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Free Energy Can Be So Black and White


Ever the iconoclast, or at least ever the wannabe, I spent a good number of my teen years insisting on an all-black wardrobe, and to this day I still have my happy black days. Leaving for school in September, Mom would always ask “Aren’t you hot?”

“Nah…” (yes, but it was about looking good. Sweat, what sweat?)

So everyone knows a black outfit on a hot day is very different than a white one, even when they’re otherwise identical. Black absorbs heat and white reflects it.

But just how useful might this principle prove in ecological design? What opportunities does it provide? Could we generate flow in still ponds with patterns of black and white stone? Create temperate and tropical microclimates right next to each other? How about artificial winds where the air gets purified as it flows? Could we reduce the need for powered heating and cooling with color? If so, painting the house isn’t just about pretty; it’s functional… and more profoundly beautiful.

So to grow as a designer and see what’s possible, I pulled together an experiment. It isn’t rocket science, and I know I’m not the first to do it, but it was great to engage.

With one of my wooden octahedron prototypes, about 3 feet to a side already painted black for the LooptWorks show, I painted the other one white. On each I put a triangular “table top” made of half-inch ply, one painted black, the other white. Then I lined them up about two feet apart along the sun-arc so that both got full sun all day and so that neither sat on a hotter or colder spot than the other.

The two octahedrons, one white, one black, side by side in the roof garden

With a laser temperature gun, I took the temperature at the center and corner of each table top, and for comparison, took the temperature of the tar-panel rooftop itself. I should also mention that I did this experiment on a hot LA August day, with not a cloud in the sky after the initial coastal burnoff by probably 10 am.

I found several relationships. When the sun is directly overhead, there was as much as 65 degrees F difference between the tabletops. The black might close in on 150 degrees F while the white hovered around 80 or 90. The difference fell quickly once the sun dropped to the horizon, and disappeared entirely once it was gone, so with sunlight out of the equation, factors other than color determine temperature.

Results from the temperature experiment, showing big differences between the black and white octahedrons

The temperature of the black octahedron swung wildly in daylight with even a slight breeze, more in the corner than the center. While I scanned with the temp gun for 20 seconds, the temperature at the corner might vary 10 degrees with a breeze. The thin plywood, with little thermal mass, would dissipate and regain its heat quickly. The white also fluctuated but not nearly so wildly. And the white sometimes even hung out in the 60 degree range while the hot sun roiled above, setting the roof ablaze to the tune of 120-140 degrees F. The temperature difference between the black center and black corner also varied as much as 20 degrees F while the sun was high up, showing again how the slight thermal mass and poor heat retention of the plywood gives it up to the air quickly.

So can we we generate flow in still ponds with patterns of black and white stone? Create temperate and tropical microclimates right next to each other? Artificial winds where the air gets purified as it flows? Reduce the need for powered heating and cooling with color? Yes, but exactly how and how much is a matter of more experimentation, as well as learning from people who have done these sorts of things, in some cases thousands of years ago, and in some cases learning from the most recent science available. A half-cup innovation plus a half-cup of remembering.

Thinking about the 2012 festival circuit, experimental structures in the “developing world” and some planned DIY offerings, this new awareness is definitely clarifying and helping to define some Vertecology build proposals already in the works.

Some design opportunities now apparent: Using a material other than wood will effect the temperature differences. Using steel or some kinds stone of could produce differences in the hundreds of degrees, maybe enough to turn electrical turbines or “magically” pull water out of “thin air,” though steel heat would probably dissipate a lot faster than stone heat.

Greater thermal mass would also take much longer to heat but also to cool, making it possible to radiate warmth well into the night and keep a house cool well into the day. And materials can be played against one another – low retention, low conductivity wood painted white, vs high retention and moderately conductive stone, vs highly conductive and low retention steel, to create truly designer passive solar effects.

Taking this into consideration, here’s one application of passive solar in a “permaculture structure” with multiple functions in the diagram below. This is based on solar updraft tower technology, and this specific set of diagrams takes the fuel-free energy-generation Botswana Solar Updraft test facility, which ran in 2007, as the starting point. (Their experiment documentation here).

