Doing More with Less
Arguments for Low-tech Innovation in Engineering
- Two at-home experiments hint at enormous potential for low-tech innovations in engineering.
- Repurposed materials could be one of the keys to a sustainable future.
- The design and construction process is as important as the final outcome.
One would be hard pressed to find a person who is not concerned about the world our children are inheriting. We worry, rightly so, about what more we could be doing to improve conditions for ourselves, our fellow humans, Earth’s other inhabitants, and the Earth itself. As a professor of civil engineering, I worry about attracting the talent we need for the next generation of civil engineers. While we want to project a willingness to develop and embrace the very latest technology (pushing this envelope is an essential part of my job), we may be misleading people into thinking that new technology is the answer to our concerns. What if the solutions we seek are very nearly the opposite? This article describes two experiments completed during the pandemic, while working from home with my family, that lead me to think this may be the case. Indeed, the pathway to a sustainable future may be through innovations that are decidedly low-tech but nevertheless rely on a highly skilled workforce and select high-tech components.
In our first experiment, we built a house — a really small one — primarily from repurposed materials. The story starts from when we first moved into our first-floor condominium, which had a large, aging deck on the patio. After months of debating what to do, including several moments in which the deck was perilously close to ending up in a dumpster, we decided to disassemble it with the thought of repurposing the lumber or giving it to someone who could. We spent many hours prying, drilling, and pounding to separate the deteriorated boards with mucky undersides that had not seen the light of day in many years, and we spent more hours still removing the jagged, corroded screws that once held the deck together. The work was slow and painstaking, yet also deeply meditative. The mind could not dwell on whatever thoughts of work or drama from daily news might otherwise creep in. We stacked the lumber and started to ruminate on what could be done with it. Then, in March 2020, the pandemic sent us home for months on end. Suddenly, our condominium was just too small for two adults and two young children, and it was abundantly clear what we needed to do. We needed space. So we used the lumber to build space — a detached room that could serve alternately as a home office, home school, and playhouse.
Our “tiny house” experiment was transformational in so many ways. Foremost, it produced a profound shift in how we think about building materials. Our entire objective in design and construction became focused on using what we already have. Buying something from the lumberyard or hardware store was seen as giving up, or at least a great concession, and indeed we made just such a concession in purchasing the polycarbonate roof panels (well worth it for the glorious amounts of light they let in). We sourced windows and galvanized steel for siding from the rebuilders warehouses of Evanston and Chicago, which are now among our very favorite shops to frequent. Large polystyrene containers from takeout became, for a short time, an absolute treasure that could be used to plug holes and insulate our new space. The process was as important as the outcome, and this unlocked all kinds of opportunities that we might not have seen otherwise.
Our shared project was also transformational in the way that it alleviated stress at home and got us through the worst of the pandemic thus far. We had a creative, useful project that engaged the entire family. For the kids, it was a space for play, limited only by the imagination. For my wife and I, it was a way to use the lumber we salvaged in a deeply satisfying way, a way to make separated space for productivity, a way to take our minds off of the tumult, a way to exercise, and an opportunity to work towards a fulfilling project together. We each contributed mind and muscle in some capacity, and we invested time and energy in something that fundamentally made our lives better.
The second major experiment we ran during the pandemic, motivated in part by our success with the tiny house, was endeavoring to fix a major problem with our furnace rather than give in to the temptation to replace it entirely. Here was the problem: our old, electric furnace would get stuck permanently in heating mode. To stop it from heating, we had to flip the breakers, and the furnace effectively became a manually operated heater on an on/off switch. This was not good. But we knew it might be coming given the furnace’s age. To our knowledge, it is the original one installed when the building went up in 1969. Knowing a few things about electricity and electrical gadgetry, but very little about furnaces, we set about one day to disassemble the furnace and peek inside. Our first reaction was amazement at its internal cleanliness and simplicity. Given the problem, we knew the issue was most likely with a faulty relay, and it did not take long to identify the part. Within minutes, the faulty part was extricated from the furnace and sitting on the kitchen table, and we set about seeing if we could find a new one. With delight and anticipation, we found a supplier of aftermarket parts who then, several days later, informed us the part had been discontinued. With more time and perseverance, we tracked down an OEM replacement being sold on eBay by someone from Wyoming. Within a short span of time, the part arrived, and our furnace has been humming along beautifully ever since.
The second experiment had lessons as fundamental as the first. We managed to save our furnace from the landfill — and save considerable money — by forging into that space that no vendors seem to occupy, since they would rather sell you a new furnace than try to fix the old one. Venturing into that space requires skill and the desire to self-educate, and most importantly it requires patience and tolerance for potential missteps. After all, we took a financial risk buying the new part, a small expense compared to replacing the entire furnace. Our small bet paid off big time. But what if the new part did not fix the problem? What if we could not find the part? Would we have taken our experiment to the next level and tried to make our own part, or find someone who could? It is clear that there is a huge market for this type of work, but there is almost no one there to meet the demand. The same technology that gave us eBay unlocks unlimited potential for sharing and repurposing the many resources that humans have already amassed, but for now, if you want to unlock this potential, you just have to do the work yourself.
While these anecdotes pertain to one household, they hint at something that could be implemented on a much larger scale and have implications for the entire engineering profession. What if our primary goal in engineering and design shifted to optimizing the resources that we already have? What if there were funding initiatives to support development of the practical approaches resembling those described above? We cannot have the next generation of engineers believe that they can solve everything with a phone app. Technology unlocks great potential, but it only gets us so far. We clearly need more hands-on experiences for engineers to promote such initiatives and build the necessary skillsets. Civil engineers, who take great pride in building, seem uniquely poised to take on this challenge.
About the Author
Jim Hambleton is Louis Berger Junior Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Northwestern University (NU) and current Chair of the ASCE Geo-Institute Chicago Chapter. More on his teaching interests, research interests, and other publications can be found on his research website, NU profile page, and personal website.