Fires, Floods, And The Coming Of Zoltan

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The news looks bad. But never fear. Zoltan might yet come along.

This morning, the first story I saw was one of Steve Hanley’s latest articles on CleanTechnica, “Should People Be Prevented From Living In Fire And Flood Prone Areas?” (Called “Prevention Article” in remainder of this article.) It seems a majority of people in the U.S. would support a ban on building in areas at risk from such natural disasters as flooding and fires. A majority would also support buying out people whose homes are at risk.

But the number of people who will have to move in the not-so-distant future may be huge. Another article on CleanTechnica makes this clear. It is “Listen Up! Dr. James Hansen Has A Message For The Citizens Of Earth.” That article, also by Steve Hanley, said that James Hansen had “warned global heating would cause a thermal expansion of the oceans and cause glaciers and polar ice caps to melt, leading to sea level rise of one to four feet by 2050. Three decades later, Hansen’s projections are proving to be eerily prescient.”

This immediately set me to thinking back to an article Michael Barnard wrote, which appeared on CleanTechnica on September 18, 2018. The title of that article, “Miami’s Existence Is Threatened With As Little As 18″ Of Sea Level Rise,” really says exactly what it means. And if Hansen was right, Miami could easily be lost long before 2050.

And it is not just floods. Another article, “Oregon Wildfires: Half A Million People Flee Dozens Of Infernos,” was put online by BBC News only a few days ago. And those half-million people are just the ones in Oregon. Who knows how many people have been displaced in California? And there are fires in ten other states in the West.

People are having to leave their homes now. And a lot of those are never going to be able to return to them.

We can only expect that to get worse until we stop net emissions of carbon, and, after that, until the climate comes to an equilibrium. We don’t know how long that will take. The lowest estimate I have seen was 25 years, once net carbon emissions go to zero, but I have not seen an estimate that low for years. The high estimates got to centuries. We can change that by running a society that has strongly net-negative carbon emissions. When will that happen? We have to hit net-zero first. And we have to get serious before that will happen.

Steve Hanley’s Prevention Article put me in mind of something. It is something I had discovered almost 50 years ago, a type of geometric shape that I recognized could be used to build emergency housing, among other things.

In those days, Arthur D. Little had an inventions-management branch. I sent my discovery to them to see if they would like to manage patents and finding investors. Six months later, I had still seen nothing from them, aside from acknowledgment of receipt, so I wrote to ask why the matter was so much delayed. The president of the division call me a couple of days later.

He had been very aware of the issue. The problem, he explained, is that he had two sets of consultants who were at odds with each other about what to do. The engineers said the invention was important. But the attorneys said it could not be patented because it was a geometric shape. The engineers insisted that a way to patent it be found, because it was important. But the attorneys were adamant that it was a lost issue. And so it went.

I asked whether a patent could be had for using this particular geometric shape for the roof of a building. I was told it probably could, but the problem would be how to defend such a patent. Because it would be important, it would be valuable; and because it would be valuable, a lot of people would want to steal it; and because a lot of litigation could be anticipated, anyone pursuing a patent on it would just be setting themselves up to lose money.

The next problem is that the patent really was necessary. No corporation wants to engineer the details of a new structure unless it knows it can make money. (Later, on a different occasion, an R&D department head explained, “All we want is an unfair advantage.”) At that time, there were very few resources in government to develop it. And those that could were probably overwhelmed already by people who had new ideas of their own.

So, many, many years ago, I decided that my discovery was a lost cause. And now, my time is so taken up by writing for such operations as CleanTechnica that I don’t have any to spare for it.

Steve Hanley’s Prevention Article told me that the time when we need to develop new housing for the internal refugees who we will have in this country is here. And guess what – I can write about it for CleanTechnica!

The Discovery

About 50 years ago, I had a long discussion with a friend who wanted to build a house as three A-frames joined together so that the peaks of their roofs met at a point, forming angles of 120° to each other, as seen from above. I told him I thought the idea was terribly impractical, and I think it hurt his feelings. He kept trying to explain why it was really, really good.

The next morning, I woke up with a complete vision of a new type of geometric shape, which was built by combining other shapes. It is the geometric analog of a co-polymer. The roof of a structure of indefinite extent could be built by repeated use of just two triangular roof modules, each with an equilateral triangle module for the floor below it. I called the resulting shape a co-polymodular, noting that simpler polymodulars are also possible. A fourth model consisting of a right triangle would form a wall.

The triangular modules would be flat. That means they would be rather easy to store compactly. Buildings made from them could be put up very quickly, especially because the floor modules could support the structure with no other foundation, of the ground is flat and level, which would be okay in the case of emergency housing. If the floor modules were built float, the entire thing could be built on water.

A building made of these materials could be designed to be expanded over time, or disassembled and its components reused elsewhere. When Jane and John get married, they could start their family with an expansion of their home. As Jessica grows, her space could be expanded. When she leaves home, she could take parts of her room with her, so she and Zoltan, the love of her life, could build a new home from the modules he brings also.

