Embracing new technologies

Nov 26, 2018

Things I could not have imagined just a few years ago are now coming to market, are affordable and practical, and are changing the world for the better.

This must surely be the most interesting time to be designing and developing buildings. The new technologies that are zooming forward are truly changing the world of the built environment – and very much for the better.

Take, for instance, power sources, distribution, and consumption. Some of the technologies we’re exploring today, I hadn’t even imagined five to 10 years ago. Solar generation of electricity is with us today in a big way – not only solar panels (the cost of which continues to go down) on the top of office buildings, but in large arrays being built by utilities and incorporated into our power grids.

Along with solar power (only available during sunlight hours), storage for non-sunlit times is advancing. When I first incorporated solar panels on the roof of a house I built in San Francisco in 2001, I wanted to have a battery backup. This consisted of a rack of 12-volt car batteries – expensive and high-maintenance. There were no Tesla Power Walls in 2001, nor other more efficient and less expensive storage systems. Today there are several, with others being designed and coming to market every day, reducing cost, increasing efficiency and improving maintenance. The only good thing 17 years ago was that photovoltaic panels generated 12-volt DC current and that’s what batteries liked. Back then, I still needed an inverter to power the lighting in my home to inefficient incandescent lamps and, although a little more efficient, fluorescent lamps.

Today, the world is being lighted increasingly by LED (light-emitting diode) lamps, with much longer lamp-lives and much reduced power consumption. And color technologies with LEDs have improved greatly, with many of them being manufactured to allow tuning to exactly the color temperature that you desire or continuously tunable to follow the circadian cycle of daylight. This is very effective for healing in hospitals and for higher productivity and health in office spaces. Take a look at recent writings on biophilia to understand why that is important.

By the way, I should also mention that LEDs operate best on 12-volt DC current. It just so happens that 12-volt DC is what flows through your computer cables to recharge your computer and your cell phone. And, guess what, no conduit or electrical inspections are required. I’m working with one company that offers complete lighting and control solutions based on 12-volt DC power, which we’re thinking about incorporating into our project here in Reno. This same company has done street lighting between two towns in South America that are 21 kilometers apart. The system is off-grid. All the power comes from solar panels mounted every so often along the route. Power is stored in a battery system by day to be used to illuminate the route at night. And Wi-Fi is flowing through these lines as well.

New technologies are available to deliver 12-volt DC power from a clear glass window. We’re building several structures that have due east, south, and west exposures in a bright sunlight city. We and the companies we’re talking to are also exploring electro-chromic and photo-chromic coating, which is used in eyeglasses that automatically turn into sunglasses when sunlight hits them. If we can put all the pieces together, we’ll have a glazing system that will generate 12-volt DC power to LED lights, requiring neither an inverter or a transformer at the lamp end. We’ll have window glass that will turn into sun shading either electrically or automatically. Tenants will be able to look at the views outside their windows without drawing curtains, blinds, or shades.

New and emerging technologies are among the reasons I’m so excited about being a designer/developer today.

Edward Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at efriedrichs@zweiggroup.com.

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