Solar Updraft tower diagram, inspired by the Botswana Solar Updraft Test Facility, a fuel-less passive energy genesis system with more potential ecological benefits

While their small test tower would probably not generate much power, with the right combination and density of materials, its performance might improve dramatically without an increase in size. This at the very least would make a great project for the 2012 festival circuit, and it could become a model for community-scale free energy generation, desert-greening and even seed spreading and vertical habitat building… all at once. (I actually have less interest in really huge industrial versions of this structure 800 meters tall, which require industrial-scale funding, a corporate building approach, and which could have adverse effects on the earth’s atmosphere – think jets of our precious air superheated and streaming into space)

On a more immediate note I also now know why the Sugar Shack roof garden is frying, and we can do something about it. The first of the new tire planters has already been painted white, as of about 4 pm today.

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Ants, Grasshoppers, a New Kind of Economy and the Vision Behind Vertecology

Good morning beautiful world. Here’s a bit of a story for you. There was once an ant and a grasshopper. The grasshopper hopped about all summer, enjoying the fruits and the grains all around him. He looked down on the ant, who spent her summer gathering and harvesting for the winter, industriously taking the bounty into the ground every day… working away.

The grasshopper said to the ant, why do you worry so?

The ant, not understanding the meaning of the word “worry,” asked, what do you mean? I’m just ensuring that our people have plenty through the winter when it comes, that we have abundance then, as now.

The grasshopper replied, “Winter? What is winter?”

This is perhaps the tale now unfolding in America, and not in the way you would expect. We’re now hearing stories in the media about the pending default on US debt, and yes, it is indeed pending. It may not happen on August 2, maybe an emergency deal will be struck, maybe again and again until 2012 or 2015 or even 2040 but it is coming, and through no fault of our own.

It is not a matter of our stupidity, or policies favoring labor or management, or our overspending or our failure to “create jobs.” In fact it is an old story, one that some people might have seen as stupidly and painfully obvious sometime around 1600 AD, when Europeans started coming in droves to the so called new world.

So what is winter then? Do we mean here the inevitable collapse of civilization? Not exactly. There are seasons to all things; many cultures honor and acknowledge this. If you look at a human life, or the emergence of an idea, or the growth of a tree, you could say that there are seasons, periods of progression, each with its own rules, its own appropriate behaviors.

Life on our planet has evolved to work with the seasons, and more than merely to survive them. The evolutionary impulse driving each and every one of us is infinitely opportunistic. It goes beyond “surviving” and makes opportunity of seasons, uses them to maximize the effect of its own energies. The bear hibernates in winter so he can be virile in the spring and strong in the summer. Life uses the seasons as springboards, the way a surfer uses a wave.

So then, perhaps winter is not a thing to be afraid of, though it is a thing to be prepared for. And just like the waves, if we learn to use them, we can capture their energy and catapult ourselves to shore. If we’re impatient with them, they crush us and at the end of being crushed we still have to figure out how to get to shore.

If we try to force a tree to grow out of season we kill it. If we force a child to fill bubbles in a form to make him economically competitive before he can read, we stunt him. If we try to force a truly transformative innovation into a money machine for ourselves or our investors before the next quarterly report, we kill its spirit and lose the true opportunity.

In fact it could be said that the great innovations of our civilization have happened not because of our monetary system but despite it, but that is another story for another day, for now just google the internet and after that, google “Google.”

For now, imagine the street where you live. Imagine it, get into the feel of it. Listen to the sounds, smell the smells, imagine the time of day.

Now imagine there’s just one thing different. Imagine that within a five-minute walk of where you’re standing, in any direction, there is a completely organic forest of food. There are towering trees dripping with fruit. Apples, pears, avocadoes. Maybe there are greenhouses filled with tropical plenty. Beneath the trees are shrubs full of berries and vines growing up around the trees. In the shadows and clearings there are vegetables growing up in plentiful beds.

