When asked to prepare a written piece for Urban Omnibus, we had to ask ourselves what could be said that would be productive and meaningful. After some thought, we decided that instead of talking about the nuances of our research, that we’d offer encouragement and direction for other designers that have an idea but no known outlet for their thoughts. We share our story here as a how-to guide for nurturing one’s ideas. Also, we want to activate the community of inventors (yes, that’s you, an inventor) to participate in helping us all navigate this unknown territory of research, prototyping, intellectual property, and marketing.
We, Jennifer Broutin and Carmen Trudell, started working together while studying in Columbia University’s Advanced Architectural Design program. We had an idea for a class project that we believed could be more than just a rendering in the end-of-the-year show. We were thinking about sustainable energy harvesting, specifically in the form of converting small amounts of human energy into electricity.
We began research in David Benjamin and Soo-In Yang’s “Living Architecture” class at Columbia University. At the time, we did not realize the impact this class would have on our work in terms of our continued partnership, our dedication to sustainable design strategies, and the methodological approach of rapid research and prototyping; these principles formed the seed for a collaborative entity that we now call fluxxlab.
We realized how powerful, both literally and figuratively, it is for people to interact with the environment in a participatory way.
The main task for the class was to come up with a responsive kinetic system using sensors, micro-controllers, and shape memory alloys that could create an interactive environment. Our project took a different stance on this charge. We immediately recognized the beauty of this type of environment, but also realized that the ubiquitous integration of embedded systems and reactive surfaces would also mean another ubiquitous energy drain. In other words, designing walls, windows, and floors that breath, move, and respond means that these building elements require electricity to power them. Instead of sticking to the class brief, we proposed to harness wasted energy already present in buildings in order to power our classmate’s projects. We went through a series of investigations into how to mine energy from food waste (chemical), excess heat from computers, or hot/cold water piping (thermal), and opening and closing of doors/windows (mechanical). In the end, mechanical harnessing was the most fruitful and we liked the notion that the user had to “donate” his or her energy and become involved in the process.
We chose Lerner Hall at Columbia as a test site for our prototype. The idea was to compare the number of Calories purchased by students in the café with the number of Calories burned to open the café doors, and then determine the amount of electricity that could be harvested from this action. We literally counted the number of times the doors opened in a day, and repeatedly bothered the café manager for records of their inventory and sales, and then assigned Caloric values to both the food and the action. We weren’t just interested in calculations though, we also wanted (and had to as a requirement of the class) to build a working prototype of an energy harvesting door. The resulting project, the Door Dynamo, was a half-scale door that employed a hacked hand-crank flashlight with an integrating gear and door closer. When the door was opened, the dynamo would harness kinetic energy, convert it to electricity, and then distribute it to a small LED display that would tell the user about their energy input and output. Though we were not able to harness enough energy to power all of our classmate’s projects, we learned some very important tools during the process.
Graduation brought many changes in our professional lives as we both took full-time jobs with architecture firms in New York City (which were easier to come by in those days), and also brought the opportunity to take the next step in development of our energy harvesting research. While the Door Dynamo did work, the energy output was too small; we wanted to scale-up the idea – a type of urban turbine that harnesses the energy from a predictable and steady flow within the city, namely the flow of pedestrians. Our goal was to design and fabricate a proof-of-concept revolving door that would successfully harvest a useful amount of energy and make the process visible to the users.
We conceived the Revolution Door as a modified revolving door comprised of three parts – a redesigned central core replacing that of any existing or new revolving door, a mechanical/electrical system that harnessed human energy and redistributed electricity to an output, and an output device that mapped the harnessed energy. We also realized how powerful, both literally and figuratively it is for people to interact with their environment in a participatory way so that they are aware of their impact on their surroundings. Collective action, through the use of the door, was an important factor toward the success of the system – the more people use the door, the more energy can be harnessed. Towards this end, we believe that the systems should be transparent and easily seen to promote understanding of the process.
