Bringing out the Best

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Mouth of the Gowanus Canal (Source: wikimedia.org)

The Gowanus Canal is one of the most polluted bodies of water in the United States. Located in Brooklyn, NYC, this mile and a half long Canal was used as a commercial and industrial waterway for the numerous industries and businesses in the surrounding area. Large ships carrying coal, cement, machines and tanks of natural gas and oil sailed through every day. During the industrial revolution, environmental regulations were near non-existent, and many industries simply deposited their waste into the waterway, polluting the water with heavy metals, pesticides and organics. Additionally, many of New York City’s combined sewers flowed into the Gowanus Canal, meaning that during periods of heavy rain, when the city’s wastewater treatment plants could not handle the combined flows of sewer water and stormwater, the sewers directed flows into the Gowanus – untreated. As the lowest point in the immediate area, any water that landed in the surrounding six square miles flowed into the Canal, picking up all sorts of pollutants on the way.

Currently, the Gowanus is undergoing a $506 million clean-up, which should be complete by 2022. With Downtown Brooklyn less than half a mile away, relators and other investors are beginning to realize the potential in the Gowanus neighborhood.  Gowanus by Design, a community-based urban design advocacy group, hosted its third annual Axis Civitas international design competition to invite design firms to envision a possible future for the Gowanus Canal, based on its rich and complex history. Entries had to have two components: 1) Conduct research on the current economic, environmental, or social conditions of the area and 2) use this research to provide a new community “Urban Field Station” to enable sustainable development and growth.

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MKE H20 101

History Lesson incoming.

Having gone to school in New York, I’m often asked why I decided to come back to the Midwest after graduation. One of the main reasons I came to Milwaukee to start my professional career was due to the city’s history and optimistic future with water and water technology. I thought I’d spend this post by (very) briefly covering the history of Water in Milwaukee so that readers gain a greater appreciation for Milwaukee, and just urban water management in general.

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New Solutions to Old Problems

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Source: Pixabay

Never before in our modern society has water been such a priority for individuals, cities and nations, and it will only continue to grow in importance. However, even with such increased presence and general acknowledgement of the problems at hand, there seems to be a lack of public understanding of the issues at stake and what is (or isn’t) being done to address these issues. So in this blog post, I’ve set out on the daunting task to give a summary of the water-related problems our world is facing and the what is being done to address these problems. Water has been used for the functioning of societies ever since the rise of the agrarian life-style, and as such, has been viewed as a well-understood phenomenon and a natural process under the full control of human technology. We’ve learned how to produce drinkable water, drain and create entire lakes to grow food and even to divert or reverse the flow of rivers to prevent floods. Our mastery of water seems to be self-evident and there seems to be no need for improvement. But current issues prove that this is a false assumption resulting from technological hubris. There are still many advancements that can and must be made in regards to water – advancements that require not only political will and social education, but technological innovation. Technology still has a very large role to play in the search for water solutions, and the role of the environmental engineer is essential now more than ever.

The goal of this post is to give the everyday reader a basic but nuanced understanding of water issues and to explain why one should care about them. This post will explain the importance of engineering/technology in searching for and implementing solutions. Additionally, I will also talk about how water engineering is not some ancient, well-understood field that only requires by-the-book implementation of old technology, but one filled with state-of-the-art opportunities to expand knowledge and advance humanity.

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The Art and Engineering of Infrastructure

In a previous post, I brought up the idea of making our city’s infrastructure more aesthetically pleasing. Infrastructure – almost by definition – is hidden, buried underground or constructed in a far-off area away from the central city. By making our infrastructure aesthetically pleasing and placing it at the center of attention, the public has a better chance of appreciating the complex systems that support our modern lifestyle. There’s a good chance that our relationship with our built environment can rapidly change when we begin to appreciate the beauty of the systems in place.

The Land Art Generator Initiative (LAGI), has this exact goal in mind. According to their website, LAGI wishes “to advance the successful implementation of sustainable design solutions by integrating art and interdisciplinary creative processes into the conception of renewable energy infrastructure.” This requires the collaboration of architects, urban designers, landscape architects, scientists and engineers all working together to create a work of art that generates physical and emotional value.

