Sunday, December 4, 2011

Dome Sweet Dome - Housing for the Future

Dome structures made of various materials have a long architectural lineage extending into prehistory. Most people think of domes that sit atop structures like the Capitol Building in Washington, DC or St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.  

A monolithic dome (from Greek mono- and -lithic, meaning "one stone") is a structure cast in a one-piece form. The form may be permanent or temporary and may or may not remain part of the finished structure.  Forms have been made using nearly every common structural material including air pressure supported fabric.

The earliest form of monolithic dome structure could be considered to be the igloo. While it is constructed of blocks of compressed snow, these blocks melt and re-freeze to form a strong, homogeneous structure. The dome-like shape of the igloo exhibits the two major advantages of a dome-shaped structure: great strength, and good insulation. The strength is due to the natural strength of the arch, and the insulation is due to the minimal surface area of a spherical section.

The Inuit's of Canada's Central Arctic, and Greenland's Thule region were the predominant builders of igloos. Architecturally, the igloo is unique in that it is a dome that can be raised out of independent blocks leaning on each other and polished to fit without an additional supporting structure during construction. An igloo that is built correctly will support the weight of a person standing on the roof.  Igloos are energy-efficient. On the outside, temperatures may be as low as −45 °C (−49 °F), but on the inside the temperature may range from −7 °C (19 °F) to 16 °C (61 °F) when warmed by body heat alone.

The first modern monolithic dome structure was built in Provo, Utah and opened in 1963 as an ice skating rink. Called Ream's Turtle after its 1967 conversion into a general store by new owner Paul Ream, the building stood until it was demolished in 2006 for new construction.

Ream's Turtle was built by first creating a mound of dirt in the desired shape of the shell, an ellipsoidal section 240 feet (73 m) long, 160 feet (49 m) wide and 40 feet (12 m) high. The mound was then covered in a grid of rebar, to provide strength, and a layer of concrete approximately 4 inches (100 mm) thick. After the concrete was cured, the dirt was excavated through the doorways, leaving the roof standing in its place. The floor was then poured to finish the structure.

Modern construction differs significantly from the original concrete-over-dirt method. The current methods were developed by three brothers from Idaho: Barry, Randy, and David South. The first dome built using these method was constructed in Shelley, Idaho:
  • A reinforced concrete foundation, or "ring beam", is constructed, defining the shape of the base of the structure.
  • The fabric form, or air form, is attached to the foundation and inflated with an air blower. The air form contains an airlock to allow workers to enter the form while it is inflated.
  • A layer of polyurethane foam is sprayed on the interior of the form. (Its purposes are to give rigidity to the air form, secure the rebar in place, provide support for spraying in the concrete mixture, and insulate the final structure.)
  • Rebar is attached to the outside layer of foam, using clips that are attached to the foam.
  • Several inches of concrete are sprayed over the rebar frame.
  • After the concrete has set, the blower is turned off.
  • The exposed surface of the air form may be left as is, or a surface treatment such as paint, tile, etc., may be applied. (Proper selection of air form material will ensure prevention from long-term degradation due to ultraviolet radiation.)
In instances where necessity requires economical construction for multiple small and basic dwellings, the dome can be built without insulation and the air form can be removed after completion and re-used to build additional domes.

In 1979, David South, president of Monolithic, and Barry South, David’s younger brother, as co-inventors, were awarded a patent for the Monolithic Dome. The USPTO awarded this patent because the structure called a Monolithic Dome was substantially different from all other types of structures, in use, in America. What made it different was its construction process that stipulated using an inflatable Airform, polyurethane foam insulation and steel-reinforced concrete.

The dome, when finished, is earthquake, tornado and hurricane resistant (FEMA rates them as "near-absolute protection" from F5 tornadoes and Category 5 Hurricanes). Recently, a number of monolithic domes constructed using MDI techniques have survived major disasters:
  • Several monolithic domes in Florida survived direct hits by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
  • Several monolithic domes were in the path of the 2005 and 2006 wildfires in Oklahoma and Texas, and survived with only slight charring of the exterior foam insulation.
  • In 2003, a monolithic dome government building in Iraq survived a direct hit by a 5,000 lb (2,300 kg) bomb. The interior of the structure was totally destroyed, but the dome itself remained standing.