There are vertical walls and towers bursting with fruiting vines. Perhaps there are pathways and running streams and fish filed ponds stoked with waters captured in the recent rains.

Perhaps there are chickens or goats roaming about in open pens; the chickens are pecking the worms out of the ground before they can become flies. The goats are clearing the brush and dead grass before they can choke the veggies or burn. There are however no fences for keeping people out.

And somebody in the neighborhood has figured out how to make cheese of the goat milk. On the way across their land every once in awhile, you stop by the artful little stand they’ve set up, where the cheese is offered in exchange for a friendly “hello.” They probably demand you eat their cheese. Saying no, well, it just isn’t polite.

The forests near your street have been worked into the available land. Maybe it’s a narrow strip running across the front of every front yard. Or maybe it is a big central park or squeezed between apartment blocks, rising vertically. Maybe it was organized through long, arduous meetings at City Hall, or maybe it was just a bunch of neighbors jumping in on a good idea.

Or maybe it was started some years back when the local hippies just kept insisting on painting up the intersection and seed-bombing the vacant lot the next block over. Maybe it was legislated at the state or even the national level. Maybe you volunteered, maybe you figured out how you could get paid to help, and getting all the exercise you needed you realized you could quit the gym and save the $50 a month. Maybe it was some combination of all the above.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter how it was started.

Now, this is what it looks like. For the most part the food forest now takes care of itself with just a bit of tending, nudging and guiding here and there. The bees pollinate the citrus, and maybe kids from the local school tend some aspects of it, learning invaluable lessons about ecology and natural law and the usefulness of seasons they could never learn in a flurry of classrooms, building forts in the trees after hours and so getting a bit of algebra, geometry, phys-ed and leadership for free before their time, and on and on it goes.

The fruit of the trees and the vegetables and all the bounty is free.

In fact you have to enjoy it. If you don’t there just aren’t enough birds to eat all the fruit, they can only saturate the food forests on other blocks and in other towns with so many seeds, and rotting piles of fruit attract rodents. Of course rodents aren’t so much of a problem since they keep the cats and hawks coming around and the cats and hawks bring more nutrients to the soils, and with the humans offering so much plenty, they’re actually beginning to respond to our training, or maybe guidance is the better word.

Shit here, not here.

So this is what your street looks like. Now expand your view; the whole town looks like this. Zoom out in the Google Map of your mind, and notice that it looks like this for fifty miles in every direction. In fact the whole state looks like this!

The big cities jammed with trellises and wild structures for increasing growable surface areas (some of the designs were pioneered by Vertecology 😉 😉 Yee-haw!) The small towns too and the vast rural areas, each in their own way, are bursting appropriate to how they use the land.

And so the songbirds, nature’s agents of plant biodiversity spread seeds from town to town. A drought or a fire or an invasive species here or there does wreak havoc occasionally, but it looks like this everywhere, and with nature’s vast diversity and reserves and people’s vast resourcefulness, the healing happens quickly.

With your street looking like this, how important is the US default to you? How much does it affect you? You know you will always have food, and will always have neighbors. Can anyone control you now? Can anyone force you into a job you hate, that you know doesn’t make a difference? How much do the battles in Washington effect you now? How much control do they have over your future? How much does your home value in next year’s dollars matter?

If you lost your job, would you starve? And if you knew that starvation was off the table, forever, for you, for your family; if even homelessness meant just ending up in another bountiful neighborhood like yours where the neighbors took you in till you earned your keep, how much would you fear it?

What would you do, that you are now afraid of doing?

And now the logical conclusion of this vision. If it looks like this everywhere, then starvation and homelessness are off the table for everyone. Everywhere. Everywhere where everyone has prepared, like the ant, for winter.

How much longer are the neighbors on your street going to slam their doors to you, staring bug-eyed at the TV because they have to recover from yet another day of life wasted at the office, hoping they can someday sell the house for a cool mil and get the hell out of here?

