'Why design now?' explores ways to solve problems with innovative design.
Solving problems with sustainable – and beautiful – design is the focus of a new exhibition in New York.
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Among other places, the Eco-Machine cleans the wastewater at the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y., two hours north of New York City. Dr. Todd's system passes dirty water through naturally occurring enzymes, fungi, bacteria, plants, and animals (insects and fish) in a series of pond and greenhouse settings.Skip to next paragraph
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"We go into the local environment and literally bring in hundreds of thousands of forms of life and let them sort themselves out" inside his Eco-Machine, he says. "It's called 'seeding.' "
Part of the Eco-Machine even grows flowers for display in the centers. Eventually the water returns to the aquifer, "cleaner than water from a conventional wastewater treatment plant," says Laura Lesniewski, a principal at BNIM, an architectural firm in Kansas City that designed the building. "This whole system doesn't cost any more than if they replaced it with a traditional septic system."
Demonstrating a modern twist on an ancient technique, the MIT Masonry Research Group used 720 bricks made from 30 percent raw sewage and postindustrial waste to build a 16-foot-wide undulating arch inside the Cooper-Hewitt. The student team took three days to complete the structure.
The bricks are only 1-1/2 inches thick, yet the arch is so strong that two MIT students have stood atop a similar structure built on the campus.
"We're trying to show that bricks can do more than make a wall," Ms. Taub says. "Bricks can span surfaces. They can do that in a very beautiful, innovative way."
Special computer-designed curves within the arch add to its strength.
"It's very strong, even though it's very thin," she says. It can be built by unskilled laborers who lay the bricks over a simple wooden form.
The design for the Neonurture Car-parts Baby Incubator rested on a simple fact.
"Think of it," says Mr. Prestero, founder and CEO of Design That Matters in Cambridge, Mass. "There are three things you can buy anywhere in the world: a Coke, cigarettes, and car parts."
Most medical equipment donated to the developing world breaks or is abandoned for lack of parts within a few years, he says. But major automakers such as Toyota already extend their parts supply lines into the remotest corners of the world.
Incubators are used to keep infants warm for the first 24 hours after birth. "There are 1.8 million infant deaths per year because of hypothermia," Prestero says. Having a working incubator at a local hospital or clinic could save many lives.
A Toyota truck has about 17,000 parts, he says. His team's design objective was to "take away all the parts that aren't an incubator." The result looks a bit like a street vendor's cart or baby carriage hiding a car battery for generating heat. At first Prestero thought parents would want something designed to look comfortable and friendly. But instead, he found, they wanted the reassurance of a high-tech look – "NASA, not IKEA."
Creating a "warm box" for the infant isn't hard, he concedes. But keeping the design simple can be. "We want to make it easy to do the right thing and hard to do the wrong thing," he says. As a result, the incubator has a single knob to control the temperature and requires minimal training to operate.
The Cooper-Hewitt's four curators spent three years searching for innovative and world-changing designs. A museum website solicited ideas from the public, many of which were included.
The design of the exhibition itself tries to "walk the walk" of sustainability. The furniture, for example, is made from 100 percent postindustrial recycled wood. At every step of the way, efforts were made to reduce waste and choose materials that took little energy to manufacture and ship and were recyclable. It's all meant to inspire visitors.
"This [exhibition] is about how can we solve the world's problems together," McCarty says. "Hopefully people will walk out asking, 'What can I do? What difference can I make?' "
• "National Design Triennial: Why Design Now?" runs through Jan. 9, 2011, and is expected to travel to venues both within the US and abroad.