Totally Human Powered College Dorm

Well, this sounds like an ambitious experiment (It's a long article, worth reading the whole thing, both for philosophy and the technical details). :

.. In the Human Power Plant, Low-tech Magazine and artist Melle Smets investigate the feasibility of human energy production in the 21st century. To find out if human power can sustain a modern lifestyle, we are designing plans to convert a 22 floors vacant tower building on the campus of Utrecht University in the Netherlands into an entirely human powered student community for 750 people. We’re also constructing a working prototype of the human power plant that supplies the community with energy.

The Human Power Plant is both a technical and a social challenge. A technical challenge, because there’s a lack of scientific and technological research into human power production. A social challenge, because unlike a wind turbine, a solar panel or an oil barrel, a human needs to be motivated in order to produce energy.…

The lengths environmentalists will go to to avoid facing the fact that our current lifestyles aren't sustainable long-term! I guess the conditions the "human power" work under will be better than that faced by galley slaves, but still, there are certain similarities there. Just creepy and wrong!

But I guess the people who speculate that "The Elite" want to enslave the rest of us to keep their lavish lifestyles going aren't far wrong.

The sheer degree and amount of bad ideas that somehow get funding is a constant source of wonder for me. I feel like you could put a power strip in fancy box and get funding to "develop" it as a power generator (that happens to need to be plugged in the wall during it's prototype phase . . . ) if you went to the right conferences and knew the right buzzwords.

This one is particularly fascinating. No matter how bad the people designing this have to be with the EROEI math and systems theory to not realize that anything you can do with this electricity could be done by hand with fewer human work hours, deep down they know they're trying to create a form of slavery to replace fossil fuels. Sure, the article mentions slavery and has a brief note about how, "there may be a third possibility," where people are just motivated to generate electricity all day for the fun of it, but I can't believe they don't deep down know what they're really doing.

Not that that sort of knowledge repression is uncommon in developed nations--most people have a special hiding place where they store the knowledge that their clothing was made in a sweat shop.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry! I don't even know where to begin in dissecting the bad ideas that fill this scheme. Can't wait to see all those PhD students writing their theses while lifting 22 pounds every two minutes to keep the lights on! Can't wait to see the cost of the meal plans for these "super students" who exercise 8 to 12 hours a day. Can't wait to see the sky-rocketing cases of hypothermia as students pouring with sweat relax in unheated rooms in the middle of winter. Possibly two functions could be combined and oral exams for Masters degrees could be administered at the Olympic games. Only tri-athletes need apply! I was surprised to see that air-drying of laundry is in the plan, since of course giving up showers completely in favor of sink washing or using a James washer that is human-powered with less effort and can do several loads of wash with the same water could never be considered. We must have "power" appliances for everything! Clearly the "housekeeping" and "maintenance" staff will have to be enslaved to provide computer time for the darlings in college. Maybe they could even be housed on the north side of the 22nd floor, since those rooms will be unrentable anyway.

I still remember the mental shock and paradigm shift when I was a freshman in college and met another freshman who had clothesline strung above his bed in his dorm room. He said, "Why should I pay to dry clothes and use that energy when the air will do it for free?" Now I was raised in a home without a clothes dryer, but it had never occured to me that I shouldn't use the automatic dryer in the dorm laundromat, or that I should think about the environmental impact of appliances. I was "living better electrically!" I bless the day I met that guy. He made me question a lot of things in my life going forward.

Yeah - my first thought was simpler: could they have started smaller? I didn't recall seeing how they'll get the elevator to work, and there's no way I'd volunteer to run up/down 22 floors and THEN power my own room...the connection between meals and exercise is a good one - ROEI might be less than they realize... I do hope someone follows up with a "results" article.. but I wonder if it'll just die a quiet death. Start small, stay small - it's how we'll have to be living, anyway...

I've had an interesting time pondering some of the issues raised by this article. Three things stand out to me, and I think they are ideas with which Green Wizards are pretty familiar.

First is the way that complexity seems to breed more complexity. The problems of modern fossil-fueled based society are so complex that the solutions *must* be torturously complex.

Second is the way that bad past decisions have us living in the present with non-sustainable infrastructure which in turn forces more non-sustainable decisions. In this case, the Netherlands is a small and densely populated country which needs extensive space for agricultural fields and industry. Therefore, high-rise buildings seemed like an obvious solution. Unfortunately, they only work in a world with abundant fossil energy sources.

Third is the automatic assumption that we must have all sorts of amenities going forward because we are used to having them currently. They seem like necessities. We'll die without them!!! Note that this seems to be just as true in the Netherlands as in the USA, even though the Dutch walk and cycle regularly for distances that we USians would consider deadly.

I've engaged in a little thought experiment about this dorm. (NB: I am not an engineer and struggle myself to get to bed earlier to save electricity. This is *only* a thought experiment about what might be possible.) Start by restricting the number of students to those that can fit onto the lower 10 floors. Assign each student to two rooms: a daytime study on the south side and a sleeping room on the north side. Put sunlight reflecting wells in each south window. Assign four students to each sleeping room to provide some minimal heat during the winter. Ventilate the sleeping rooms using such old-fashioned methods as transoms and windows that open a couple of inches. Instead of a computer, each student will be required to provide the following: a manual typewriter, carbon paper, notebooks and pens/pencils, a rechargeable wind-up camping lantern, a wind-up flashlight, and a personal wash basin. Design a solarium on the south side of the first floor as a quiet study space (no clacking typewriters). Add some black water tanks which can store heat on sunny days, thus providing some of the warm water used for basin washing. Each student will be issued one pitcher of warm/hot water a day for washing and as much cold water as desired. Hand-powered washing machines (such as the James and the little pressure washer) along with wringers will be provided in a cold-water-only laundry area. Could Marie Curie or Galileo cope with these conditions?

Hay box techniques can keep water hot for hours and hours. Hand washing and laundry presoaks could be faciliated by a little insulated cabinet under the washstand, and an insulated laundry sink with a cover. Solar fans and a channel up the middle to chimney hot air up and created a cool breeze all summer long. Lots of simple solutions that do not require converting human energy into electrical power.

David Trammel's picture

I wonder if they plan on including garden space too?

lathechuck's picture

The latest news (over a year old, as of my writing) reports that the Human Power Plant, v.1.2, is able to produce 60W of power with six people at work on it (producing compressed air, pressurized water, and electricity). They observe that, since a single adult human being can be expected to produce 100W as an individual, their "power plant" wastes 90% of the mechanical power that their users put into it! There's nothing since 2017 on the Human Powered Dorm.