Every two years, LAGI holds a design competition that combines a major infrastructure sector with public art. In 2012, the competition centered around New York City’s Freshkills Park, drawing 250 submissions from around the world to redefine waste management to the public. This year, 2014, the project description was to design a public sculpture that also continuously distributes clean energy into the electrical grid, proving that our energy infrastructure can be both essential, and beautiful.

The first place winner was designed by Santiago Muros Cortés. Titled, “The Solar Hourglass,” this sculpture acts as a solar central receiver, concentrating solar energy through the use of flat mirrors to heat up a steam turbine and generate 7,500 MWh/year. Aesthetically speaking, the sculpture is quite elegant, consisting of two simple pieces that mirror each other, with the bright glow of the sun at the center (whether this would be a danger to eyesight remains to be seen). It certainly looks like something that should come out of a science fiction novel.  You can find the other winners and submissions at the competition website.

Source: landartgenerator.org

What attracts me to this competition is the idea that both science and art can be blended seamlessly together to create a product that could not have existed without this collaboration. I’m glad there are organizations like LAGI who strongly believe in the benefits of this intersection. The built environment inherently contains character, and this character must be expressed in order to garner full appreciation. Additionally, the built environment must also support the livelihood of the people that inhabit it. This requires design guided by scientific principles and engineering thinking. As I learned recently, architecture that does not consider engineering cannot fully unlock its full potential, and engineering without art cannot truly connect with the people.

By making our infrastructure the center of attention, our entire perspective regarding the built environment changes. It may not be easy to see at first, but consider how our line of thinking and behavior would change if we were cognizant of the many systems that support our way of life. A greater appreciation for the built and natural environment develops, and we are more aware of our place and effect we have on our surroundings. It may take a little more money to hire an architect to design something like a power plant, but consider the added benefits it will bring. What a world it would be if there were children pulling their parents by the hand, saying “Let’s go visit the garbage plant!”

Service that Inspires

Despite being essential for the function of society, infrastructure is often shunned or avoided by the general public. Facilities such as wastewater treatment plants, landfills, and gas plants often have a difficult time being constructed as no one wants to live near an ugly, smelly, or “dirty” site. While some transportation infrastructure, such as bus stations, are welcome by neighborhoods, other examples such as highways are opposed due to the increase in traffic and noise. This pubic behavior of NIMBY-ism (Not In My BackYard) results in costly construction (and transportation) costs, a lack in appreciation for infrastructure services, as well as discrimination and segregation (landfills are often found near neighborhoods of lower income, as these neighborhoods lack resources to oppose unwanted development, which drives down property values).

The New York City Sims Municipal Recycling Facility seeks to change the way the public views infrastructure. This state-of-the-art recycling facility was built to process 20,000 tons per month of NYC gas, plastic and metal while displacing 150,000 truck trips (260,000 miles) annually by utilizing barges on the Brooklyn Waterfront. This $110 million project transforms the old South Brooklyn Marine Terminal (which was used as a police tow-pound) into an exemplar of Infrastructure Design.

Instead of design taking a backseat to function, as is often the case in infrastructure, this recycling facility employed the services of Selldorf Architects. While hiring architects to design infrastructure facilities is not unheard of (see BIG’s waste-to-energy/ski slope), the design of the Sims Facility includes not just the aesthetics, but the function of the facility within the community. Selldorf, which is known for their simple, yet elegant and economic design, used recycled materials to construct the facility, and powered the buildings with solar and wind power. The challenge of working with a constrained budget did not deter Selldorf, in fact, it seemed to breed creative solutions.

As recycling is a harshly scrutinized practice by critics and city officials due to its low-profit margin, the Sims Facility set out to sell the idea of Recycling to the public. Aside from the aesthetics, the Facility also includes a visitor and education center that houses classrooms to hold visiting students. The department of Education is working on a curriculum to teach kids recycling processes and bring them to the facility to experience the process first hand. Selldorf was also careful to showcase the environmental benefits of their design by using renewable energy, including bioswales to treat stormwater runoff and having the foresight to elevate the facility four feet above the city minimum which protected it from major flood damage when Hurricane Sandy arrived.

