A Solar-Savvy House

And the Ties that Bind

A national competition inspires a throng of young designers and builders to lead us back toward the sun.

By Neil Caudle

Fall 2015 Glimpse

 

Almost four decades ago, I spent two years of weekends building a modest little passive-solar house on a five-acre woodlot in rural North Carolina. In winter, sunlight angled through a wall of south-facing windows, warming the pavers I’d laid for a floor. As we slept upstairs, the pavers surrendered their heat and kept us warm all night. The house was basic, simple shelter: comfortable, low-tech, and cheap. And it worked.

 

Two generations later, on a hot day in May, I strap on a hardhat and orange safety vest and climb a gently sloping ramp to investigate another kind of solar dwelling, this one from the future, not the past. The 1,000-square-foot house, a full-scale prototype under construction in the parking lot of the South Carolina Botanical Garden, is only slightly smaller than the 1,200-footer I built when I was about the same age as the graduate students I find balanced in the rafters this morning. And our goal was the same: basic, low-cost housing attuned to the sun.

 

But the houses could not have been more different. Mine was a shelter I pounded together with a twenty-two-ounce framing hammer. Today’s version is a futuristic machine for living, no hammer required. And the thirty-four photovoltaic panels on its roof will crank out two hundred and eighty-five watts apiece, enough to power not only the house but the family car.

 

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Defining the Wind

How do you tune a huge turbine to the forces of nature and help deploy the next generation of green-energy machines?

By Neil Caudle

Spring 2015 Glimpse

 

Charleston. It’s a city where history loops forward. Where an iron-hulled Civil War submarine, the H. L. Hunley, an engineering marvel of her time, slowly surrenders to science the secrets of her last fateful hours at sea.

 

Charleston is also a city built in part by the wind. In the early 1700s, Dutch engineers came to the Lowcountry to erect windmills, engineering marvels of their time. From Cape Romain to Edisto Island, coastal breezes spun the lacy blades above the landscape, milling the pine and cypress lumber from which Charleston would rise.

 

Today, you can walk a few steps from the Warren Lasch Conservation Center, where the Hunley steeps in a chemical broth that will leach away her salts and preserve her hull, and enter a space-age, hangar-size building fitted out with enough high-tech hardware to incubate a new generation of engineering marvels: futuristic wind machines. These turbines will not mill pine or cypress. They will not grind corn. But they could spin Charleston full circle and make it, once again, a city attuned to the wind.

 

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When a Warrior Can’t Go It Alone

By Neil Caudle

Spring 2015 Glimpse

 

It’s their job to go where no one should have to go. To see what no one should have to see. To do what no one should have to do. And afterward, if they’re lucky, they get to come home.

 

But for some, that last, lucky step turns out to be the hardest one to handle. Because they haven’t spent months or years decompressing from the terrifying depths of combat, from the loss of their buddies. They haven’t spent months or years training for the day when they tumble back into the slipstream of what used to seem normal and safe but no longer does: life at home.

 

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The Matrix, Reloaded

Dan and Agneta Simionescu found magic in the matrix, and it’s helping them fashion

a new way to heal.

By Neil Caudle

Spring 2014 Glimpse

 

It was late, and snow flurries danced in the empty streets of Bucharest. Dan and Agneta had finally finished their work for the day—a liver-enzyme assay that had kept them in the lab until midnight. They were two Romanian undergraduates, studying biochemistry. They were falling in love.

 

More than three decades later, they remember that night when the world was alive with so many swirling possibilities. The world is still alive that way for them. As it is for their students. As it is for the surgeons who volunteer time to be part of their research. As it is for those who hear the story of their work.

 

This story is a romance. It begins with two students who fall in love and learn, together, how to mend a broken heart.

 

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In the Breath of the Forest

Deep in Brazil, a team takes the measure of rainforest respiration.

By Neil Caudle

Spring 2001 Endeavors

 

When Chris Martens has climbed to the top of the tower, more than 200 feet in the air, having hugged the rough Zs of its metal so tight that his arms are now scratched up and raw, he can stop and gaze down on the deep, pillowed green of the forest. He can watch the macaws, bright as feathered candy, cruising the moist, rising air.

 

For a marine scientist who grew up with boats, whose preferred elevation is sea level or below, whose wife introduces him as the “mud man” because he spends so much time down and dirty in coastal sediments, this is an unthinkable height. What is he doing here, aloft in the wilds of Brazil, with only a smattering of Portuguese, with some gadgets wired inside of cooking pots like homemade bombs? He has come here to measure the breath of the forest.

 

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The Predator In the Stone

North Carolina’s Triassic Terrorist

By Neil Caudle

Winter 2000 Endeavors

 

The beginning we’ll have to imagine.

 

It might have been late afternoon. To the west, on the flanks of the mountains, shadows descend on the conifers, restless and dark. Near the edge of a stream, a slender, long-legged reptile wades out on an apron of mud. The mud is too soft. He mires in it, thrashing. And that’s when the predator charges, wading upright on hind legs through the mud, clamping down with its five-fingered hands, and biting so hard and so deep into the neck of its prey that the teeth penetrate the vertebra, crushing the bone. The predator tries to drag its victim back to the bank, but the mud is too soft. He staggers and topples, and sinks belly-down in the mud.

 

Buried together, their bodies decompose. The mud hardens around them, the hip of the predator pressed to the spine of its prey. Continents divide. Africa tears itself away, heading east. Time piles up layers on layers of stone.

 

And then one day in September 1994, Brian Coffey, an undergraduate geology student at Carolina, strolls around in a brick quarry somewhere south of Durham, studying ancient river deposits. He’s brought along his roommate, Marco Brewer, an anthropology major. They hike up and down the undulating bedding horizons, where a bulldozer has shaved off chunks of the sandstone. The afternoon wears on, and they are just about to leave when they cross a dried-up wash, and Coffey, already the sort of geologist who reads the earth’s fine print as he goes, spots a grayish speck of bone. He finds another, and another—a trail of them like breadcrumbs, scattered up the wash. Coffey and Brewer follow the trail uphill, finding larger and larger fragments, until Coffey can’t take the suspense.

 

“Forget these little pieces,” he says. “I’m going up there.”

 

He scrambles up to the source of the wash and drops to his knees in a semicircle of bone. He and Brewer pick up chunk after chunk, dropping them into sample bags. Then Coffey begins tapping at the soft stone with his rock hammer. The pick of the hammer smacks something hard.

 

It takes his breath.

 

“Whoa,” he says. “Whoa.”

 

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© 2016 by Neil Caudle