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Using Age-Old Designs to Solve Modern Problems

Wind catchers on a cistern near Yazd, Iran, that help to keep the water cool. Photo: <a href="">birdfarm (flickr)</a>
Wind catchers on a cistern near Yazd, Iran, that help to keep the water cool. Photo: birdfarm (flickr)

Part of a Global Envision miniseries about Portland State University's effort to become the "Consumer Reports" of developing-world technology. Read the introduction.

Sometimes, it turns out that the wisdom of the ages is wrong. Portland State University’s Green Building Research Lab is out to tease science from superstition.

Cultures around the globe have adopted unique tricks for coping with the peculiarities of their local environments. But how much of the wisdom behind conventional designs and survival methods is rooted in real science?

That's the question that led PSU researchers to the Persian wind catcher.

Long before the unprecedented heat waves of the last decade, whose increased frequency National Geographic links to climate change, both the Middle East and the American Deep South developed building styles that allow for greater air circulation. The American dogtrot house, recently profiled in an article by The Atlantic, is a bit hard to find since the advent of air conditioning, but Persian wind catchers have been around for several hundred years and still dot the arid landscape around the Persian Gulf. The idea is that open-faced towers on the ends of a building draw in cooler, moving air from high above the ground; the air is pulled through the lower portions of the house and then up and out another tower.

Both the dogtrot house and the wind catcher are culturally accepted ways to beat the heat, but PSU asked: How well do they actually work? They put tiny models of each house into a self-constructed wind tunnel that can measure exactly how—and how well—they work to circulate air. A machine attached to the tunnel creates bubbles that lack an electromagnetic charge, which means that they simply float along on the air currents, providing a seemingly magical way to visually track airflow through the models. Researchers hope they can use the test results to help develop new building designs.

Testing traditional solutions to timeless problems like this one not only tells us something about other cultures; it also shows how old design principles could be melded with current technology to produce more efficient, livable, and sustainable spaces. And if the PSU labs are onto something, maybe your children—or grandchildren—will grow up in a house with a wind catcher.

Margo Conner is a senior at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, majoring in international affairs. Read her other contributions to Global Envision.

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