Clearly, the design of the facility intended to show its worth to the public not just as a recycling center, but also as a social educator and respectful member of the community. This is a great example of Infrastructure achieving the ultimate goal of Service. The Sims facility should be an example to future infrastructure facilities. Infrastructure should be not only a place for efficient function, but also as places for education, appreciation and inspiration. It is not just aesthetics, but also the role of the facility within the community that makes the project so noteworthy. The collaboration between engineers designing the processes and the architects designing the program can change public opinion regarding these life-supporting systems. Sure, some infrastructure will always be shunned, but we should really try to change public perception of infrastructure in general. Infrastructure should not be something that drives off the public, it should be something that attracts the public as a source of pride in the community. 

But will it work? The Sims Municipal Recycling Facility will be open sometime soon, so we will have to wait for a while before we can determine if all the efforts paid off. Will the facility achieve all it set out to be and bring about a new appreciation for infrastructure? Or will it fall flat and serve only as a monetary sink for the city? Even if the facility doesn’t turn out to be a huge success, we can still learn from its failures and work on other solutions to bring about public appreciation (and therefore, funding) for the essential systems that support and serve our society.

Infrastructure should Inspire.

(For more information on the design of the building, see this excellent NY Times article)

Infrastructure and Entrepreneurism

Last Friday, I was fortunate enough to attend a lecture by Professor Mark Van Loosdrecht of Delft University of Technology. The title of his talk, “Innovations in Wastewater Treatment,” immediately caught my attention when I first heard it, as I am always on the lookout for radical changes in infrastructure systems and processes. According to my professors, Professor Van Loosdrecht is one of the most prominent minds in the environmental engineering field, and continually pioneers new designs and processes for wastewater treatment. He also specializes in the scaling up of designs from laboratory prototypes to pilot-scale plants and beyond. Just by this background alone I knew that I would be very interested in what Professor Van Loosdrecht would have to say, and I was not let down in the slightest.

I won’t go through everything Professor Van Loosdrecht presented, but I’ll mention some things that really caught my attention. The first was his framework of converting Invention into Innovation. For Professor Van Loosdrecht, Invention is just an idea, the real work comes with turning that idea into practice, which is the hard part. Traditional methods consist of starting with an idea, then going into the Research and Development Stage, and then taking the product to market. Van Loosdrecht’s new approach is most cyclical in nature, constantly switching from research, development and product creation in multiple feedback loops to ensure that whatever you do works well with the other stages. This way, you can speed up innovation by really getting to the essential movers and shakers of the industry and problem at hand.

The idea of getting to the essentials of the problem underlies Van Loosdrecht’s philosophy. Innovation in wastewater treatment, he claims, doesn’t come from fancy words like “resource recovery,” “renewable energy” or “sustainability,” but from the essentials of the industry. The bare-bones objective of wastewater treatment is to clean water, it isn’t to make energy or recover resources. Yes, those objectives are noble and certainly beneficial pursuits, but the point is to clean water as economically and efficiently as possible.

Maintaining this perspective is essential to drive innovation. That isn’t to say that one should be closed off to new ideas, indeed, Van Loosdrecht encourages engineers to maintain an open mind, and to pursue some knowledge simply for curiosity’s sake. For instance, one example of one of Van Loosdrecht’s projects was a wastewater treatment plant inspired by the biogeochemical cycles of certain lakes. Using a unique lake with an uncharacteristically high pH as a model, Van Loosdrecht realized that by combining silica rocks with wastewater, dissolved calcium ions would form Calcium Carbonate and precipitate out of the water, thereby producing a more pure Syngas (a mixture of H2, CO and CO2 used for fuel production) and producing a byproduct which could be used in traditional cement manufacturing. This example fascinated me, as it was a great example of looking towards nature’s systems as a basis for the design of our processes. It also reminded me of all the bizarre natural phenomena out there that could provide valuable information and design inspiration. This example seems to be in conflict with Van Loosdrecht’s philosophy, but it underlies the importance of keeping an open mind and looking for inspiration in all parts of life. Sometimes solutions come up when we aren’t actively looking for one. Being efficient doesn’t mean ignoring opportunity. But when approaching a certain problem, it’s important to define a clear and simply states objective.

