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Posts tagged ‘CoolTechStuff’

The Last Word: CoolTechStuff

Larry Mortimer, AIA

I’ve been doing CoolTech articles for over seven years now.  As some of you know, I’m in the process of building a house in Sonoma County.  With the start of construction my available time will be sharply reduced, so this will be my last CoolTech article.  What I thought I would leave you with is a list of some of the internet resources I’ve relied on over the years to inspire my articles.  This is by no means a comprehensive list, and is in no particular order, but there are some gems in there.  If you don’t know them, I hope you will check them out.  This site is just like the name implies a site to see new gadgets.  Some will be of interest, most will not.  This site has two sections “Shop” and “Journal.”  The “Shop” section is full of high-priced stuff that I don’t need, but the “Journal” section does have some interesting articles under the headings of: Architecture, Art and Design.  I can’t remember ever using anything from this site in a CoolTech article.  It’s more of a literary blog, but with cool illustrations.  It’s a good site to visit to relax and get your mind off of work.  This site can be a big time-sink.  You never know what you will find there, but I guarantee you will be entertained.  Lost at E Minor is a site that I occasionally find something I might use in my column.  Of the ten sections, I usually look in the “Tech” section.  Here I usually look in the “Products” section for something to write about.  Some of the products listed have PDF, DWG and BIM files available for download.  Paul Saffo is a technology forecaster and teaches forecasting at Stanford University and chairs the Future Studies and Forecasting track at Singularity University.  Check out his essays for interesting topics on the future.  I never know what I’m going to find here, but you can be sure it will be cutting edge.  I subscribe (free) so I get a short email very day with 4 or 5 articles I can click on if they look interesting.  DeZeen is an online magazine (it’s a free subscription).    There is a daily issue and a weekly issue.  It’s heavy on futuristic architecture but also has many tech articles.  You’ve probably heard of Ray Kurzweil and his theory of the singularity (when machines with artificial intelligence become smarter than humans).  There are interesting articles and essays here.  Very interesting articles on:  Energy, Space, Science, Technology, Military, Medicine, Robotics, Quantum Computers and Artificial Intelligence.  This one is a little hit or miss.  I sometimes find something interesting under the “Field Guide” or “Design” headings. This is another hit or miss site. The “Tech” or “Design” headings sometimes have interesting articles.  Just as the name implies, this is a site devoted to mobile devices, apps, and accessories.  It does a good job of covering both the Android and iOS platforms.  Good for architecture news, related apps and more.  If you’ve never listened to a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk, I encourage you to do so.  Most talks are 5 to 15 minutes long and are on a wide variety of topics.  I read Wired magazine every month.  Each issue will have a common thought provoking topic that runs through most of the articles in that issue.

I also get ideas from the radio (mostly NPR), television (mostly PBS) and newspapers (mostly the SF Chronicle, and NY Times).  I’ve enjoyed writing these articles, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading them.


WRLD: CoolTechStuff

Larry Mortimer, AIA

With summer approaching I spent some time the other day looking for architecture related travel apps.  You may recall I did an article on an architectural travel app called “Buildings” back in June 2012.  That app had access to a database of over 40,000 buildings, but alas, it appears to be gone.  On the iOS platform it was probably a victim of the upgrade from 32 bit to 64 bit.  I don’t know what happened to it on the Android platform.  However, the 40,000+ building database is still accessible with your browser at

I did find several other architectural related travel apps, but most were related to a specific city or location.  One app that did cover most of the world and was available on both iOS and Android was WRLD.

What Does It Do: WRLD is a mapping program that shows major buildings and structures in 3D superimposed on a 2D map.

System Requirements: Mobile devices using iOS or Android operating systems.

What does it cost: It’s free, and does not have any ads.  As for data, they may collect when we use the app, I read their Terms Of Service and Privacy Policy and am not sure how or if they will use any data collected.

How Does it Work: The app interface is fairly simple.  When zoomed out it looks a bit like Google Earth.  There are five buttons.  A magnifying glass will take you to predetermined locations (such as a major city) or allow you to search for a specific type of location (such as tourist info).  The settings button allows you to set the season and time of day, and get info about the developer.  The bottom left hand button allows you to flatten the 3D buildings or show them in full height.  A compass button shows the orientation of your mobile device, and allows you to return to your current location.  The fifth button allow you to place a marker pin so you can easily return to a specific location.  To move the view, just swipe with one finger in any direction.  To rotate the view, twist with two fingers.  To zoom in or out, simply pinch or expand two fingers.  A few buildings have a symbol of an open door.  Tapping the symbol will take you to a graphic view of the building interior where you can move around, change levels, or exit.

