Monday, March 15, 2010

Heather Beal | Prius Payback: Is it Time to Return A Favor?

I may be mildly mad for venturing anywhere near the controversy surrounding the “sudden and unintended acceleration” experienced by drivers of several makes of Toyota cars. No one really needs such a poignant and painful reminder of how important safety is for all designers. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that this is an opportune moment for building industry professionals to return a big favor.

I began to realize the extent to which Toyota’s Prius, in particular, had inspired innovation in the building industry during an interview with Jeff and Salena Gallo in early 2009. When I asked what had motivated them to make sustainability a top priority for the home they’d had custom designed and built on the west edge of Minneapolis, they replied: “the Prius.” Buying a car that helped them reduce their use of fossil fuels made them wonder how their new home could accomplish the same goal.

Several months later I encountered a second example of how technology popularized by the Prius was spreading by contagion in the building industry. In a presentation for the Commonwealth Club, LivingHomes Founder Steve Glenn discussed how his Prius’s ability to present real-time data via easy-to-understand graphics inspired him to collaborate on development of a web-based, “dashboard” monitoring system for the sustainable, starchitect-designed, modular homes his company produces. Glenn didn’t stop with energy use. The LivingHomes dashboard also monitors water use, enables homeowners to calculate their carbon footprint, and provides payback information for the green technology options. This additional data will be especially valuable now that “CALGREEN,” the first statewide green building code in the nation, has been approved.

When I returned from California, a tour of a new dorm on Carleton College’s campus in Northfield, Minnesota brought Glenn’s words -- “any system with feedback tends improve” -- back to mind. Fred Rogers, treasurer for the College, ended the tour by demonstrating how an interactive digital display screen in the dorm’s main vestibule provided up-to-the-minute information about energy and water use. The database and graphic interface had been designed to spur the naturally competitive spirit of college students by enabling them to compare resource use totals by floor and by building.

Of course, three examples does not a trend make. I was ready to chalk all this up to coincidence when I noticed a bucket full of buttons at a GreenBuild 2009 that announced: “It’s about the Prius.” I think about that mantra whenever a new story about the Toyota recall airs.

Could there be a better time for people with “design minds” in the building industry to pay inspiration forward (or backward)?

For example, since the Prius falls under the “Floor Mat Pedal Entrapment” defect category I’ve wondered if walk-off mats installed in sustainably designed buildings could be adapted to improve both safety and indoor air quality in automobiles. Couldn’t ridged grilles be set into a recessed collection pan so that mud could be scraped from the bottom of your shoes when you climb into a car? These “mats” wouldn’t get trapped under the accelerator pedals because they’d be screwed into place. Car owners could simply remove the grilles and vacuum the dirt and debris out of the collection pan.

So…what helpful, creative ideas do you have? I’d love to hear them – and to learn what inspired your interest in sustainable design.


Anonymous said...

It's not the mats... it's the electrical/digital systems:

Anonymous said...

Architects since Corbusier have taken from automotive design. The idea of giving back some inspiration, would mean this industry needs to innovate. Is that going to happen?

Tom, AIA

Heather Beal said...

Thanks for the hotlink. I'm pleased (but not surprised) to learn that Corbu contributed creatively to other industries! The mat challenge/opportunity was just one example, of course. I recently ran across an example of innovation that MAY have been spurred by Ford Motors' work with Bill McDonough. Here's a hotlink to a YouTube description of the McDonough/Ford collaboration:
Now check out how Ford is exploring sustainable materials for its cars:

Is this simply a coincidence? We'll see. I've left a message inviting a response from Ford.