In the end Professor Van Loosdrecht mentioned that we should not expect any radical changes within the field of wastewater treatment. The field, like many infrastructure fields, is driven by practicality (i.e. money) and therefore, maintains a strong “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mentality. The key is to improve the basics like money and time in order to get something into practice. While I agree with this point, it also saddens me that we shouldn’t be expecting and paradigm shifting innovations in the coming years. I, for one, think there is plenty of opportunity to radically improve our infrastructure systems and processes. In this modern world, we still distribute and transport our water the way the Ancient Romans did. It certainly works for the most part, but is there another way we could approach these systems that could be more beneficial to both humanity and the environment? Are there other ways we can look at these problems by, as Van Loosdrecht mentions, examining the absolute essentials?

I’ve written a short paper on this topic, which you can find here. I find the topic of innovation in infrastructure interesting, and the topic has led me to an interest in applying entrepreneurship to the infrastructure field. Entrepreneur’s take risks by putting a lot of time, money and other resources behind an idea that has great industry disrupting potential. Why does Entrepreneurship have to only involve electronics, programming and business? Yes, it seems almost paradoxical to combine Entrepreneurial goals with the Infrastructure Industry. One takes risks, the other emphasizes reliability and safety. One often works on the small scale, the other works on huge public works projects. But slowly entrepreneurial spirits are emerging in Infrastructure. The most obvious example being the numerous renewable energy start-ups. Even in our current environmental predicament, the renewable energy industry is still considered risky and not the standard for energy generation. But start-ups are taking the risk and have the drive and know-how to get investors behind their ideas which could potentially change the energy landscape (of course, as mentioned before, getting the idea into an innovation is a difficult step). Entrepreneurship also shows up in development non-profit organizations that design/build services such as water treatment or bridges for developing countries. These organizations employ non-traditional funding strategies and resources in order to bring reliable and safe infrastructure services to those who need it. Yet what about the processes themselves? How can we radically change the infrastructure paradigm? The values of Entrepreneurship don’t only apply to the latest tech start-up or iPhone application. Diligence, Passion, work under stress, communication, curiosity, intelligent risk, a pioneering attitude – these are all skills that can be applied to any field of study, including Infrastructure Design. Entrepreneurism and Infrastructure share similarities in that they both are multifaceted fields that incorporate social, economic, political and environmental issues. They both require a certain amount of reliability, a base from which to work. How can we embody the entrepreneurial spirit within Infrastructure Design to drive innovation? How can we marry the two objectives of Entrepreneurism and Infrastructure while still staying true to the essentials? Is it possible? What needs to change? How can we take a radical idea and turn it into an industry standard?  I’m not sure yet, but it’s a relationship in which I’m willing to dive further.

Kickstarting Glowing Plants

In an earlier post, I had posited the question of whether it was more “sustainable” to have traditional street lamps or genetically engineered bioluminescent trees. It appears that this idea has been in the mind of many researchers and is finally reaching the public in the most public way possible: kickstarter. A team of researchers have put together a kickstarter initiative to generate enough funds to mass-produce bioluminescent plants. The project has already surpassed its goal and as of this post, there are still 42 days to go. Clearly, this project has triggered the imagination and enthusiasm of the public. The application of bioluminescent trees/plants as public infrastructure is clear, and it makes sense that the public should be the ones to fund such an initiative, making such public infrastructure truly public.

As the video mentions, “Synthetic Biology is the future,” and I strongly believe that the technological future will shift towards synthetic biology, no matter what technical field. Synthetic Biology has uses in the fashion industry, the technology industry, the automobile industry, the healthcare industry, ect. Our world is shifting towards one supported not by mechanical systems, but by biological ones. This project is surely a “Symbol of the future” as it represent imagination turned into reality. Even the craziest ideas can be created with scientific principles and an innovative mind.