How demanding is the doctor that you pay up front when you’ve broken your leg, when he knows he will never starve? How much longer is the whistleblower in the oil company going to hold his tongue? How long are the foot-soldiers of that oil company going to keep enforcing the internal memos to crush the guy on your block who’s figured out how to power his car on the rainwater he’s catching on his roof or the lettuce he’s gathering down the street?

That’s right, game over for the conspiracy in the sky.

Free energy and open source medicine are already at hand. And there are people among us who are figuring out how to build powertools in their garages with CNC lathes made of scrap. They too can walk away from the crappy job at the parking violations bureau where they’ve been trained to make you miserable. With easing financial pressures, they can begin to become fathers to their children again and show junior how it’s done.

This is the power of preparing for winter. This is the promise of permaculture.

And to those of you who say this is a wild fantasy, consider this: The kind of food/energy forest imagined here is just an ecosystem like nature builds anyway. This is how the natural world already works, we just haven’t been paying attention. If it didn’t work this way there would have been no human beings. We’ve just been too worried about the stock market and welfare-state socialism to notice, and while we’ve been distracted, some of those “kooks” out there have been proving food forestry is possible.

When we find complex alien life on other worlds, we will find in every case that it was born and now participates in some kind of ecosystem, in every case anywhere in the universe, period. And even with human beings in the mix, there is evidence it really looked this way on some parts of the planet for very long periods of time before the arrival of armed colonists who brought plagues from their unsanitary cities and told the locals to forget their languages.

There is a reason why the English named so many places something-“field” in the lands the Haudenosaunee left behind. Deerfield, Bloomfield, Fairfield, Oakfield, Redfield. There is evidence that the Amazon was, shall we say, enhanced by human hands over tens of thousands of years.

It starts, quite literally, with planting a seed and giving it good environment for growing. In a field, in a windowbox, in a planter in a treehouse, on a rooftop. If this vision speaks to you, do it now. Start saving seeds, start the food forest wherever you can, however you know how. If you’re the social kind, involve the neighbors.

If you’re the reading kind, pick up Gaia’s Garden or One-Straw Revolution, or one of the other countless books starting to hit the shelves. Look up Bill Mollison, check out videos on Youtube. Don’t stop because others don’t start. If you’re the political kind, go to City Hall.

And for God’s own sake lets not make a dogma of it; it’s more like science even when it gets spiritual. Experiment, test, see what works and what doesn’t and share the results. This is our world, not the Illuminati’s and it’s ours because we were born here. Of course that means it’s everyone else’s too – well, okay, even those pesky Illuminati – but they have to get along with the rest of us, and like Bucky Fuller said, we’re the crew of this spaceship so sooner or later we’re going to have to learn to fly it straight.

We’re even finding that organic agriculture can diffuse the population bomb.

Perhaps winter in this case, in the evolution of human culture, is that season brought about by a particular money-fearing culture going against the natural order of things and getting away with it for awhile, sort of like the grasshopper in summer. Going against a natural order that does not bind us, as we have imagined in our tortured nightmares, but one that is designed to offer and seize endless opportunity, and after winter, there is always spring.

And this vision by the way, is the reason for Vertecology. I am more of an architect and hammer-swinging builder than a farmer or horticulturist myself, but I am learning that there’s power in the crossover, what permies like to call the “edge condition,” and there is endless opportunity for radical innovation in design and architecture as those vocations take their rightful, meaningful and essential place in a permaculture economy.

I hope to spend many days of the coming years creating such innovations, to share many of them with you on these pages here, and to use a business model that helps lead us from constraint and secrecy to a world that says to you DIYers out there in big capital letters, “GOD DAMN IT, RUN WITH IT AND DON’T WORRY IF YOU LOSE YOUR PANTS ON THE WAY!” In the meantime, maybe some of you will become clients, and no matter what, thank you again for taking the time to read what’s here.

Let’s do our best to make this the world of our dreams, and we don’t have to blow up the Earth to get Heaven too. Nature really is on our side, even if sometimes, she’s a brutal coach indeed.