive building types like labs and other critical facilities) significant energy savings are frequently discovered. Working with OEMs to right-size power supplies, reduce heat output, and eliminate phantom loads can yield important energy savings that can reduce the need for building systems.

One final requirement of the design brief: components and systems should be affordable and practical. I were designing it, I’d get to the lowest cost solution first, as this would allow it to scale faster. If the integrated suite of small personal building system devices was taken seriously enough by a large office furniture company or other OEM, it could potentially revolutionize the way the company did business, as Interface Carpeting did under Ray Anderson. While the best path to an optimal solution lies in excellent design, the exploration of new materials alone represents enough uncharted territory to engage an entire industry.

An important effect of a super efficient suite of personal products will be that by embodying energy efficiency and improved services in the same set of products, awareness of daily personal energy use will be brought to the workforce literally in their faces, on their desktops, and this can help to drive behavioral change around energy use at home and elsewhere. Smart OEMS will recognize these product opportunities, engage designers and engineers in building and marketing a new generation of distributed devices that will revolutionize the workplace.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Efficiency, Quality, and Scalability

In the minds of both consumers and OEMs, energy efficiency is not necessarily immediately associated with both high product quality and affordability. Disruptive innovations that deliver improved efficiency in products and technologies are usually initially met with concentrated resistance from entrenched interests. But in fact, efficiency is both a main driver for and a result of good design and engineering, and efforts to improve efficiency, whether intentional or otherwise, usually result in higher product quality. Efficiency can lower the total cost of higher quality goods and services for both users and producers and can facilitate the market adoption and scalability of new innovations. And as customers across many national and global market sectors become increasingly aware of and concerned about environmental impacts, they are demanding more efficient products and services at affordable prices. But efficiency and affordability, even together, are not enough to differentiate new products if they don’t meet crucial user needs for quality, convenience, and many other attributes.

Those of us involved in marketing efficient technologies or strategies are frequently frustrated by misperceptions about the real cost, and ROI, of innovative, efficient products or services. Resistance to change is everywhere- entrenched interests threatened by disruptive technologies will appeal to the public’s risk aversion and resort to pervasive campaigns of misinformation around new products or initiatives. These tactics are identical to those used by current political campaigns, because there are always strong entrenched political interests in the production and control of energy and resources. To cite only a few examples: false assertions that opposing more fossil fuel projects like the Keystone Pipeline means opposing jobs for Americans; that tighter emission controls will ruin the economy, the auto industry in particular or American industry in general (or all three); and that green buildings or green products are too expensive.

In most cases history has shown a different story – regulatory initiatives, relentless innovation, market forces, or a combination of all three force industry to consider new measures, which they staunchly resist as long as they can. When they finally relent and significantly reinvent products or processes, the economic outcome is usually positive- products improve in more ways than just becoming energy efficient, companies that successfully adapt make money, and consumers get not only better environmental protection but higher quality products that are not only ultimately more affordable up front, but carry a lower operating cost and total cost of ownership.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of increased efficiency coupled with improved quality in relatively recent history is the case of household refrigerators in the late 1970s. Faced with an energy crisis and booming energy use rates, regulatory agencies in California and eventually the federal government instituted a series of programs by which industry groups and manufacturers collaborated and succeeded in significantly reducing energy use of refrigerators while simultaneously making them bigger and better. As a result, the new and greatly improved class of refrigerator – the largest single energy consuming appliance in U.S. households- contributed to a significant reduction in per capita energy use, and refrigerator manufacturers enjoyed robust growth and profits.

Toyota’s Prius is another example of a high quality, energy efficient, affordable product. Of the limited crop of electric vehicles introduced in the 1990’s, the Prius is pretty much the only survivor, as car companies largely killed their EV programs when they realized they could put off complying with emission standards seemingly indefinitely. The Prius led the way for mass market adoption of more energy efficient vehicles and proved that the public cares about energy efficiency in cars. Two main problems with cars are: 1) there are already too many of them, so even making them hyper efficient doesn’t address problems caused by decades of auto-centric urban development patterns and the attendant expensive infrastructure, and 2) energy efficiency problems with cars largely derive from the fact that they’re too heavy- replacing steel with carbon fiber and other lighter materials, as the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) spinoff Hypercar project is doing, is a crucial step in this direction. RMI’s work has shown that it’s entirely feasible to make super energy efficient vehicles at scale that are affordable, safe, and appealing to buyers.