The Revolution Door project began late 2006, the same year Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth” thrust the topic of sustainability into common household banter. Our idea was validated by public interest in energy, and was made feasible by the invention of low energy actuators such as LEDs and microprocessors. The project found an audience because it embodied the general change in the way designers and end-users were thinking about energy production and storage. The timing was perfect. And when it wasn’t perfect, we adapted the narrative and the investigation to make it work.
Building a full-scale revolving door prototype required funding and space. We spent the summer after graduation applying for a NYSERDA grant, a Graham Foundation Grant, and an Eyebeam Grant. We were fortunate to receive the Artist in Residency grant from Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in NYC in the Fall of 2006 which granted $5,000 and more importantly gave us a large space to work along with access to a full shop and a laser cutter and 3D printer. With these tools and funding we were set for the next year of work.
We learned the importance of being resourceful, of rooting out possibilities and also of refusing those that are not advantageous to our path.
The following year we were awarded a collaborative grant with Natalie Jeremijenko by NYU Sustainability Fund. We also received private funding from organizations such as Guestroom 2010 who sponsored the design and fabrication of a door to be shown in the HITEC convention in Austin, Texas. For this show we developed the Powerslide prototype, which turns the sliding motion of common building components such as doors, windows, and drawers into a source of energy. We also received an invitation to present our work in Milan for the Well-Tech Award in 2009. We had to consider the time schedule, cost, benefit, and whether we could pull it off to our standards. We learned the importance of being resourceful, of rooting out possibilities and also of refusing those that are not advantageous to our path. It is important to determine whether an option affords opportunity or loss, and to take calculated risks.
Fluxxlab currently works in a collaborative faculty research space at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology (City Tech) campus where Carmen teaches. This is our first experience with institutional support. Through the College we have also been able to work with student interns, faculty from other departments, and secure small grants to promote travel and exhibition of the work.
Unfortunately, time and money are not infinite. All of the work that we have done has been on our own time, on our own terms. We work at night, on weekends or any time that we can spare to move these ideas forward, and as the projects gain more and more momentum we determine how to manage the time, what effort can be put into the endeavor and how we will make ends meet to bring these ideas to fruition. Several times we started to write a business plan which would help us make decisions about which risks to take and how to manage our resources. Because of our busy lives, and general desire to spend our time making things, we still haven’t finished this crucial task. We do think making a plan for where you want to go is very important though, or else how will you ever know when you get there?
The Eyebeam residency opened our eyes to the world of open source, where people from different cultures and professions come to share ideas openly. We launched the fluxxlab website to share the work that we are doing with a wider community. The website not only documents the projects and press, but also blogs the process of how these ideas came to fruition. Revealing too much information can be harmful at times. You should only broadcast information and methods that you’re completely willing to let go of. Patents protect intellectual property, but are geared toward corporate entities that can afford the legal fees. They also do not encourage the transmission of ideas. The open source movement and creative commons provides an alternative for the small-scale entrepreneur, allowing ideas to be disseminated and proliferated. While these methods provide some degree of protection, creators do not benefit monetarily (unless indirectly) from the intellectual property that they develop.
The methodological approach of rapid research and prototyping that the Living Architecture class introduced us to remained important to our research; a method that David and Soo-in now call “flash research“. The goal of flash research is to prove cheaply and quickly that your idea is feasible. We are not mechanical or electrical engineers, or fabricators, but we learned enough through the internet and will even shamefully admit to buying and reading Electronics for Dummies in order to complete a series of proof-of-concept prototypes of the Revolution Door. We were able to learn how to do-it-ourselves because others freely shared their knowledge on-line. Therefore, we thought it prudent to add to this body of knowledge by adding our research and insights to the freely available knowledge. Had we not been open with our research, we would not have garnered the response from creative minds around the world and the media attention that has helped to push these ideas farther than we ever imagined.
