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10XE Stories Teach Principles of Exceptional Design

By Cameron Burns

Jim at BigBelly SolarThere’s an oft-quoted expression that permeates the world of design engineering: “The engineer’s first problem in any design situation is to discover what the problem really is.” The quote, which is unattributed, could easily have come from an RMI staff member working on Factor Ten Engineering, RMI’s effort to transform the teaching and practice of engineering. (In short, Factor Ten Engineering, or 10xE is the aspiration to design 10 times more efficiently.)

The way society designs, builds, and retrofits just about every part of the human landscape—from power and industrial plants to commercial and residential buildings to vehicles and transportation systems—has a tremendous effect on how these devices and systems use energy and resources.

While there are many examples of exceptional design, RMI’s challenge is to tell the stories so that the engineer and layperson alike understand ideas that apply to highly complex systems. A major component of 10xE—an aspect of RMI’s overarching Reinventing Fire initiative—is a collection of case studies, compelling stories that demonstrate how these ideas are being applied in the real world. As new case studies are completed, RMI is adding them to www.rmi.org as a resource for designers.

One study in the works tells the story of Jim Poss and his company, BigBelly Solar. Poss studied the waste management systems of various cities and realized that most of the energy used and money spent in waste management goes into collecting the waste, specifically fuel for garbage trucks and personnel time. So he designed and perfected a solar-powered compacting trash can that crushes waste, dramatically reducing the number of times trash has to be collected—which in turn greatly reduces garbage truck emissions as well as labor requirements and other costs. The can even notifies the collectors when it's getting full, so they can visit it only when needed, and its data reporting helps design optimal truck routes.

“Factor Ten Engineering is both technical and personal,” RMI Senior Consultant Michael Kinsley says of BigBelly Solar. “We’re showing how whole-system thinking helps engineers succeed. Sure, Poss’s trash cans are nifty gadgets, but they probably would have gone nowhere if he hadn’t analyzed and demonstrated how they fit into the whole trash-collection system. Each unit obviously costs more than a conventional can but saves even more by significantly reducing costs. Cities are buying his expensive trash cans in a down economy because they save money.”

Autodesk FoyerAt present, RMI has finished case studies on a tenant fit-out of Autodesk’s LEED Platinum headquarters in Waltham, Mass., and the Lovins GreenHome, RMI Chief Scientist Amory Lovins’ super-energy-efficient home. The study on BigBelly Solar will soon be added, along with studies on carpet maker Interface (known for pioneering the service economy model), the Carnegie Institution’s new Global Ecology Center (one of the most energy-efficient laboratories and office buildings in the nation), and Delta Electronics (which manufactures highly efficient electronics products and recycles waste heat during the manufacturing process).

Future case studies will likely include the story of PG&E’s ACT2 house in Davis, Calif. (originally designed to save 82% of the fuel and electricity allowed by the nation's strictest building code), Hypercar (RMI’s super-efficient vehicle design), and Electronic Data Systems’ 2009 data center in England (which tripled computing per watt at normal capital capital cost).

Autodesk, one of RMI’s collaborators on Factor Ten, is using video to show 10xE at work. One video in the series tells the story of designers conceiving a more energy-efficient clothes dryer. By looking at the end goal (clean, dry clothes) and how clothes end up in dryers in the first place, the designers show that a washer that uses slightly more energy for a more forceful spin cycle (wringing out moisture from clothes) greatly reduces the energy required to dry the clothes, with a net system savings. The design lesson: To have a more energy-efficient dryer, we must look at the whole process and system.

To learn more about 10xE and follow new case studies, see rmi.org.

Cameron Burns is a senior editor at RMI.

--Published February 2011