Today, Monolithic is a family of companies sharing a mutual goal: to improve the lives of people worldwide through the introduction and construction of Monolithic Domes, for personal and public use, that are superior in strength, energy-efficiency and cost control. Monolithic Dome Institute (or MDI) is the information-generating and educational branch of the Monolithic family.  Their website is an excellent resource for learning more about this type of architecture and construction technique.

With natural disasters always a consideration in structural safety, exhorbitant energy costs, and sky-rocketing insurance premiums, monolithic domes are a logical answer to humanity's future housing needs.  I urge anyone who is thinking about building a home to do the research on the MDI website.  

Until next time...become the change you imagine.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Biomimicry - Natural solutions to everyday problems

Humans have always looked to nature for inspiration to solve problems. One of the early examples of biomimicry was the study of birds to enable human flight.Otto Schmitt, an American academic and inventor, coined the term biomimetics to describe the transfer of ideas from biology to technology. The term biomimetics only entered the Websters Dictionary in 1974 and is defined as "the study of the formation, structure, or function of biologically produced substances and materials (as enzymes or silk) and biological mechanisms and processes (as protein synthesis or photosynthesis) especially for the purpose of synthesizing similar products by artificial mechanisms which mimic natural ones".

The term biomimicry was popularized by scientist and author Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature. Biomimicry is defined in her book as a "new science that studies nature's models and then imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to solve human problems". Benyus suggests looking to Nature as a "Model, Measure, and Mentor" and emphasizes sustainability as an objective of biomimicry. The Biomimicry Institute was founded in 2005 , in response to overwhelming interest in the subject following the publication of her book.

A typical case study of biomimicry is Eastgate Centre, in Harare, Zimbabwe, in Africa. The Eastgate building has an air conditioning system modeled on the self-cooling mounds of Macrotermes michaelseni, termites that maintain the temperature inside their nest to within one degree, day and night.  Architect Mick Pearce collaborated with engineers at Arup Associates to design Eastgate, which uses 90% percent less energy for ventilation than conventional buildings its size, and has already saved the building owners over $3.5 million dollars in air conditioning costs.

Nature moves water and air using a logarithmic or exponentially growing spiral, as commonly seen in seashells. This pattern shows up everywhere in Nature: in the curled up trunks of elephants and tails of chameleons, in the pattern of swirling galaxies in outer space and kelp in ocean surf, and in the shape of the cochlea of our inner ears and our own skin pores. Inspired by the way Nature moves water and air, PAX Scientific Inc. applied this fundamental geometry to the shape of human-made rotary devices for the first time, in fans, mixers, propellers, turbines and pumps. Depending on application, the resulting designs reduce energy usage by a staggering 10-85% over conventional rotors, and noise by up to 75%.

One project of the Biomimicry Institute is Innovation for Conservation. Companies and individuals who participate support the efforts of conservation organizations to protect biodiversity, generally from a portion of profits derived from the sale of products inspired by nature. With the help of biodiversity experts, The Biomimicry Institute (TBI) helps identify the most promising conservation initiatives deserving of support, encourages participation in the program from companies with product designs inspired by nature, and publicizes our partners’ participation in the program. TBI does this work for free. 100% of partner donations go to on-the-ground, effective conservation efforts.

AskNature, is the online inspiration source for the Biomimicry community.  A free, open source project, built by the community and for the community, AskNature's goal is to connect innovative minds with life’s best ideas, and in the process, inspire technologies that create conditions conducive to life.

Next time you're outside, look around and see all the marvelous ways that nature solves everyday problems. Who knows? It might inspire you to invent the next big thing.

Until next time...become the change you imagine.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

GOOD news

It has been a while since I last posted. My intention has been to post more frequently, but life intrudes and plans change. Several very interesting items have found their way to my inbox over the last several months.

From my friends at GOOD: New York-based Bright Farms, which builds rooftop greenhouses, hopes to turn a profit while cutting shoppers' "food miles" down to zero by growing vegetables where people buy them: the supermarket. Urban areas would definitely benefit from this plan, as well as the suburbs. But what about local farmers?  Many areas, around the country, have local farmers struggling to survive. They are trying, desperately,  to keep their farms from being foreclosed on, or just outright abandoned. 

