October 20, 2020

Stone built C19th shed

Anthony Russo’s off-grid cabin- Architectural Digest

Movie maker Anthony Russo’s off-the-grid cabin in the Angeles National Forest is high style – on the inside.  On the outside it still looks like the funky C19th. building, recently rediscovered by Architectural Digest.

Russo’s getaway is one of a cluster of cabins in the San Gabriel Mountains built in the early 1900s as part of a program instituted by the U.S. Forest Service to encourage responsible land use. Accessing the site requires a 40-minute hike on unpaved foot paths that lead from a pack station down through the canyon. Anything that needs to be brought in, from groceries to building materials, must be transported by hand or pack mule. There are no sewage, water, or power lines, and no cell-phone or internet service. An antediluvian crank phone, straight out of a Hollywood period piece, connects the cabin only to neighboring lodges and the pack station.

“We had to make the most of every square foot, so the details became all-important,” designer Steven Johanknecht explains.

“This place is truly remote, away from everything, but that’s the appeal. Even with the amenities and artisanal flourishes we installed, you’re still basically out there on your own in nature,” says Johanknecht of the AD100 firm Commune Design. “The movers had to create handcarts to get all the material to the site. It took eight men hiking back and forth for days. It felt like a scene from The Ten Commandments,” he recalls, describing the extraordinary logistical challenges of executing the full-scale reconstruction project.

“The place is less than an hour from my office downtown, but you feel like you’ve traveled far, far away from Los Angeles. It’s a radically different reality,” says Russo, who, along with his brother Joe, has directed four installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, including Avengers: Endgame and Captain America: Civil War. “The cabin gives me the opportunity to kidnap my kids for the weekend, bring friends up, or simply do some writing and other creative work in blissful solitude,” he explains.

Russo tapped Commune Design for the assignment after admiring the firm’s work for the Ace Hotel group as well as the late, lamented L.A. restaurant Ammo. “I felt like they had the right sensibility to respect how special this place is but also the imagination to make it of today,” the director explains. “I’ve always been obsessed with Adirondack style, and that was definitely one of our touchstones, but I wanted to see where Commune would go with that idea. I didn’t want something totally old-fashioned and nostalgic,” he adds.

Johanknecht and his team responded with a scheme that balances pragmatic necessity with subtle nods to Shaker and Japanese design, Swedish and French chalets, and historic American mountain retreats. They replaced rotted redwood timbers with knotty cedar on the ceilings and reclaimed oak on the floors, and liberated the original stone fireplace from a straitjacket of paint …

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Surreal tap coming out of a solar panel

All 16 Quarterfinalists in $9 Million Solar Desalination Prize – listed

The lineup for a Solar Desalination Prize has been announced by the US Energy Dept. Our pick is the Solar Aqua Flex: Off-Grid Solar Still from Vanderbilt University, Tennessee.

Its a multistage membrane distillation system made of floating, flexible, layered mats to desalinate water. The mat has a nonporous, heat-absorbing top layer; a water layer that evaporates; a distillate layer where the vapor ends up after moving through a membrane to condense; a feedwater layer; and a conductive layer that heats the feedwater.

There are 16 quarterfinalists  in the $9 million prize competition, providing an additional $1 million in support, designed to accelerate the development of low-cost desalination systems that use solar-thermal power to produce clean water from salt water.

Competitors will receive cash prizes as they advance through each stage of the competition, culminating in a $1 million grand prize for the successful testing and demonstration of a promising solar-thermal desalination system prototype.

Competitors include private companies, nonprofit organizations, academic institutions, students, and researchers at National Laboratories.

To enter the competition, participants had to submit their ideas for a solar-thermal desalination component or system prototype, along with a pathway to commercialization. When their ideas were selected, competitors received $50,000 in cash, advanced to the second phase to form a team, and refine plans for a fully operating solar-thermal desalination system.

The teams selected to advance to the third phase will receive $250,000 in cash and a $100,000 voucher that can be redeemed at a National Laboratory and/or qualified partner facilities to design their systems. While they’re completing detailed designs of their systems in the third phase, teams must also obtain the permitting and approval documentation necessary to build them.

Teams selected to advance to the fourth and final phase of the competition will be awarded a cash prize of $750,000 and another $100,000 voucher. These teams will then build their systems, demonstrate their operation, and validate key performance metrics. The U.S. Department of Energy will determine the winner, who will receive a $1 million cash prize.

Competitors can leverage industry expertise, access private capital, and obtain mentorship and support through the American-Made Network, a group of National Laboratories, incubators, investors, and industry experts. The Network also provides access to local capabilities that will help accelerate the development of their desalination system prototypes.


Out of 162 applicants, 19 quarterfinalists from 12 states were selected to advance to the second phase of the competition. They were announced on October 19, 2020. They are:

Heat Storage for 24-Hour Solar Desalination

Location: Arcadia, CA

Project Summary: Element 16 is a small company developing a sulfur-based thermal energy storage (TES) technology to generate low-pressure steam for desalination. Sulfur has a low melting point (105 Celsius) and low cost ($80/ton). By using lower-cost containment materials, this project aims to reduce sulfur TES cost to below $15/per kilowatt-thermal and reduce heat-exchanger costs, to attain a …

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