Greenhouses That Change the World

Richard (Rick) Nelson is the inventor of SolaRoof, a novel approach to greenhouse design and function that integrates a unique covering, heating / cooling system, and infrastructure / framework. It will revolutionize the greenhouse industry. More than that, once the materials are certified for use in human habitation, it will be disruptive to the housing and building industry as well. So what is SolaRoof, anyway, and why does it carry such potential to change the world? Let’s find out.

Revolutionary Technology:

The greenhouse construction is unlike any other. Rather than a single layer of covering or glazing there are two. Each layer is a laminate of woven fiber mesh sandwiched in between two sheets of transparent plastic material. The laminated layers are sealed against the top and bottom of the roof and wall frames to create air-tight spaces. This combination by itself offers hardly any insulating value. However, fill the space with bubbles—yes, bubbles—and the equation becomes totally different!

The distance between the two layers varies depending on the desired amount of insulating value. Each inch is roughly equivalent to an R-factor of 1. A distance of a little over a yard yields an R-factor of nearly 40. That is almost unheard of in traditional construction techniques. And given the transparency of the two layers of covering, over 80% of the photosynthesis-catalyzing sunlight reaches the inside of the greenhouse.

In the (now defunct) SolaRoof webpage: Green Buildings for Urban Agriculture and Solar Living, two illustrations show how the process works from one extreme season to the next. Quite ingenius!

Here is a picture of a greenhouse unit as its side is being filled with bubbles:

And here is what it looks like when the cavity is completely full:

Unbounded Architectural Form:

While the technology is intriguing, it is only part of the picture when determining the disruptive value of SolaRoof. Another feature is that the shape of the structure is no longer confined to a standard box or cube that characterizes many homes, buildings, or greenhouses. It can be made to fit into an infinite array of shapes, sizes, and configurations. One of Rick’s collaborators, Harvey Rayner, who is the founder of Solar Bubble Build, describes the possibilities of the SolaRoof medium as follows:

Architecture has been a long-held passion for me, but my unwillingness to engage in academic study has kept me from pursuing any real investigation into this field. Now, having started this project initially as a practical solution to expanding my wife’s rare herb growing business, I have become engrossed in the process of designing, building and developing this technology.

Increasingly, I am viewing this work as an inroad towards one day creating pure and functional architectural forms. For me, this new breed of building gets right to the heart of how form can follow function. I believe with this technology as a starting point, unique structures can be derived which reflect the beauty of the inner workings of this truly sustainable building solution.

Several examples of Harvey’s designs are featured on Bluegreen Future Buildings.

Open Source for Everyone:

While Rick has spent over thirty years developing and refining the technologies associated with SolaRoof materials and applications, the bulk or his output is non-proprietary and open source. Anyone is welcome to join the SolaRoof Yahoo! Group (restricted) wherein there are member information exchanges, articles about SolaRoof, photos, and diagrams–all is free for the taking. Rick sums it up quite well in his introduction to the SolaRoof group:

You are welcome to join this open source collaboration where we are developing and sharing DIY(Do It Yourself) know-how for building transparent solar structures. To enhance our collaborative development of the SolaRoof methods we now are building a knowledge base where everyone can contribute to building the SolaRoofWiKi. SolaRoof structures may include but are not limited to greenhouses, sunspaces, roof gardens, residential spaces… The goal of our discussion is how to use the sun’s energy to grow food, cool and heat spaces efficiently, rather than rely on fossil fuels and power grids. Our technology includes the use of bubbles to shade and insulate glazing systems, together with liquid solar collection and thermal mass storage, although any related discussions are welcome!

SolaRoof Saves World:

This bold pronouncement was found on (now defunct), one of Chris Macrae’s video experiments. Chris, knowledge management and branding expert, offered the following endorsement of the power and potential of SolaRoof:

Rick has also been using what I amateurishly call photosynthesis agriculture and architecture innovations for over 20 years. I have known him for about 4 years in my capacity of hosting radical innovation meetings round London. I suggest a triple-wishing game – you mention a region or peoples in the world where sustainability that matters most to you, and Rick answers with what is doable now, what is developing, and what is his biggest collaboration wish for the region.

Perhaps we can make more videos if people decide this is one of the world’s great unknown practices worthy of a bit more open source weaving. (see Chris Macrae and Rick Nelson on YouTube)

Equally, if anyone knows someone else with inventions that empower every community to the other side of sustainability fuels (water, food, energy) crises, please see if they will join in. I would like to publish a small leaflet on the 5 most radically open guides to how peoples everywhere could collaborate around human sustainability if we take up the challenge and agree urgency is so great that we don’t need any marginal solutions; we need radical experiments…

And in a posting on (now defunct), Chris describes the ramifications for SolaRoof as the underpinnings for a new business enterprise, Life Synthesis LLP, that aspires to the following:

…to shelter residential communities within SolaRoof systems. This includes replacing conventional resource and energy intensive climate control systems with new and dynamic structures that capture and use solar energy by bringing daylight and plants into buildings. These ecologically designed, low cost SolaRoof structures use energy capture, storage, and cooling methods to incorporate plants, water and water based liquids, creating an integrated ecosystem within the building itself. SolaRoof is both accessible and affordable to those living in poverty, but at the same time desirable to the affluent.

The Ball Is in Your Court

And that becomes an open invitation for any and all to take the opportunity afforded by this concept and apply it so that it makes a positive difference for the people directly involved, the community, the planet. Well worth the time and effort required to take up the challenge and do the right thing!

Originally posted to New Media Explorer by Steve Bosserman on Tuesday, October 9, 2007

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