As a fan of the slow food movement I think it is important to find a way to support local farmers. Co-ops, farmer's markets, CSA's are some of the ways that this can be accomplished. Perhaps there is a way to take a page from the Bright Farms business model to get supermarket chains to contract with local farmers for locally grown produce and locally raised meat and eggs.The benefit to all should be obvious. 

Transportation costs would be reduced, as well as the carbon emissions produced by transporting food across the country. Produce would be grown for flavor, not for it's ability to survive long distance travel. Local farmers would have a local outlet for the sale of their produce.  By cutting out the transportation and distribution costs farmers could get a fair price for their goods, and consumers would still have access to affordable, fresh, healthy food.  Farmers could better afford to use sustainable methods for farming, allowing healthier food to be available.  Definitely a winning situation for all involved!

Also from GOOD: The world's dependence on oil is not news, but a company that can turn plastics back into oil is. Vadxx, an Ohio-based energy company, is taking even plastics that can't be recycled and reverting them to the material state from whence they came: crude oil. The company takes the bits that don't qualify for normal recycling and even uses non-metal parts from junked cars.  Vadxx says that each of its oil production units could shrink landfill deposits by 10 to 14,000 tons a year.  Think of the benefits!  Communities would reduce their landfills, there would hopefully be more local participation in the recycling of plastics.  Less drilling offshore, and in pristine wilderness locations, like Alaska. Jobs could be created for the collection and sorting process. What a boon to the economy and the environment.  Add a sustainable energy source, like solar, for the production units, and it's definitely a winning strategy for the planet.

Speaking of solar...researchers at the Australian National University, working with the country's military, announced that they've created a wearable solar panelTransform Solar, an Idaho-based company, will be producing the panels and should have a prototype ready by December. The benefits of a mobile power source are pretty obvious.  With so many high-tech accessories like tablets, smart phones, mp3 players, etc. the idea of wearable energy is pretty appealing.  If everything goes well in the land down under, the world may soon see a new fashion trend!

Check out my friends at GOOD, for great information and ideas on how to change our world.

Until next time...become the change you imagine.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Solar Growth

According to GTM Research and the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), growth in U.S. solar energy installations remains strong. Their recently released  quarterly report shows that two-thirds more solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity was added in the first quarter of this year than during first quarter of 2010. As of early April, the cumulative size of all grid-tied solar installations stood at 2.85 gigawatts — enough to power about 600,000 U.S. homes.

Most people that know me know that I am a big fan of solar energy. It just makes sense.  The energy source is FREE - of huge importance in these economically challenging times.  It is CLEAN - of huge importance to the health of the planet.  It creates jobs - anyone seen the latest unemployment figures?  So why, oh why, are only a handful of states leading the way in solar energy use?

California is not the only state with abundant sunshine. Florida is called the Sunshine State for a reason.  New Mexico is predominately desert with an annual rainfall average below 14 inches. Nevada is the driest state with less than 10 inches a year, and has one of the most energy-consuming cities in the world - Las Vegas. In rural areas where traditional electric power distribution is difficult and expensive to build and maintain, solar would seem a viable alternative.

Now I will be the first to say that solar power does not work everywhere. Bellingham, Washington, for instance only averages about 35% sunshine, and Hawaii is the wettest state in the US with average yearly rainfall of 63 inches. However, in states with abundant sunshine and relatively low rainfall amounts, solar power should be a dominant energy source.

Until next time...become the change you imagine.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Earth Day 2011: The work continues

On April 22, 1970 twenty million Americans took to the streets, parks, and auditoriums to demonstrate for a healthy, sustainable environment. Thousands of colleges and universities organized protests against the deterioration of the environment. Groups that had been fighting against oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife suddenly realized they shared common values.

Earth Day 1970 achieved a rare political alignment, enlisting support from Republicans and Democrats, rich and poor, city slickers and farmers, tycoons and labor leaders. The first Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.