While we like to think that we work entirely on our own terms, we have on occasion taken fee-based design projects for clients. These projects are either a typical architectural space design, or an energy harvesting device commissioned for a specific event or installation such as the Powerslide installation at the Guestroom 2010 show mentioned above, or the personal powerPlant for an Alternative Energy workshop at Eyebeam. This income is then put back into fluxxlab for creating new projects, which in turn draw clients who are interested in these ideas. The ideas of fluxxlab serve as the branding for the firm and funding is sought primarily for ideas that are already on the table. Largely, fluxxlab works from idea generation, prototyping and then marketing to draw interest in the project or fluxxlab as a firm.
The timing was perfect. And when it wasn't perfect, we adapted the narrative and the investigation to make it work.
This is not to say that we do not pursue clients. If we create a prototype that we believe would work well within a setting, we will make a proposal to a particular group. It is then up to the client whether or not to work with us on it. As architects, we normally wait for the client to hire us based on a resume of talents and past accomplishments. Often architects seek creative freedom through design competitions or academia. If we position ourselves as inventors however, we then have all the creative freedom in the world. If your idea is good enough and you set yourself to convincing others of this, then you will find people to publish and fund your work. A friend of ours who was awarded a Graham Foundation grant told us that his group applied three times for the same grant before finally being awarded the money. It takes lots of time, and many applications and reapplications. After applying for the NYSERDA grant and having our application declined, we asked them how to improve our future attempts. Most grant reviewing boards keep the jury notes and are happy to share that information with you if you ask.
The contacts and relationships we have established, whether through grants, clients or collaborators have been extremely important in pushing our work forward. We have had the good fortune to work with a variety of insightful and inspired people in the fields of design, engineering, and fabrication. We constantly work within the academic and professional arena to learn from our colleagues and friends who only add to our pool of knowledge. It is incredibly important to work with, support and promote those around you with good ideas.
Fluxxlab has been working on energy harvesting for three years now. The result of that body of work is a collection of prototypes, exhibitions, renderings, several web and print publications, and our web page. We still feel that the work should be practically deployed in the world; we still think it’s a good idea, although we are admittedly fatigued and at times discouraged. There are logistical hurdles to face when making the leap from the gallery to the user, such as whether to incorporate or not, what are the tax and insurance ramifications, how much time can we reasonably dedicate, and when is fabrication beyond our limitations.
Our interest in the Revolution Door project has gone through iterations. We realize that we are not and do not wish to be a door manufacturing company that puts this product into production. But, we see the potential in this idea becoming a standard within the building industry, and dream about the potential of such an endeavor. Imagine for a moment that for every office lobby in midtown, a revolution door both contributed to a decentralized power grid where buildings are responsible for energy production while simultaneously encouraging greater energy literacy on the part of consumers by turning them into micro-producers.
The Revolution Door is a simple idea that can have a great impact on how we as a society consume and produce energy. There are many good ideas out there, of which the Revolution Door is only one. How can we organize as a community of designers and inventors to bring our ideas forward, sharing resources, ideas and feedback in order to bring these ideas to life?
Fluxxlab’s Revolution Door has been featured in the past on the web, in print, and on TV:
ubergizmo: Fluxxlab Offers Revolution Door (February 2009)
Discovery Planet Green G Word series: episode “LA Without a Car” (April 2008)
AIA New York Chapter eOculus newsletter: Breathing Facades, Energy Carts for Dead Cell Phones Featured in Feedback Show (April 2008)
NY Sun: Art Science Comes Alive at Eyebeam (March 2008)
Treehugger: Feedback Exhibit Merges Ecological Tech and Art (March, 2008)
Gizmodo: Fluxxlab Revolution Door is Eco-Friendly, People-Powered Power Station (February 2008)
regeneration: The Revolution Door (February 2008)
techchee: Revolution door: A revolving door that generates power for the building where it’s installed! (February 2008)
ecogeek: Revolution Door Captures Human Power (February 2008)
Inhabitat: Generate Energy with Fluxxlab’s ‘Revolution’ Revolving Door” (February 2008)
Revolution Door was featured in the Discovery Science Channel Invention Nation series, Episode 9 “Power Surge (October 2007)
Metropolis Magazine: The Mother of Invention (August 2006)
The views expressed here are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.