It’s no surprise that the USA’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) works hard to hothouse particularly forward-thinking inventions for possible space use, but most people are unaware just how much of that cutting-edge NASA-incubated thought trickles down to ingeniously improve everyday life around the planet.
Consider scratch-resistant plastic lenses, omnipresent on every sunglasses stand because they are better at absorbing ultraviolet radiation, lighter and 10 times more scratch-resistant than glass. Plastic lenses were originally developed to protect the visors of astronauts from space dust. Or translucent polycrystalline alumina (TPA). Developed by NASA’s Advanced Ceramics Research to protect the infrared antennae of heat-seeking missile trackers, it’s known to most of us as the face-saving, angst-relieving material used to create invisible braces for teeth.
The ubiquitous disposable charcoal water filter was originally refined by NASA engineers to filter water in space. NASA engineers are now working on a ‘regenerative environmental control life support system’ that will filter respiration, sweat and urine generated by astronauts in space and captured within their life suits, and turn it all into drinkable water. The impact of such a technology on an increasingly water-scarce world, once it becomes scalable, will be immense.
So when NASA decides to pour all of its closed-loop space thinking and technological innovation into a Sustainability Base on Earth to support human and planetary wellbeing, and then partners with an architect who wrote the book on closed-loop design and up-cycling, it is reasonable to anticipate a cutting-edge building chock-full of technical virtuosity.
The only factors that could hamper this unfettered concept are those known only too well to product designers and architects: budget, conservative engineers, conventional building practices and bureaucratic red tape.
Architect and product designer William McDonough wrote the 2002 design manifesto titled Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking the Way We Make Things. Essential reading for all designers and makers, Cradle to Cradle urges us to close the product life loop and eliminate waste in the manufacture and consumption of products.
McDonough has the international credibility to make conservative bean counters think twice before holding on to outdated facilities performance criteria, but his team still needed to prove that their ‘Earth Base’ would work.
The science McDonough and his architectural team turned to in reinventing an office building for NASA was extensive energy, and light modelling provided by architects George Loisos and Susan Ubelohde of Loisos + Ubelohde (L+U).
L+U’s models demonstrated that a thin floor plan would drastically reduce a building’s reliance on mechanical heating and cooling systems. US codes permit entirely artificially lit workplaces, which means that cheap deep square floor plans are the norm. The green team of McDonough architects and L+U drew together input from resident scientists and engineers, lighting and thermal data and the specifics of the site, to produce several skinny building forms.
One, a triangular doughnut form with a distinctly lunar look, was nicknamed ‘the Wankle’ and considered a contender before Ubelohde “stabbed it in its heart” for its inefficiencies in daylight penetration.
The final form nests a pair of gently arcing column-less two-storey forms oriented to the sun’s path and the prevailing winds on site. It is anticipated that this structure will only require artificial lighting for 40 days of the year. A space-inspired exoskeleton stabilises the building in an earthquake and supports swathes of technology including PV panels and shade devices. Based on the space station notion of being without attachment, most of the building’s power needs are met by PV panels, a wind turbine and the retrofitted Bloom Box fuel cell.
Space station water recycling technology enables the Base to reduce its potable water use by 90 per cent – however, red tape prevented the new technology that enables astronauts to wash in their own (processed) urine being applied to take the building’s entire water loop off-grid by processing sewerage.
An interesting design concept inherent in most of NASA’s space designs is ‘scarring’, where the surfaces of a structure are prepared to receive bolt-on technologies as they arise. Ubelohde describes scarring as building “an armature for experiments” and the Bloom Box, an experimental highly efficient, low-maintenance solid oxide fuel cell with markedly low CO2 emissions is the first add-on for the building.
Ultimately, NASA will keep adding until the building is scarred, well-worn and utterly independent, or as Loisos describes it: “left to the Four Winds to fend for itself”.