Over 40 years later, the environmental movement is going strong.  More and more organizations are being created to address different environmental concerns.  The concepts of sustainability, conservation, and restoration, are becoming more mainstream than ever before. Protecting the earth is no longer seen as a radical fringe movement. And although there have been enormous strides in the last four decades, there is still so much left to do.

In 2009, the Environmental Defense Fund reported that of the 82,000 chemicals available for use in the U.S., only about 200 had been required to be tested for safety. The EPA announced March 15, 2010, that its inventory of more than 84,000 selected chemicals manufactured, used, or imported into the US was now available online at no cost.  Here are some statistics:

In the past 50 years more than 75,000 chemicals have been introduced into the environment. Today 300 synthetic chemicals are found in the bodies of humans. Even newborn babies have synthetic chemicals passed on from their mothers.

 —REACH (Registration, Evaluation, and
Authorization of Chemicals, a European Union program)

Nationwide, air pollution causes between 50,000 and 100,000 premature deaths per year – and soot accounts for a majority of these. Soot is the most deadly air pollutant, accounting for more deaths than homicides or automobile accidents. According to the California Air Resources Board, diesel soot accounts for 70 percent of the cancer risk from toxic air pollution statewide.



The Washington (state) Department of Health discovered that one fourth of tested farm workers handling pesticides were overexposed to extremely hazardous chemicals. Carbamates or organophosphates can cause dizziness, breathing problems, muscle twitching, and paralysis. Scientists are discovering a whole universe of health effects associated with the products of our industrial age with profound implications for public health and regulatory policy. The continuous appearance of toxic effects at lower and lower levels of exposure is especially troubling since low-level exposure to some chemicals is practically universal.

 —The 2050 Project Newsletter, Fall 1994;
State of the World 1994, Worldwatch Institute
More than 32 million pounds of household cleaning products are poured down the drain each day nationwide. The toxic substances found in many of these are not adequately removed by sewage treatment plants. Guess what happens when these are returned to the rivers from which cities draw their drinking water?

 —Spring 2002 Edition of CCA Newsletter Partners "Cleaning Without Toxic Chemicals"


  • More than 75,000 chemicals are licensed for commercial use.
  • More than 2,000 new synthetic chemicals are registered every year.
  • The EPA tallied close to 10,000 chemical ingredients in cosmetics, food and consumer products. Very few of these chemicals were in our environment or our bodies just 75 years ago.
  • In 1998, U.S. industries manufactured 6.5 trillion pounds of 9,000 different chemicals.
  • In 2000, major American companies dumped 7.1 billion pounds of 650 different industrial chemicals into our air and water.
  • Except in the case of foods, drugs or pesticides, companies are under no legal or regulatory obligation to concern themselves with how their products might harm human health.

—Alexandra Rome, Co-director of
the Sustainable Futures Group
at Commonweal, a nonprofit health
and environmental research institute,
until 2000.


  • Within 26 seconds after exposure to chemicals such as cleaning products, traces of these chemicals can be found in every organ in the body. 
  • More than 1.4 million Americans exposed to household chemicals were referred to poison control centers in 2001.  Of these, 824,000 were children under 6 years.
  • A New York sanitation worker was killed in 1998 when a hazardous liquid in household trash sprayed his face and clothes.
  • At any given time, there is 3.36 million tons of household hazardous waste to contend with in our country. 

Chec's HealtheHouse,the resource for Environmental
Health Risks Affecting Your Children


  • In 1990, more than 4,000 toddlers under age four were admitted to hospital emergency rooms as a result of household cleaner-related injuries. That same year, three-fourths of the 18,000 pesticide-related hospital emergency room admissions were children.
  • Over 80 percent of adults and 90 percent of children in the United States have residues of one or more harmful pesticides in their bodies.
  • Petrochemical cleaning products in the home are easily absorbed into the skin. Once absorbed, the toxins travel to the blood stream and are deposited in the fatty tissues where they may exist indefinitely.

—"In Harm's Way," a study by
"The Clean Water Fund" and
"Physicians for Social Responsibility"
May 11, 2000

What is even more alarming is that this information is over a decade old. How much has the situation changed since then?  84,000 chemicals?  REALLY?

