Sunday, March 10, 2013

driving lessons

Last night, somewhere on I-75, the odometer on our 2007 Prius crossed the highly symbolic, yet utterly unimportant, 100,000 mile threshold. To mark the event, we’re listing the lessons learned from the car, and how they influenced the design of tin box...

better questions make for better solutions: the Prius began with a challenge to Toyota’s engineers and designers to build an affordable family car that achieves unprecedented fuel efficiency. Pose a question like that, one that embraces the full extent of ecological and social sustainability, and architecture will respond. 

waste equals fuel: the car’s efficiency comes in part from regenerative braking, in which the process of braking generates electricity, which is then used to propel the car. In other cars, this power source remains untapped heat energy, dissipated by the brakes. At tin box, we capture some of the storm water, which we make potable instead of pouring into the street. Water drained from the showers and tubs is reused to flush the toilets, rather than sent straight to the septic system. We compost organic waste, which we use in the gardens we built by reusing coral rock excavated to make room for the septic system. 

challenge conventional wisdom: the Prius uses less fuel than a number of smaller cars, demonstrating that reducing size isn’t the only way to maximize fuel efficiency. Similarly, the great tensile strength of our house’s steel skin and structural skeleton demonstrate that thick concrete block walls aren’t the only way to protect a building from hurricanes. Each problem deserves to be addressed on its own terms. 

conservation is as important as generation: the car’s narrow tires and low coefficient of drag are as important as its regenerative braking and electric motor. Likewise, the house’s ample insulation and orientation strategies (windows oriented to allow indirect light to minimize heat gain) reduce the electrical load required by air conditioning and artificial light. 

monitoring resource usage enables better conservation: When you see how much you use, you tend to use less. The Prius has a screen that allows the driver to monitor gasoline use, which in turn enables the driver to modify speed and acceleration to boost efficiency. At tin box, we’re able to compare how much electricity we produce and consume, and we hope to install more sophisticated monitoring to enable us to better tweak our efficiency. 

compare life-cycle costs, not sticker prices: the Prius’s lower fuel and maintenance costs more than compensate for its higher purchase price, over the course of its five-year life span (according to Consumer Reports). The house achieves comparable cost competitiveness over its life span by using construction materials that eliminate the need to repaint the exterior, replace the roof, and fumigate the interior, along with much lower energy costs. 

need for humility: reducing energy use is not the same as eliminating it. All those gallons of gas we’ve saved (at least 4,000, so far) are great, but the gallons we’ve burned over the past six years probably represent a larger carbon footprint than the preceding 27 years’ worth of commuting by mass transit. Our house is terrific, but it is still a single-family house in a sprawling region whose low density and lack of serious mass transit has created the conditions for an ecological disaster. We need to stay humble, and do more.  

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