A 200-year-old bicycle inspires design for climate change

To encourage his students to think about architecture and design for a world of climate change, a professor challenges them to come up with new bicycle designs.

A wheelie sustainable form of transport

University at Buffalo architecture student Adara Zullo celebrates after a winning a race with her sustainably designed bicycle. (University at Buffalo)

Back in 2005, the BBC asked its audience to pick the most significant tech innovation of the last 200 years.

Imagine the choices available: Light bulbs. Television. The internet. Telephones. The internal combustion engine. Airplanes. Vaccines.

But what ended up winning was something decidedly low-tech: the bicycle.

The original bicycle was designed in 1815 by a German forester to get around more quickly. But it was also a response to a change in climate: Mount Tambora, in Indonesia, had erupted and the effects of its ash in the atmosphere had caused massive crop failures.

Horses became too expensive to feed; hence, the laufmaschine, or dandy horse, became an inexpensive and efficient way to get around. Riders had to use their feet to move it around; It looked something like a large version of a child's pushbike.

That got Nicholas Rajkovich, an assistant professor of architecture at the University at Buffalo, thinking.

Nicholas Rajkovich (University at Buffalo)

He and four of his colleagues decided to have their students design 21st century laufmaschines, built from sustainable materials.

"Understanding a little bit of the history of the bicycle, as it relates to climate resilience, is pretty important for a generation of practitioners that are going to be facing climate changes as part of their design work," Rajkovich told Spark host Nora Young.

The students, working in teams, came up with some interesting and unique designs, he said.

"One of the teams actually built their bicycle entirely out of hockey sticks," he explained. "They went to different hockey rinks around Buffalo, and went into their dumpsters and pulled out old hockey sticks. A hockey stick is something that's really incredibly strong and lightweight."

Another team built a bicycle out of a single sheet of plywood. "It was incredibly thin and lightweight.  These kinds of lessons in terms of being frugal with materials, and thinking about things like embodied energy are great things for building design."

Now he's looking for a home for the 15 different laufmaschines his students built. "I think we're hoping to do the same project next year here at the University of Buffalo. And then perhaps do an exhibit."