Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Groves and A Furry Roof: My Home in 100 Years

I thought that I would spend a few moments engaging in some retropaleofuturology i.e., creating a vision of the future that is unlikely to ever occur and will seem ridiculous in the very near future. But here goes...

I--like almost everyone I talk to--am fascinated with climate change (it seems that global warming is too specific a concept). It has become a popular issue; it's a political issue; and it's a scientific issue. But when will it become an engineering issue? Engineers don't really care whether it exists or not. They only care about when there is sufficient financial justification to create artefacts that address the market demand for some climate change tchotchke.

There are two types of possible engineering projects. There are Big Projects and there are Small Projects. Big Projects are, well, big. Think Project Apollo: big money, big bureaucracy, and big toys. I'm not sure what Project Apollo for climate change will look like. Perhaps we will float some sort of massive solar reflector in orbit. Or maybe we will recreate Pinatubo eruptions on a regular basis. Whatever it is, it will be big.

Small Projects are far more interesting. They represent the type of engineering that we see every day but that we rarely think about. Why, for example, am I driving low curb-weight vehicle with a small engine that uses far less gasoline than the behemoths of the 1970s? Or why do I have a high efficiency forced-air natural gas furnace rather than an oil-burning boiler? The answer to both of these questions is small projects--those little bits of technology that progress in an evolutionary manner but have a dramatic impact on a particular issue.

So what how will these small projects effect the look of my house. Here are some thoughts:
  1. My house will still be there. It's 100 years old now and it's still quite an interesting and comfortable building. The features that make it quaint will contribute to its longevity. I also suspect that many of the internal accessories will be there as well. The oak doors with ornamental door knobs still work as well as they did for the first Victorian residents. I'm sure that next century's owner will enjoy them as well.
  2. It will have a furry roof. I think that Corbusier once suggested that a particular church should be covered with fur. A furry roof has some tremendous passive benefits. It's light weight and high volume (i.e., good insulator) but it also has a very high surface area and responds physically to seismic or wind impetus. I have no idea how to make fur that can generate power from the wind and sun. I'll let the scientists and engineers figure it out.
  3. There will be no front lawn. Instead of a lawn there will be a small plantation of trees or maybe some sort of woody stemmed plant such as bamboo. These trees will probably be bio-engineered to grow rapidly. On a regular basis the owners will have to cut these trees down and put them at the curbside for pickup. These trees will be cut, bundled, and pressed into carbon blocks that are then locked away in old mines.
And that's it. No flying cars. Just groves and furry roofs.

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