Green Living 8-2
Sunday, February 15, 2009

By Caroline Berson, The Philadelphia Inquirer

PHILADELPHIA, PA-- Physicist Stephen Hawking warned in 2006 that mankind was standing on the precipice of extinction by epidemic disease, nuclear war or global warming.

He urged colonization of the moon and Mars before it's too late _ a doomsday message that inspired Rosemont artist Joe Dillon to transform scrap tubing into arching sculptures representing rocket trajectory that now grace his living room.

"I want to put a sense of urgency into everyone I meet," says Dillon, 53. "We should be worried, but not defeatist."

"Americans are used to flipping a switch and having air conditioning turn on," he says. "But it costs money and energy to have that luxury."

Dillon channels his environmental concern into developing innovative hydronic furniture that radiates heat through hot water circulating inside it. He also creates "green" objects he hopes people will want to use in their homes.

He sees as his artistic role engaging with the material he uses (mostly from a Reading, Pa., scrapyard) and his surroundings to make functional things beautiful.

That he succeeds is evident at his house, which also serves as his laboratory. On a recent day, its industrial-chic style was cool and welcoming, from an intricate "dragon-inspired staircase" to a totally glass-blocked bathroom with a built-in solar calendar.

"You can tell what time of year it is by which blocks light up left to right," he says, "just like Stonehenge."

Longtime friend Diane Karp, director of the Santa Fe Art Institute and a former curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, says the found materials employed in Dillon's pieces "are inherently beautiful because they have meaning."

"He literally needs to give them a new life rather than allow them to be smelted or turned into landfill," she says. "He can look at material and recognize atypical applications for it. That is what distinguishes his creativity."

Dillon spent his youth working on broken cars, like the '66 Corvettes he says processed 780 cubic feet of fresh air per minute into carbon dioxide. Back then, he was part of the environmental problem.

But at 21, he broke his neck diving into shallow water from atop a 13-foot wall, an event that dramatically limited his mobility and that Dillon stoically describes as the turning point in his life.

"He always goes back to the fact that he was headed down a different path before the accident," says Karp. "The accident took away his actions and allowed him to realize he could do even more because the predictability was gone and he had to be creative and inventive."

His bathroom, for instance, has no conventional sink. Instead, water runs off a stainless-steel countertop into a floor drain. Brass rods welded along the edges work with the glass background to soften the severity of the industrial metal.

"People come in here and are like, 'Joe, there is something missing,'" Dillon says. "But I like that, I like breaking rules. Duchamp was a rule breaker."

References to French artist Marcel Duchamp are peppered through Dillon's fast-paced, and often quite technical, explanations of his work.

"People see what I am doing as plumbing, as solar, as furniture," he says. "Duchamp took those guys who said what was and wasn't art and put them on their heads. He had this great quote where he said, 'The only works of art America has given are her plumbing and her bridges.'"

An enormous clothes rack makes his electric dryer virtually obsolete. "When I stow it, it looks like sculpture," Dillon says. "It's a railing, it's a banister, it's a drying rack, and I like the way it looks."

The dwelling is cooled by a whole-house fan rather than with air conditioning, and is heated primarily by radiant flooring, a method that is about 30 percent more efficient than conventional forced-air systems, says William Koggan, co-owner of American Solar Works in West Windsor, N.J., who has worked with Dillon to develop more aesthetically pleasing solar equipment.

Other energy-saving strategies are in place, but Dillon says the house _ which is near where he grew up _ is a work in progress.

In the 1970s, its owners had installed a flat solar panel on the roof. When Dillon moved into the house in 1994, there were countless flaws in the system, he says: The heat wasn't "exchanging properly," and the solar panels "garbaged his roof."

There are two ways to capture solar energy: photovoltaic panels that produce electricity, and solar thermal panels that produce heat. With current technology, Dillon says, solar thermal panels catch twice as much of the sun's energy as photovoltaic systems. A hot-water system powered by solar thermal panels will eventually supplement his natural-gas boiler, which will work as a backup on cloudy days.

A hybrid system can easily be installed in the typical family house _ about $6,000 buys both the solar panels and the preheating tank. Sounds steep, but when you factor in the $2,000 federal tax credit and the 10 percent to 15 percent yearly yield, homeowners recover their investment within about five years, he and Koggan say.

And Dillon is constructing beautiful solar collectors, building railings, awnings and lawn ornaments from evacuated glass tubes. Their cylindrical shape captures more light than the unattractive flat alternative, he says, so the beauty of lawn and home need not be sacrificed.

Hot water produced from the solar thermal collectors runs through his hydronic furniture, such as the "heat seats" Dillon built from salvaged metal tubing and conveyor belts _ an odd combination that brings surprisingly comfortable results. The conveyor belt conforms to the sitter, like a hammock.

Couches and countertops radiate heat into the ambient air or through direct contact _ like having car-seat warmers  in your furniture.

Developments in solar thermal technology are socially and economically driven _ these days, perhaps as much by high heating oil and gasoline prices as heightened environmental awareness _ increasing demand for attractive yet functional applications. Dillon hopes to market his ideas commercially.

A tour of his home ends with an opportunity to "wrestle with "C Change" _ an outdoor sculpture made from salvaged steel hose likely used in the petrochemical industry. The work's title refers to "C," the periodic-table symbol for carbon; the devastating effect of global warming on the "sea, and the ability of those viewing it to both "see and effect change in their world.

"Duchamp opened a myriad of doors for artists to rethink their relationship to the real world and the ordinary forms we pass by every day," Karp says. By rethinking how to use scrap metal and solar power, she says, Joe Dillon does the same.


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