Cars and Buildings

January 15, 2008


I’ve been away a bit the last couple of weeks which is why you haven’t heard as much from me as usual. I’ve been learning some new things about cars and automotive technology and seeing the latest models being unveiled. I had an opportunity to find out about the new ethanol process and partnership between General Motors and Coskata Inc. that may prove to be a significant milestone in energy production, and signal a reduction in the use of fossil based materials as fuels.

I also attended the North American International Auto Show (more commonly known around here as the Detroit Auto Show) to see what is new in the automotive world. Over at our sister website, Gas 2.0, I’ve written more about Coskata’s technological development in ethanol production, a next generation process for producing ethanol without using corn or other food as feedstock for the process. Even if you hate cars and never drive one, the Coskata process is interesting because, by using different microbes in the bioreactors, other useful alcohols can be produced, including some that are used in the production of plastics (which have applications in buildings and other products). The front end gasification technologies also can be used to deal with municipal waste streams, in some implementations.

While it doesn’t hurt to repeat that buildings are responsible for more energy use and greenhouse gas emissions than transportation uses, a technology that reduces carbon emissions by over 80% is a significant step, and the ramifications of this development could well spread into building-related applications.

There are other intersections of buildings and automobiles to talk about as well. The Fisker, a luxury electric-hybrid car that was unveiled Monday on the main floor of the Auto Show is being marketed with a second display on the lower level that pairs the car with solar panels that can be mounted on your garage roof to provide enough electricity to recharge the vehicle at night (presumably through a net-metering agreement, rather than battery storage).

Cars are part of the built environment, and have an impact on the way buildings look. The garage (and its despicable offspring, the garage fronted house) is perhaps one of the most significant impacts the car has had on building. But whether it is the placement and spacing of houses, in a walkable neighborhood or an exurban sprawl, or the addition of solar panels on the roof to power the car, or even just the addition of a circuit in the garage to use to plug in the car for overnight charging, cars are going to have a noticeable impact on the way our buildings are designed and used.

Note: GM paid for my travel to attend a background briefing on Coskata and helped provide my access to the Auto Show.