Details You Might Want to Skip

The trick is that each module has to subtend a floor area that is an equilateral triangle — both roof modules would subtend the same floor modules. I fooled around with this idea nearly all day. I discovered that there was an ideal pair of roof modules. Both of these could be sides of regular hexagonal pyramids; in one pyramid the ratio of its altitude to the length of each side was 3:2, and in the other it was 1:2.

Interestingly, in the pyramid with a 3:2 altitude-to-side ratio, the roof has an angle of 60° to the base. And if the ratio is 1:2, the angle is 30°. I found that fascinating. It was kind of like finding a pair of pyramids, each of which is analogous both to a 3:4:5 triangle and a 30-60-90 triangle. Or something. (I guess only an intense nerd would care, so don’t worry if you don’t get it.)

Very much more to the point is a matter of cutting loss. Triangles are notorious for producing a high percentage of cutting loss. In this case, however, if we decide that the floor module is to have sides of eight feet, all other modules would be triangles with 8′ bases. Two of the modules could be produced from 4×8 plywood sheets without cutting loss. These are the smaller roof module, which would have an 8′ altitude, and the wall module, which would have a 12’ altitude. And the other two could be produced without loss from a plywood sheet if a producer were to set up to make the sheets in dimensions based on 2X√48 (roughly 13 feet 10.28 inches) in length, provided we are allowed to join two triangles along a seam. If not, other options exist.

How the Modules Work

Drawing a rendering of a co-polymodular structure makes for a very confusing picture. So, I had a set of wooden blocks made that I could play with. They are solid, of course, but each has relevant triangles. Here is a picture of all four triangular modules:

The shape we might start with is a pyramid made up of the taller roof modules. If we take off two modules and turn them upside down, we can put them back on inverted. This leaves us with two vertical triangles that we can use to insert wall modules. Using a 8-foot base length, the height is 12 feet, so a door can easily be inserted into this shape. In the picture below, triangle at the right actually is verticle, though it might not look it. You can see that the edge all the way to the right is vertical in this image:

We could invert all the other roof modules, which would give us six verticle triangles also. Here is that image:

If we made this into a little building, it could have a number of windows and doors.

Now, we might add four more roof modules, all inverted, to enlarge the building. This is what that could look like:

But why stop here? We have room for a kitchen and bath. Let’s add the dining room:

Now, we are at a point where the second roof module can be added, making the whole structure much more spacious. Perhaps for a living room?

Of course, we need to have a place to sleep:

These modules can be used in other ways. The short roof modules can also be inverted usefully to make larger interior spaces:

But why stop here? We can just keep building, confident that one day Zoltan will show up.

But then, maybe Jessica and Zoltan will want to live with us, somewhere off in the distance where they can’t hear me snore:

And, by the way, there are other ways of designing buildings, if we insist on on being stodgy:

I should tell you that the design is not limited to just these four shapes. You could build onion domes if you want, as long as they work with the geometry. And that, to be simple, just requires use of modules that subtend equilateral triangles. Also, the roofs of these modules could be built on structures more than one story tall. On the other hand, if the floor is designed to float, they could be built on water, or they could also be built on land, but designed to float in the case of a flood, while being anchored so they don’t float away.

More on Intellectual Property

Among my close blood relatives, the ones without patents are definitely in the minority. Based on my experience with a patent on an entirely unrelated technology, and the stories of my relatives, I believe the geometry actually could have been patented, but the patent also actually would have been worthless because of possible litigation.

That said, the co-polymodular cannot be patented in the US now, because the time allowed for it to be developed has long since lapsed. Anyone who wants to could develop it. And they could have copyrights on their unique designs.

For myself, I think I really don’t have some of the skills needed to develop this; finding funding is far beyond my abilities. But I do have other ways to help save the planet. Most of what I write is actually published in CleanTechnica, Green Energy Times, and elsewhere. My blog takes about four to five hours every day, and my TV show adds hours to that weekly. And when I think I have something to say, I write fiction, because it has to get out somehow.

Perhaps this could be a crowdfunded technology. Or some organization could take it up as pro bono orphan development, the way lawyers take up poor clients.

My experience with this makes me wonder about whether an entirely capitalist system can develop a certain class of things. I think there are some things that we need, as a society, that cannot turn a profit, and so they are left in the closet.

Anyway, I could easily see the possibility of a sudden need for millions of structures develop during the next few decades, possibly more than once. So I want to put this out there, in case someone can make use of it.

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George Harvey

A retired computer engineer, George Harvey researches and writes on energy and climate change, maintains a daily blog (, and has a weekly hour-long TV show, Energy Week with George Harvey and Tom Finnell. In addition to those found at CleanTechnica, many of his articles can be found at

George Harvey has 78 posts and counting. See all posts by George Harvey