American University of Beirut

Lebanon, diesel generators, butterflies, and integrative design

​​Op-Ed by MSFEA Dean Alan Shihadeh​ for the An-Nahar AUB Special Issue.

I write this piece while in route from Beirut to Munich, where I will be attending a scientific conference and hopefully meeting with some of my former students who now work at BMW. ​There they are working on the next generation of manufacturing robots, using tools from the world of artificial intelligence; their supervisors at BMW want me and my fellow deans of engineering schools in Lebanon to send more of our graduates. Our students are in high demand, but not in Lebanon. As I contemplate my own children's coming of age, I share the restlessness of many parents at the thought that our children too will need to go abroad to lead fulfilling lives doing creative work. This story is a familiar one to any Lebanese ear, and normally ends in some variation of the futility of hope in the face of a corrupt, entrenched political elite that pursues cronyism instead of a vibrant, sustainable economy.

Buckminster Fuller said that there is nothing in a caterpillar that suggests it is going to be a butterfly. As Dean of a storied engineering and architecture school, part of my job is to create learning experiences that empower our students to imagine and make a new reality. To do so we are moving our curricula towards integrative design; the notion that problems are best framed holistically. Rather than focusing on the caterpillar or the butterfly in isolation, we seek to address them as an integrated whole.

We are all familiar with Lebanon's chronic electricity shortage and frequent power outages. This has led to the proliferation of diesel generators whose noise raises our blood pressure and grates our nerves, and whose emissions bring asthma and cancer and lower our children's IQs.  The frequent outages also mean more imports of UPS systems and household appliances that prematurely burn out, creating an additional financial burden on families. More imports, in turn, tend to strengthen the political class that controls the ports, while spent UPS batteries end up in landfills, leaving a toxic legacy of lead to seep into our ground for generations to come.  Diesel generators solved one problem by creating one hundred more.

What might a more integrative approach to energy shortages look like?  Lebanon's electricity demand is largely driven by refrigeration, heating, cooling, and lighting of buildings. If we could reduce that demand enough, our outages could go away, as would a large part of Lebanon's annual fuel imports. Fuel imports are another drain on the economy. What if all building permit applications were obliged to include detailed analyses of projected energy use and required that the building designs met a stringent annual energy standard, as demonstrated by advanced computer simulations?

Very rapidly, such a move would create demand for a cadre of energy engineers, architects, and building physicists to serve one of Lebanon's few indigenous industries: construction.  It would mean that a larger fraction of construction costs go into the creative exercise of design, and a smaller fraction to imported cooling equipment.  Last winter I visited energy guru Amory Lovins in his home in the snowy mountains of Colorado, where temperatures reach below -30C.  By carefully orienting windows and walls with respect to the sun, integrating structural elements with natural lighting, and using multiply-glazed windows and massive walls, his home provides a comfortable year-around interior temperature and has no mechanical heating system, and therefore no heating bill.  It was built in 1984, and by standards at that time, was not especially high-tech, but rather reflected high design.

We know that a more energy efficient economy is a more competitive one, and with regular tightening of building efficiency standards, Lebanon could become known for its radically efficient design culture, the way it is known for its food and fashion design.  Our children could work in – or start – cutting-edge design firms that focus on radical efficiency, and with high-speed internet, they could provide their design services anywhere in the world. Diesel generators would go silent because they became unnecessary, even without fixing our decrepit infrastructure.  With a tweak to our building permitting criteria, integrative design can become an economic engine that runs not on imported fuel and equipment, but rather on Lebanon's home-grown talent and knack for design.

For more about the An-Nahar AUB Special Issue of September 27, 2018 read here.

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