District One Lab, from light waste to microgrids

Thomas Edison was tasked by J.P. Morgan to light a key area of the city, a half square mile of electricity, the first power grid in the world! Edison called this area, which included Wall Street, the JP Morgan offices and the offices of the New York Times, “District One.” Starting at the ground zero of power grids, this lab attempts to spark a reboot of awareness centered around responsible energy usage. District One led the way and changed paradigms in 1882, so we see it as a center for change and awareness today.

DISTRICT ONE PART 2 (2012-2013)

Continuing through Fall 2012-Spring 2013… expoTENtial is still working on District One, as a dedicated research project in collaboration with Cornell University AAP NY campus and DDC’s Town&Gown.

Project curator: Laetitia Wolff
Project designer: David Heasty, Triboro Design
Project advisors: Bob Balder, Cornell AAP and Terri Matthews, Town&Gown.
Special thanks to Nancy Anderson, The Sallan Foundation
Project researcher: Jacob McNally

I am quoting here in italics a Precis document, written by Terri Matthews, founding director of Town&Gown, published in June 2013, following the June 18 symposium.

ExpoTENtial started in addressing the urban issue of light waste—think, the lights on and no one home, the iconic city skyline at night—as the subject of the District One lab. In order to identify how design might mediate between citizen and government on this particular issue, ExpoTENtial, in collaboration with its designer David Heasty and curator Jackie Khiu partners, hoped research would provide the contextual basis to develop meaningful strategies to engage the citizen in various light-saving actions and awareness campaigns. The team decided to continue focusing on the City’s first electrified energy grid, District One, as both the study site and symbolic territory, as stated by the first District One team.

The District One Lab quickly identified the problems of scale and technical knowledge. To advance District One’s light waste project, it was first necessary to understand the production and distribution of electricity. expoTENtial established an academic partnership starting in Fall 2012 with a graduate student-team from Cornell University’s City and Regional Planning (CRP) composed of urban designers, architects, planners and architecture historians Vidhee Garg, Jacob McNally, Rebecca Parelman, Jiang Ren and Steven Wang, under the direction of AAP executive director Bob Balder.  Meanwhile we extended the partnership to collaborate with Terri Matthews at Town+Gown on this research project.

The Cornell students moved from a visualization of energy related data to researching the nature of the physical infrastructure that is at once the local, regional and national electric power grid. The focus on the physical infrastructure opened up the field of analysis, moving it far beyond the point at which a person flips the light switch on the wall to the complex systemic and regulatory processes that control it.


But then in the middle of their research, October 2012, the Cornell Students experienced Sandy.

After conducting benchmark studies in NYC (including looking at Local Law 84, talking to PlaNYC and observing other cities’ energy management policies), the students realized the unsurmountable depth of the energy loss between energy generation from energy distribution points, which the limited impact of building retrofit improvements could not solely solve. They started to shift the scale of their research from city to district. They concluded that reducing carbon emissions locally required focusing on making changes at the grid level within the jurisdiction. Instead of a single approach, local jurisdictions need to intervene at different scales and turn their focus to the larger scale infrastructure within their boundaries. They looked at the model of EID (Energy Improvement District) as a proof that local action relates to energy in acknowledging its relation to the larger macro-scale infrastructure. No contradiction here.

Rethinking the grid

The effects of Super Storm Sandy, visible in real time during our Project with the Cornell Students, underscored the challenges facing the existing energy grid and its need for modernization to increase resiliency as well as contribute to the reduction of carbon emissions. One of the lead students on the team, Jacob McNally, decided to write his exit project thesis on microgrids,as a result of this research project. His project was entitled Unleashing the Power of the Microgrid: Design and Modern Electricity Regulatory Framework. 

The distributed generation (“DG”) model, the opposite of the centralized model that has characterized the development of energy infrastructure in the United States, consists of an electric generation system powered by smaller sources off of the centralized power distribution grid, often sited on the building owner’s property. Think NYU microgrid generators during Sandy.

Microgrids are “small-scale energy systems that integrate multiple distributed energy resources with a group of interconnected customers and can operate in parallel or isolation from the grid. They connect multiple DG sources at a community or district scale and support the integration of electricity with other energy systems, with the potential to produce greater economies of scale and benefits than are possible at the building DG scale,” explains McNally.

A complete Precis PDF document on this project, published at the occasion of Town&Gown’s symposium, Planning Sustainable Neighborhoods, Anatomy of a Project—From District One to Microgrid  is available here: 06-18-13 Precis.final

Now what!? So what do we do with all this ?

Lots of very technical information! How do we bring it back to a design conversation, wherein design can help simplify, educate, create awareness of the multiple possibilities of a more distributed, democratized, cost-effective energy system ?

We would like to write a children’s book about microgrids, entitled The Misadventures of Mister Elektron. The character is made of LiIteBrite, inspired by David Heasty’s art / design direction. The book could be an Ebook, and could be supported by a cartoon-like animation online. Our models of inspiration are dark and light british humor, but solution-oriented; metaphoric in its messaging, using opposites to explain complexity with funky, strong personality, visually engaging yet abstract-looking and off the beaten track characters.


This lab will look at ways to get stakeholders of District One, government buildings, residents, and corporate offices to make a commitment to take steps to rethink their energy usage. Small steps make a big difference, and turning off lights, heat and appliances can significantly cut down on energy usage. The goal is to have this historic location to lead the way for other neighborhoods and blocks around the city.

Jacqueline Khiu
is Director of the Core77 Design Awards, an annual celebration of excellence, enterprise and intent. An editor and content producer of design-related print and online media, she was formerly content manager of Design21, a global online platform jointly produced by Felissimo and UNESCO with the aim of inspiring social consciousness through design. Prior to that she was the Design Editor of Surface magazine and the Editor of Australian-based architecture/design publication Monument.

Mark McKenna
A graduate of the University of Illinois, Mark put his passion for design and engineering to work for Henry Dreyfuss Associates and Ingo Maurer before establishing his own firm, mmckenna LLC. A longtime collaborator on a number of Humanscale products, Mark took on the role of Design Director of the Humanscale Design Studio in 2009. http://www.humanscale.com/

Triboro Design is the husband and wife team of David Heasty and Stefanie Weigler. Triboro creates design solutions for clients in publishing, art, fashion, music, lifestyle, and for cultural institutions. The studio excels both in building inspiring brands from the ground-up and in shepherding established brands into new territories. Triboro’s partners have won numerous industry awards and their work has been featured in publications and exhibitions around the world.

Department of Citywide Administrative Services, Division of Energy Management;
The Downtown Alliance

Sarah Mencher, Project Manager, Outreach, Dept. of Citywide Admin Services, Division of Energy Management