The Outside Blog

Adventure : Nature

Bourke House: The World's Nicest Tent

While you might not notice it immediately, this family’s private summer cabin was designed to mimic a series of tents.

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Perched on a hill with stunning views of New Zealand’s Buckleton Bay, the retreat’s separate sleeping areas are connected to a central space–the heart of the base camp. Here, groups can gather to cook, eat, and lounge under a soaring white roof. Tethered by red masts, this horizontal plane rises toward the sea, while the deep overhang provides shade, much like a tent’s awning.

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Low-maintenance materials (concrete, wood, and glass) make the transition from inside to out. The concrete terrace wraps around the full perimeter of the house, and encircles a brick fireplace.

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In the summer, residents can slide open the glass walls to let in the sea breeze and take in views of the bay.

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Is the Next Energy Alternative Taking Flight?

Ten years ago, kiteboarding pioneer Don Montague hatched a plan to become the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe. His idea was to use a 65-foot catamaran, cabled to a large parafoil, that would fly some 250 feet in the air. Essentially, he would supersize the typical kiteboard rig. A few months into the project, he gave a preview to a couple of kitesurfing friends, Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

“I was showing them how much power was actually available at higher altitudes, and I said, ‘Look, I can even generate electricity,’ ” says Montague, who had worked with a Dutch astronaut to build a kite-power prototype. “They said, ‘Don, don’t waste your time sailing around the world. Let’s save the world.’ ”

So Montague and his partners set about designing a wind turbine that would be held aloft like a kite but use small propellers to generate electricity. Montague named the new endeavor Makani. At the outset, Google invested $15 million in the effort. Last May, Makani was sold outright to Google X—the R&D lab that created Google Glass—for an undisclosed amount. And this summer, backed by the company’s enormous resources, Makani began building a second-generation, 600-kilowatt wind turbine, which could one day generate enough electricity to power 300 homes—as many as the largest modern land-based turbines.

Makani’s big idea rests on a simple concept: wind gets stronger—and more dependable—the higher you go. Dozens of companies around the world are working on design formulas based on this principle, everything from a propeller system that stays aloft with helium, like a blimp, to a large drone-like quadcopter with spinning blades that produce energy.

One of the primary hurdles in technology races like this is capital, since most investors consider the odds of failure too great. But with Google’s deep pockets, Makani is by far the most likely outfit to usher in a new era of wind power. “We are able to go faster, and we have a larger appetite for risk,” says Damon Vander Lind, lead engineer at Makani. “Perhaps we will fail. But if we succeed, the value dwarfs all the potential failures.”

Some alternative-power advocates are ambivalent about Google leading the way to a renewable-energy future, but the wind sector needs all the help it can get. Proponents like to boast that the resource could supply the U.S. with 20 percent of its electricity needs, yet the industry has foundered in recent years, beset by political and logistical woes. A big part of the problem is that current land-based designs are expensive to build and clunky to transport. That’s where Montague’s high-flying concept comes in.

“While classic turbines are facing physical and economic limits, airborne wind energy shows interesting potential,” says Roland Schmehl, a professor at the Netherlands’ Delft University of Technology, who’s working on an electricity-generating inflatable wing called Kite Power.

Makani is currently testing a 20-kilowatt airplane-inspired turbine, which circles in the air like a parafoil. Made with 27-foot-wide carbon-fiber wings, it can reach heights of up to 1,300 feet, compared with a maximum 500 feet for land-based turbines. When the wind isn’t strong enough to keep the wing aloft, a docking station reels it in. Like those on the ground, airborne models would likely be combined into groups of dozens or even hundreds. To maximize -potential power, Makani’s turbines would need to fly at a minimum of 500 feet—which could require amending current FAA regulations.

As for Montague, after the Google X acquisition, he bowed out of the company and got back to building that kite-powered catamaran to sail around the world. He’s confident Makani will be the first to market with a commercially viable airborne wind turbine, which he says is still at least five years out.

“Is it a race? It doesn’t really matter who’s first,” Montague says. “If anyone is in production in five years, then we all win.”

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Those Planes Aren't the Problem

By now, you've likely seen the photos. On the afternoon of July 3, a train paralleling Montana’s Clark Fork River derailed at Atherton Gorge, sending payloads of soybeans, denatured alcohol (not for drinking, this is the stuff used in fuel), and Boeing plane parts into the water—and into view of stunned outdoor enthusiasts.

While photographs of the failure made waves in international news, the accident was actually more spectacle than disaster. “Since the denatured alcohol and soybeans were contained, the damage is very temporary,” Pat Saffel, fisheries manager of Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks told Outside. “There was really no impact.”

The things that really hurt the Clark Fork, and American rivers at large, aren’t as conspicuous or visible as fuselages—they tend to be subtler, come on more gradually, and cause long term damage. Of the more-than 500,000 miles of rivers analyzed in the 2004 National Water Quality Inventory, the USEPA found that 44 percent of them were impaired.