Conclusion: This is a fun app to use with a fairly intuitive interface.  Kids will find this app a great way to explore an unfamiliar city and will love the animated cars, trains and planes that show up in certain views.  I could see using this app to scope out a visit to an unfamiliar urban area.  However once you get outside of the major metropolitan areas there is not much to look at.  For example I tried to find 3D views of the Mackinac Bridge and the Taj Mahal without any luck.

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Shapespark: CoolTechStuff

Larry Mortimer, AIA

Here is an interesting desktop application and service that allows you to create and share real-time 3D visualizations of your architectural model that will run on any web browser, or mobile device, without the need for any additional software or plugins.

What Does It Do: The Shapespark application (scene editor) creates a real time dynamic rendered version of your model with light mapping that can be uploaded to the internet and viewed by anyone with a browser.

System Requirements:  The scene editor requires 64-bit Windows 7, 8, 8.1 or 10.

What does it cost:  Charges are on a subscription basis as shown below and include the scene editor.  There is a 30-day free trial.

How Does it Work: First, import your model into the Shapespark scene editor.  The application works with the following 3D formats:  SketchUp (with a dedicated extension), 3ds, fbx, collada, and obj (Revit is supported with OBJ Export 2 add-on).

With the scene editor you set the materials, reflectivity and lighting in the imported model and bake them in creating a fast real-time rendered model that can now be uploaded and viewed on any modern browser.

Accurate lighting is key to making a virtual scene feel real. To generate photo-realistic images, Shapespark simulates the behavior of many types of light sources such as, the sun, the sky or artificial light sources.

Shapespark also supports WebVR allowing the viewer to enter VR without leaving the web browser. You can use desktop or mobile headsets such as: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard and Daydream for a relaistic VR experience.

Shapespark has two presentation modes, first-person and top-view. The first-person mode provides a realistic walk-through experience for the viewer, and supports collision detection and stairs climbing for multi-level buildings. The top-view mode shows the model from above and gives an overview of the floor plan.

Conclusion: Creating a real-time rendered model is not a simple task, but in Shapespark it appears to be a fairly intuitive process, and there are plenty of tutorials online that show you how to do it.  Google “Shapespark” and you will find several YouTube video tutorials that show you how it’s done.

This could be a very useful tool to help clients understand what you are designing for them.  The great thing is that the person viewing the model does not need any special knowledge, software, or tools to experience the model in a very realistic way.

The main drawback I see is that the scene editor currently only runs on Windows.  Sorry Mac users.  When I inquired, the developer stated “We don’t have a Macintosh version yet,” so there may be one in the works.

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Blackbelt 3D Printer: CoolTechStuff

Larrry Mortimer, AIA

So you’ve looked at 3D printers and thought they were interesting but only good for printing small things.  Well, here is a company (Blackbelt 3D) in the Netherlands that has rethought the way 3D printers operate and how large the prints can be.

What Does It Do: The Blackbelt 3D printer is a fused filament (FFF) 3D printer that can print an object 340mm (13”) high x 340mm (13”) wide x any length.

What Does It Cost: It’s not cheap, €9,500 (approx. $11,870) for the desktop version and €12,500 (approx. $15,620) with a standing frame and roller table.

How Does It Work: The Blackbelt 3D printer is similar to most FFF printers, except the printing mechanism is rotated 15-45 degrees from the horizontal and the printing bed is a moving high-precision conveyor belt that allows prints to be of any length.  There are still limitations on height (13”) and width (also 13”) but the length can be anything.  The printer uses a standard 1.75mm filament of ABS, PLA, Co-Polyester, or PETG materials.

Conclusion: This is a fantastic idea.  I’m surprised that no one thought of it before now.  I can see many applications for a printer like this in architecture.  For example, you could print a long streetscape model with this printer, or a mockup of a long building element.  The printer is also good at printing an endless number of the same part (good for repeating elements in a model).

This printer is in Kickstarter Campaign mode and is scheduled to ship December 2017 to January 2018 (which is now – I don’t know if it is shipping yet).  However, exercise caution when participating in any Kickstarter Campaign because shipping dates are notoriously optimistic, and sometimes they never ship at all.

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HazMat Reference and Emergency Response Guides: CoolTechStuff

Larry Mortimer, AIA

As you may guess from the topic of this article, I just finished the chapter’s Post-Disaster SAP Training course.  Living and working in an industrial area of the city I’ve always been concerned about what kinds of nasty things are in, or passing through, my neighborhood and the SAP Training course renewed my concerns.  Here are a couple of mobile device apps that will give you information on questionable materials that you need to stay safe.

I found two apps that seem to do a good job identifying hazardous materials.  ERG 2016 by National Library of Medicine, and the HazMat Reference and Emergency Response Guide by ThatsMyStapler Inc. (for all of you fans of the movie Office Space).

