This is perhaps the scariest thing that I have seen in recent memory: “My Super Sweet 16” on cable network MTV. The reality show chronicles the 16th birthday parties of American teenagers. Even in the ‘80s, I’m not sure that people actually exclaimed “it’s supposed to be all about me!” the way one recent birthday-girl did on the show. This show, unwittingly but unerringly, documents the conspicuous-consumption attitude of today’s youth, facilitated by both pop-culture marketing and their credit-happy parents. One girl was actually picked up from her comparatively-dumpy suburban condo in a stretch Range Rover and dropped off at the red carpet to her $30,000 birthday party. We—and by that I mean humanity—are so screwed.
From my not-far-removed vantage point, this seems pretty pathetic. While conspicuous consumption may be de rigueur among the young and hip, it strikes me as falling short. If American youth—and their parents—really want to distinguish themselves, they should consider conspicuous simplicity. Elegance—not the elegance that has been spun by the media-marketing establishment, but the original notion of elegance: seemingly effortless beauty in form, proportion, or design. Along those lines, I’ve recently been captivated by the concept of Annualized Geo-Solar design.
Solar power is the root of most of our energy: it is captured by carbon-based plant life and available for our later use as firewood or ethanol or oil, it causes the wind to blow. It powers Photovoltaic Cells—high technology, low efficiency means of converting solar energy into electricity, and a notably poor example of elegance. PV is really more of a brute-technology approach. A much more elegant design use of solar energy is passive solar. I’ve long been an advocate of the superiority of passive solar over active (PV) solar—owing largely to its use of vernacular technology. PV creates a dependent power-relationship for the individual—not very elegant. But passive solar, despite its ability to effectively heat our homes, our water, cook our food, is not perfect. One issue is that many climates have cold and cloudy winters, so heating that depends on passive solar will also require a backup system. But thanks to the work of architect Don Stephens, the possibility of Annualized Geo Solar (AGS) is a tantalizing solution to these problems. Basically, the AGS approach stores heat in a huge bank of thermal mass under a house all summer long, and harvests that heat throughout the winter to maintain a comfortable 70 temperature year-round. Here's the basic concept:
Figure 1: Don Stephen's diagram of an AGS structure (see .pdf for details).
The design is brilliant: entirely passive, superior, utilizing only simple, vernacular technology, and adaptable to many different regimes of climate, materials, etc. It could even be inverted, using a passive solar chimney that I have outlined previously, to draw cold winter air to cool an insulated bank of earth under a house in, say, Phoenix, to provide lasting cooling all summer long. Overall, it is extremely elegant. Perhaps most importantly, it shows that achieving elegant simplicity really only requires looking for it: Stephens just wasn't satisfied with the techno-utopian approach of using PV to drive a heater, nor with the day-to-day passive solar heating systems, so he found something both better and simpler. I wonder what that kind of 16th birthday party would look like?