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You’ve got to hand it to the Spanish. When it comes to architecture and design, they’ve got panache. (Think Antoni Gaudi. ) But my new favorite example of Spanish flair is a supercomputing center located in a Barcelona’s Torre Girona chapel, which I toured on an afternoon break from the Euroscience Open Forum (ESOF) conference, currently taking place in the Catalonian capital.

In 2004, when the federal and local governments decided to fund the supercomputing center at the Technical University of Catalonia, no other buildings owned by the university had the right interior dimensions to accommodate 10,240 processors and their associated cooling units. Apart from using the chapel, the only other option was to construct a new building.

“We were pretty lucky it worked out this way,” said Oriol Riu, a computer scientist and the Barcelona Supercomputing Center tour guide. Riu told me the chapel had been a nun’s college up until the 1970s, after which it was used intermittently as an auditorium, exam room, and classroom.

The supercomputing center was once the most powerful in Europe, but now it’s in 8th place on the continent and in 26th place worldwide.

Still, you can’t beat location. And the center does have the juice of 20,000 personal computers, which researchers use to model everything from climate to aeronautics. But keeping the computers cool in the Mediterranean heat has one heck of a price tag: Riu said the annual energy cost to keep the supercomputer running is about 1 million euros per year, with air conditioning being a healthy portion of that cost.

The discussion of the high energy costs required to keep the supercomputer cool in its abode reminded me of a nascent energy efficient home initiative I heard about at a recent ESOF conference session. Several companies involved in developing materials and products for energy-efficient homes are banding together under a label called Smart Energy Homes (www.smartenergyhome.eu).

One of their plans is to build prototype energy-efficient homes (in Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and a still undetermined location in Spain) where new technologies will be tested. Then–and the plans are really in their infancy–they hope to recruit people to live in the energy-efficient prototype homes. As the idea stands now, recruits will agree to participate in market research in exchange for free accommodation. Participants will only have to pay energy costs.

Part of the idea is to stimulate and coordinate development of different components of energy efficient homes—from water treatment and lighting to ventilation and heating—which have thus far been developed mostly in isolation.

One problem for the energy-efficient housing industry is that many of the companies designing or producing energy-efficient home technologies have been working independently, and their products don’t necessarily fit well together, said Laszlo Bax, a consultant with Bax & Willems Consulting Venturing, who is helping the companies coordinate. (Remember trying to switch files between Mac and PC platforms in the early 1990s?)

So the companies are aiming to integrate products and coordinate “innovation,” which in turn might accelerate development of new technologies, which might propel the market forward faster, which then might lower the cost of energy efficient homes, which is a main obstacle to wider adoption. There are a lot of steps to the final goal, but it does seem like a smart idea for the industry to coordinate. As for being a guinea pig in one of the prototype apartments:

Pros: It would be exciting to have a say in the development of green housing and to be a first adopter. Cons: I can imagine a potpourri of potential disasters, such as if, say, attempts to harmonize ventilation and waste disposal go terribly awry, especially in this Spanish summer heat.

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  • Jul 22nd 2008 • 17:07
    by David Donohue

    Hi Sarah,

    Interesting posting. Check out the Open Prototype Initiative in the United States. They are already working on what you wrote about. http://www.openprototype.com They are actually on their second prototype home known as Unity House, a highly efficient, sustainable home for an environmental college in Maine. The Initiative involves MIT, a forward thinking homebuilder named Bensonwood Homes and several industry partners. The goal is again similar to what you wrote about, to create new standards for homebuilding, to get the home building industry to adopt new, efficient standards, all in an effort to improve the way all homes are built in America, making them more energy efficient, adaptable and affordable. Some of the in-house leaders of the Initiative are from Europe and have incorporated some European practices into their efforts and have lectured on their efforts over there. Unity House should be complete in August and the president of Unity College will live there with his wife.

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