For the most part, the biggest threats to rivers are results of our attempts to control them. America’s dams, constructed to retain water and create energy, damage downstream ecosystems, disrupt the flow of nutrient-rich silt, are aging, and have little water to hold back. As a result of damming and diversion—for agricultural, municipal, and residential use—some of the largest rivers in the world are running dry, requiring intensive cooperation between countries to maintain any flow at all.

We can damage waterways when we put them to use, but rivers get caught in the crossfire when we forget to include them in our plans, too. Fertilizer runoff is the leading source of water quality damage. The way watersheds are graded, this pollution, as well as stormwater runoff from cities, inevitably ends up in rivers and streams.

Groups like American Rivers, Trout Unlimited, and Wild Earth Guardians—along with other watershed groups and the USEPA—spend lots of time and money restoring (or at least improving) rivers, but all it takes is one spill to send them right back to bad places. 

“From our perspective, this is a wake up call,” said Karen Knudsen, executive director of the Clark Fork Coalition. “As disturbing as this is, imagine if it’d been tankers full of crude oil, which are increasingly shipped through Missoula. We we lucky in this case that it was just airplane parts.”

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What Animal Madness Teaches Us About Ourselves

It all began with a deeply disturbed miniature donkey named Mac. One minute he’d cozy up to Laurel Braitman, author of Animal Madness, like a high school sweetheart. The next minute he’d chomp down on her exposed flesh like a deranged blind date.

Braitman, only 12 years old at the time, thought even then that Mac’s manic temperament seemed too bizarre to simply chalk up to normal donkey-ness. Today, Braitman is a TED fellow with a PhD in the History of Science from MIT, and her new book details the science and the psychology of mental illness in animals.

OUTSIDE: In your book, you say that animals experience complex emotions such as guilt, depression, and social anxiety. How can a deeper understanding of our pets help us better understand our own psychology?
BRAITMAN: Certain emotional states and problems are common across species. Take fear and anxiety. They help keep individuals safe in dangerous situations, but they can be problematic in situations where there is no real danger.

We also know that many of the same things you’d do to cheer up your dog—regular exercise, more time outdoors, stimulating surroundings, learning new skills—are likely to cheer up humans as well. The better we understand the emotional roller coasters that animals experience, the better we can understand our own emotions.

How are animals affected by mental illness and how can humans help?
From wombats to whales, animals suffer from OCD, PTSD, anxiety, phobias, mood disorders, and more. Many of these issues are healthy activities gone awry. For example, some OCD behaviors are extreme forms of grooming practices, like constantly licking paws.

Humans can help animals with these problems. I once owned a Bernese mountain dog named Oliver who hallucinated, suffered from crushing anxiety, and had canine compulsive disorder. We tried everything from behavioral training to more exercise to anti-depressants. You’ve heard of therapy animals—I was his therapy human. It was an incredibly rewarding experience. I helped Oliver and he helped me.

The film Blackfish (inspired by Tim Zimmerman's article in Outside) set off a firestorm of debate around the effects of captivity on killer whales and the unpredictability of their interactions with humans. What are your thoughts on keeping large marine mammals in captivity and teaching them to perform? 
I’m thrilled that this is part of a national conversation—there is no justification for keeping orcas in captivity. I believe we should make our zoos and aquariums more humane, but in the long run I would like to see all facilities transformed into places where humans can interact with creatures who do not need to suffer in order to entertain us. As far as I can tell, children are bored by the pacing polar bear, but they are entranced by the pig who runs over to them to get his back scratched.

What’s your take on new-age pet care options such as doggie massages and kitty chakras? How can we tune into our pets’ emotions without going overboard?
There are plenty of products aimed at desperate pet owners. Your dog won’t feel more relaxed if his shampoo smells like lavender or his biscuits taste like lemongrass. Massage is another story: it’s been proven to help humans suffering from emotional distress, and as long as the animal doesn’t mind being handled, it can help him too. However, the best way to tune into your pets’ emotions is cheap and easy—spend quality time with them and pay close attention to any troubling changes in their behavior.

You earned a PhD in the history of science, yet many of your conclusions stem from intimate personal experiences with animals that were close to you. What role should the classroom play in teaching animal lovers about their pets' emotions?
We should certainly learn about natural history, animal behavior, and even the neuroscience of emotion in school, but nothing compares to real-life experience. We need socialization time with animals to better understand them just like we need socialization time with people to learn how to behave and how to read their emotions.

How can prospective pet owners use your book to find the best possible companions for their families?
I hope my book helps people choose animal companions that they are unlikely to disappoint or be frustrated by. But honestly, just like when you first start dating somebody, chances are you won’t know they have a screw loose till it’s too late—that is, until you already love them. So if that’s the case, then I hope my book helps people feel less alone and more hopeful about their animals. As Darwin’s father told him, “Everybody is insane at some time.” Thankfully we can help each other heal.

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