Starry Night-inspired bike path.

This Van Gogh-inspired bicycle path in the Netherlands, designed by Daan Roosegaarde, uses thousands of glow-in-the-dark stones and LEDs as a solar-powered solution to bike path lighting. Importantly, it fits seamlessly into the local culture.

Photo: Van Gogh fietspad #1 by Ferdinand van Oostrom. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr

Pet Architecture: Finding North America’s Renewable Culture

Why architectural principles hold the key to wind and solar acceptance.

The newest wind turbines can fly.

Lifted off the ground like a kite, they are designed to solve the problem of accessing greater wind speeds at higher altitudes.

The newest wind turbines can fly.

Lifted off the ground like a kite, they are designed to solve the problem of accessing greater wind speeds at higher altitudes.

There is, of course, plenty of wind at ground-level, but the difficulty in building more terrestrial turbines has nothing to do with technical know-how. With 24 million square kilometres of North American land available for renewable energies, there’s no particular reason why we would need new technologies to operate in even further out-of-the-way locations. The core problem is not about technical innovation: it’s about architecture.

Architecture isn’t just construction: it’s construction that reflects human values and emotions.

In the Netherlands, solar powered bike paths are currently providing up to 70 kw/h of energy per year. Some of them are even designed to invoke paintings by famous Dutch artists. Despite being one of the most densely packed countries in the world, the Netherlands has found ways to provide energy through renewable sources.

It’s not just that the Dutch are inherently more easy-going; renewable energy resistance is found across the country just as it is in Canada and the US.

But somehow the technologies they possess seem to fit seamlessly into the Dutch culture, through an architectural culture borne of dense urban necessity. Such a culture also exists in Japan, where adapting structures for innovative inclusion in the urban landscape is something of an art form.

Andrew Choptiany is an award-winning sustainable-design architect based in Calgary and Toronto. He explains that much of what sets Japanese design apart is “the unexpected synergies that come from high densities and pressures. For example, supermarkets which use their roofs as driving schools, or taxi repair shops built under golf ranges.”

“Pet Architecture” is a term coined by Japanese architect Atelier Bow-Wow to describe these curious buildings and synergies that have arisen in leftover urban spaces around Japan.

There is, however, no single answer to the question of how North American renewable energy providers can learn from these design lessons.

“If there were a simple solution that could provide huge economic and spatial benefits then it would generally be taken advantage of already,” says Choptiany.

“The Japanese have worked out solutions for many spatial conditions. One thing they do very well is using height. I don’t actually mean skyscrapers, but rather the ability to use upper floors for retail or service.”

Surely a flying wind turbine is also an effective use of height – but herein lies the essence of pet architecture. In order to achieve acceptance, these poorly-built spaces, often crammed between or below large buildings, need to invoke something familiar and charming.

As Bow-Wow explains, despite all the shortcomings of these buildings, “we are attracted by them. It’s maybe because their presence produces a relaxed atmosphere and make us feel relieved. Pets, companion animals of the people, are usually small, humorous and charming.”

Starry Night on a bike path is the Dutchest thing in the world. It fits seamlessly into the local culture.

Can the same be said for a flying wind turbine over the skies of California? More airborne wind turbines have recently popped up in Alaska, floating around like post-modern jet engine art. As cool as they are, it’s hard to imagine such an invention making its home anywhere near a crowded metropolis.

Turbines can fly all they want, but renewables won’t really take off until they learn to integrate themselves into the architectural culture of North American cities.

Stu Campana is an international environmental consultant, with expertise in water, energy and waste management. He is the Water Team Leader with Ecology Ottawa, has a master’s in Environment and Resource Management and writes the A\J Renewable Energy blog. Follow him on Twitter: @StuCampana.