What do they cost: ERG 2016 is free, and the HazMat Reference and Emergency Response Guide is $4.99.

ERG 2016:  There is both an iOS and an Android version of ERG 2016.  ERG 2016 contains an indexed list of dangerous goods, their associated ID numbers, the general hazards they pose and recommended safety precautions.  The home screen for this app opens with a choice to search by name or placard image, or to browse the guide section or reference materials. The guide section lists information on types of material, including; potential health, fire or explosion hazards, and recommended emergency responses, protective clothing, evacuation and first aid.  The reference section includes: “How to use this App,” “Hazard Classification,” “Protective Distance,” “Safety Precautions,” and “About/Contact.”


HazMat Reference and Emergency Response Guide:  The HazMat Reference and Emergency Response Guide is only available for the iOS platform. This app opens to an alphabetical list by name of hazardous materials, showing the proper placard, hazard class, isolation distances, synonyms/trade names, and a physical description for each. From the home page you can also go directly to the sections on guides, history of your inquiries and references.

The guide section is exactly the same as that in ERG 2016.  The reference section includes emergency phone numbers, other resources, and suggested actions.

Conclusion: Although both apps provide similar information, the HazMat Reference and Emergency Response Guide format is easier to use, and it provides synonyms/trade names, and a physical description that ERG 2016 does not.  My choice would be the HazMat Reference and Emergency Response Guide, but either app will do the job.

These apps both provide a quick reference to identify hazardous materials and guidance regarding the dangers they present. Hopefully you will never need the information these apps provide, but if you do, you will need it immediately.  Having one of these apps in your kit of tools is cheap insurance.

Download at:  Apple Store, or Google Play

Solar Squared: CoolTechStuff

Larry Mortimer, AIA

As the renewable energy industry is maturing we are beginning to have many more choices at our disposal, and photovoltaics is leading the charge (no pun intended).   We’ve had many photovoltaic options for some time now, but few that integrate into the building envelope itself.  The typical flat solar panels (even the ones with color) usually look like an afterthought.  For integrated options we are pretty much limited to photovoltaic shingles, and photovoltaic window glass.  Here’s an interesting addition to the mix based on research being carried out at the University of Exeter called Solar Squared.


What Does It Do:  Solar Squared is a glass block that generates electricity using focused solar energy.

What does it cost: Cost is unknown at this point.  The developer, a company called Build Solar, is currently testing the product. They anticipate a finished product to be available sometime next year.

How Does it Work:  The blocks are transparent and contain thirteen optical elements that each focus incoming sunlight onto an individual solar cell.  Within each block the cells are all linked together, and can be wired to one another.  The developer claims that the solar blocks provide better thermal insulation than conventional glass blocks while still letting much of the natural light pass into the building.  The company plans to offer coatings to control thermal gain and for different colors.

One question I have is what happens if one photovoltaic cell ceases to work?  I can’t imagine opening up a block wall to replace it.

Conclusion:   Solar Squared may become an attractive integrated solution to provide clean energy, however with efficiency and costs still to be determined, that remains to be seen.

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ArchiCalc: CoolTechStuff


Larry Mortimer, AIA

I recently upgraded my iPhone & iPad to iOS 11 not realizing that some of my most favorite apps would no longer work on that operating system.  All of the 32 bit apps (69 of them) on my machines were instantly not useable.  So the search was on for a 64 bit replacement for each of the apps that were lost.  One of the apps I lost was a feet-inch calculator, but fortunately I found an even better replacement called ArchiCalc.

What Does It Do:  ArchiCalc does exactly what you would think a feet-inch calculator would do but with a simple, clean, elegant interface and a few extra features you would not expect.

What does it cost: $3.99

How Does it Work:  ArchiCalc might more accurately be called a dimensional calculator because it works with linear dimensions, areas, and volumes.  It works with both imperial and metric units, and mixed units can be used in the same calculation without converting them in advance.  The answer can be freely converted to either format.

Lengths multiplied by lengths result in areas and areas multiplied by lengths result in volumes.  Other geometric operators include calculating the hypotenuse of a right triangle, volumes of spheres and other useful geometric functions.  ArchiCalc has 10 storage registers, a tutorial, and an on screen rounding feature for decimal places and denominators of fractions of an inch. To get information about a key simply touch and hold that key and information about the key will be provided.

Conclusion: This app was designed by an architect for architects and it shows.  I love it’s simple intuitive interface, and if my iPhone’s in my pocket the app is already with me.  The only drawback I see to this app is that it only works on an iOS device.  The only Android app I found that seems to be similar is “Feet Inch Calculator Free” by ByOne Coder, Inc.  If anyone has used Feet Inch Calculator or knows of a similar Android app, please let me know.