Green buildings are increasingly becoming more affordable and practical, and in the process, overall building quality is largely improving. True green buildings are those that use significantly less energy than “standard practice”- 50% to 70% and even less. With ever-improving integrated design practices, deep green buildings on a standard budget are becoming more and more feasible. The recession has made it necessary to focus attention on the energy efficient retrofitting of existing buildings, which can be seen as a “greener” practice than new construction. Green buildings offer many more benefits to owners and users beyond energy efficiency: improved indoor environmental quality; increased comfort safety, and productivity for employees; higher rent and lease rates for owners; and lower operating costs.

While energy efficiency is almost never a direct driver for improved performance in computing, I can’t think of a single product in recent history that gives more services per watt than the iPhone. To me, the 4.75” x 2.5” device is a singular miracle of elegance, engineering, excellent interface design, and utility. The design strategy here was to pack much more usefulness into a convenient package without increasing total energy use. Affordability of the iPhone is a matter of opinion, I suppose, but  iPhones are certainly within reach of a wide mainstream market. Main competitor Android is succeeding mainly by imitating the iPhone's design, not by innovating: much as Microsoft imitated Apple's operating system.

But it's obvious that energy efficiency alone is not sufficient to ensure product adoption-electric cars, solar panels and CFLs all have significant scaling problems, each for different reasons, but they all miss the boat in some key way. Electric cars don’t necessarily represent a net effect in energy efficiency, but more of a strategy of displacing pollution from the car itself to the emissions of the coal fired power plants that produce half of our electricity. EVs have long suffered from one big limiting factor from the standpoint of consumers- battery life. Even though most drivers’ use patterns could accommodate a 50 mile range for daily driving, we use our cars for such a wide range of driving that anything less than the standard range of gasoline powered cars is untenable. And of course they're still cars- cars that clog the massive network of roads required for our location-inefficient urban infrastructure.

Solar panels are a more complicated issue, but the limiting factor in their adoption has been upfront capital cost, not so much cost of the PV modules themselves (which has been dropping swiftly as China ramps up production), but installation and related system costs, which are roughly two-thirds the total cost to end users. ROI is not always clear to purchasers, and government incentives have largely disappeared. Plus, the efficiency of the modules is improving rapidly, so buyers rightly fear that their installation will be obsolete soon after purchase. PVs are definitely an important part of an overall energy strategy focused on renewables and distributed generation, but they’re only one component, and not necessarily yet a key driver in retooling our energy infrastructure- possibly they will be when combined with smart grid technology.

Less than elegant
One of the best examples of a very energy efficient product with a fatal flaw is CFLs, which are affordable but widely hated for the quality of the light they produce (although to be fair they have improved since first being introduced and are continuing to improve). Lighting has been until very recently an overlooked product category for improved quality, affordability and efficiency. LEDs which finally solve quality of light problems and offer much more affordable products are just beginning to enter the market. The history of technical developments and market adoption in man made lighting has a fascinating trajectory to it, with people preferring the specific light quality of previous sources like gas lamps and incandescent long after replacement technologies become entrenched. For instance, there’s now a market for vintage carbon filament bulbs, which feature weak and flickering light output that create a certain "mood." I will post a lot more on lighting in the near future.

The classic Shaker rocker
An image of efficiency that comes to mind for me often is the Shaker chair-I have fond memories of assembling one of these from a kit and using it to rock my baby daughter to sleep about a quarter century ago. I’ve always had a great respect for anyone who can design a chair, especially for mass production: they’re a lot harder than they look. Elegance and efficiency in design comes perhaps not so much from what’s there, but from what’s not- there’s just enough material to provide strength and support, and not an ounce more. That this design style evolved from a community of craftsmen who viewed the creation of artifacts as an act of devotion and worship only lends to its appeal. Of course Shaker furniture has been in high demand far beyond the reaches of Shaker communities for many generations, testament to our innate appreciation of efficiency, utility, affordability and quality.