This Earth Day make a commitment to remove dangerous chemicals from your personal environment.  Many companies now produce safe, effective household cleaners, laundry detergents, and personal care products. Do your family, and yourself, a favor and make your home (and planet) a little safer. 

Here are 10 companies who are providers of environmentally friendly cleaning supplies. Some of them still have products that need to be improved on in terms of their health effects on us, but the focus is that they are “green” and non-toxic for our Earth. They are listed in random order. Each of these companies offers a full line of “green” home cleaning products and some even more.

1. Seventh Generation
2. Greener Choice OxiBrite
3. Ecover
4. Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day
5. J. R. Watkins
6. Nature Clean
7. Method
8. Simple Green Naturals
9. Shaklee
10. ECOS – Earth Friendly Products

On this Earth Day, and every day....become the change you imagine.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What will you do when the lights go out?

Earth Hour 2011: Going beyond the hour
Earth Hour started in 2007 in Sydney, Australia when 2.2 million individuals and more than 2,000 businesses turned their lights off for one hour to take a stand against climate change. Only a year later and Earth Hour had become a global sustainability movement with more than 50 million people across 35 countries/territories participating. Global landmarks such as the Sydney Harbour Bridge, CN Tower in Toronto, Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and Rome’s Colosseum, all stood in darkness, as symbols of hope for a cause that grows more urgent by the hour.

On Saturday 27 March, Earth Hour 2010 became the biggest Earth Hour ever. A record 128 countries and territories joined the global display of climate action. Iconic buildings and landmarks from Asia Pacific to Europe and Africa to the Americas switched off. People across the world from all walks of life turned off their lights and came together in celebration and contemplation of the one thing we all have in common – our planet.

Earth Hour 2011 will take place on Saturday 26 March at 8.30PM (local time). This Earth Hour we want you to go beyond the hour, so after the lights go back on think about what else you can do to make a difference. Together our actions add up.

Tweet it, Facebook it...get involved. Gather your friends for an Earth Hour party. Make candles in preparation of the event. Play games. Snuggle up with the one you love for an hour--or more!

You can add your action and create your own lantern (like mine, above).

Until next time...become the change you imagine.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A balanced approach to cleaning and hair care...

I recently had the opportunity to try some new products, and I am so glad I did! One is a cleaner, the other is a line of hair-care products. As many of you know I have issues with chemicals. Mostly fragrances, but many chemicals in cleaning products really cause me problems. So I am always happy to hear of cleaning solutions that are safe for me, and the environment.

Erik Burnett, from NatureMagiX, asked me to try it and provide a review. I am genuinely excited about this product! NatureMagiX is a plant-based, pH-neutral, concentrated all-purpose cleaner. It is non-toxic, biodegradable, safe for people, pets, plants, and the environment. Best of all -- it works. I use it all over the house. Kitchen, bathroom, laundry, floors, even carpets. No horrific chemical fumes, or odors. The only thing I smell after using it is
clean, as in the absence of "dirty" smells. As an added bonus, it is incredibly cost effective. A quart of commercial, chemical-laden cleaning solution costs anywhere from $2.50-$5.00 depending on the brand. A quart of NatureMagiX costs about 59 cents.

Phyto was founded by Mr. Patrick Ales - a renowned French salon owner with a passion for hair styling and the healing power of plants. His company uses a creative, scientific approach to developing plant-based products that are synergistic, safe, and effective. The plants, and their parts, are selected for their active substances, and great care is taken in the extraction of these substances. These products are NOT tested on animals. The resulting products are high-quality and very effective. I can tell you from personal experience that these products work. My hair has never looked, or felt, better.

Phyto products are only available in salons, and are a bit expensive, but I feel my health is worth the extra expense. A little product goes a long way, so if you aren't wasteful, they can be cost-effective. Especially if you have short hair. Mine is very long, and I am pleased with how little it takes to do the job on my hair. Most salons will have samples available, so don't be afraid to ask. It's very gratifying to see that healthy products are becoming more prevalent in the marketplace. I encourage everyone to give them a try and experience for yourself the healthy alternatives that are available. We can balance our needs with the needs of our planet.

Until next time...become the change you imagine.