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Colored Photovoltaics: CoolTechStuff

Larry Mortimer, AIA

While in the process of designing a new home for my family, I’m of course looking to make it as energy efficient as possible.  This includes photovoltaic cells on the roof.  While looking for my solution I came across colored PV panels, which I did not know about.  Here are three companies that offer colored solar panels.

Kameleon Solar:  Kameleon Solar is a Dutch company that designs and manufactures colored solar panels.  The company offers panels in custom sizes where the glass is colored or the cells are colored.  With the colored glass approach the cells are not visible and the panels appear to be one solid color.  With the colored cell approach, the cells are visible and the panels have a sparkling appearance.  The colored glass panels are available in eight colors (gold, green, blue-green, blue, terra-cotta, bronze, light grey, and grey).  The colored cell panels are available in five colors (sparkling gold, disco pink, emerald green, stone elegance, and diamond blue).

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V-energy: V-energy Green Solutions is an Italian company that makes photovoltaic panels in four colors (red, green, black, and transparent which appears blue). The panels come in two sizes (1000mm x 1980mm & 998mm x 1668mm) with 60 and 72 cells, and a power range of 250-320 W.  The panels are constructed of anti-glare tempered glass with low iron content for optimum light collection, and an anodized aluminum frame.

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Colored Solar:  Colored Solar is a company in Los Angeles that also provides photovoltaic panels in several colors (red, green, metallic gold, pink diamonds, lavender, earth brown, emerald green, polished marble, and polished slate).  These panels measure 1652mm x 990mm, with a power range of 230-245 W.

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Conclusion:  Colored solar panels could help integrate PV into your project.  They could be particularly useful in historic renovation projects, or projects that are subject to design review restrictions.  Be sure to check the efficiency of any panel you want to use, because some colors are not as efficient as others.

CoolTechStuff: American Hardwoods Species Guide

Larry Mortimer, AIA

What Does It Do: The app provides information on selecting hardwood species, including:  Alder, Ash, Aspen, Basswood, Beech, Yellow Birch, Cherry, Cottonwood, Red Elm, Gum, Hackberry, Hickory & Pecan, Hard Maple, Pacific Coast Maple, Soft Maple, Red Oak, White Oak, Poplar, Sycamore, and Black Walnut.

System Requirements: The app works on mobile devices that run the iOS or Android systems.

What does it cost: Free (the best price of all)

How Does it Work: The app has six tabs: Species, Photos, Info, Properties, Share App, and Contact Us.  The “Species” tab shows a color image of each species with a clear, light, medium and dark stain.  The “Photos” tab shows a photo of the selected species used in an actual project.  The “Info” tab give general information on each species, such as description, where it grows, main uses, abundance, availability, physical properties, and workability.  The “Properties” tab displays the strength and mechanical properties for each species.  The “Share” tab simply opens up your mail program to send info about the app to others (I think they should remove this tab).  Finally the “Contact Us” tab is just what it sounds like, using your choice of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or email as the media.

Conclusion: If you need a quick idea of the look and properties of a particular hardwood, this is a good app to have in your tool box.

More Info: (much more good information for design professionals at this site)

For Android Devices:  Download at

For iOS devices:  Download from the App Store on your iOS device (note: Apple has changed things, you can no longer download apps in the iTunes store from your desktop).


CoolTechStuff: Seek thermal Compact

Larry Mortimer, AIA

A friend of mine was concerned about heat loss/gain in one room of his residence.  The room was cold in the winter and hot in the summer.  To help diagnose the problem he purchased a little device called the Seek thermal Compact that plugged into his smart phone to provide a thermal image of the room.


What Does It Do: The Seek thermal Compact is a thermal imaging camera that plugs into your smart phone or tablet to allow it to take thermal images or videos of anything including buildings and building systems.

System Requirements:  iOS or Android smart phone or tablet

What does it cost: $249 – $499 (depending on model)

How Does it Work: Simply plug the camera into your smart device to capture a thermal image or video that will show energy loss/gain caused by air leaks, missing or damaged insulation, inefficient HVAC systems, electrical faults, and more.  You can save, send, share, and store the thermal images or videos the same way you would any other image or video on your smart device.  This compact, pocket-size, portable device measures only 1 x 1.75 x 1” and weighs less than 0.5 ounces.  It runs on power from your smart device, does not require batteries or charging, and has low power consumption (up to 4 hours of battery operating time).  There are three models of the Seek Compact:  the Compact, the CompactXR and the CompactPro. The main differences are the size of the thermal sensor, field of view, frame rate and detection distance.  For design professionals the Compact or CompactXR would probably be sufficient.

Conclusion:  This looks like a useful device for quick, convenient on-demand thermal imaging with your smartphone or tablet.

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