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|February 26th, 2006, 08:20 PM||#1|
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Austrian Town Installs Mirrors to Combat Seasonal Affective Disorder
Sad town set to bask in the sun's reflected glory
A series of strategically placed giant mirrors could provide a village with sorely missed light in the long winter
By HAIG SIMONIAN
24 February 2006
It is midday in late January in Rattenberg, a tiny town near Innsbruck, Austria's skiing capital, and the sky is azure blue. The keen midwinter sunshine etches contrasts on Kramsach, a small town just across the river Inn, but in Rattenberg, isolated from the rays by a towering mountain, there is only deep shadow.
Rattenberg's predicament is shared by communities around the world. In northern Scandinavia sun deprivation has led to the identification of a medical condition - seasonal affective disorder (Sad) - to describe the depression and lassitude some people feel in such circumstances.
Everywhere, local leaders have been looking for ways to improve the quality of life for people who may not see the sun for weeks on end. Now Rattenberg may have found a solution with a plan to use giant mirrors to direct sunlight onto the town.
"No one likes the idea of being described as a depressive," says Josef Wurzer, Rattenberg's civic architect. But whatever the medical arguments about Sad's existence, there is no doubt his town's unfavourable setting has contributed to its problems.
Outside winter, Rattenberg, a baroque gem founded in medieval times, is a prime tourist attraction. Up to 3,000 people a day saunter through its main street, charming alleys and glass and crystal shops. Yet its population has fallen by about 20 per cent over the past 20 years to just 436. Young people are particularly scarce, says Franz Wurzenrainer, the mayor.
In a technological first, the town has joined forces with Bartenbach Lichtlabor, an Austrian light specialist, to find an answer to its plight. The privately owned company has 47 specialist employees, including architects, mathematicians, physicists and psychologists, and a portfolio including prestigious light projects. Markus Peskoller, chief executive, says the company's job is "working out how light should flow and finding ways to bring natural light into artificial surroundings".
Bartenbach plans to use mirrors to redirect natural light into parts of buildings and roof-mounted blinds that adjust with the sun to control how light falls.
Rattenberg may set the scene for similar schemes across the globe. "Since the first reports, we have been deluged with inquiries from all over the world," says Mr Peskoller.
The project looks deceptively simple. From the north shore of the Inn, opposite Rattenberg, a huge bank of moveable mirrors - called heliostats - will reflect the sun on to another massive mirror fixed high above the town. This in turn will direct the rays to key locations.
The project breaks new ground for its size, distances involved and the precision of the mirrors required. Re-flecting its importance, the scheme has qualified for initial funding from the European Union's Eureka research promotion plan.
Some 20-30 heliostats, measuring 2.5 sq m each, and stacked three high in contiguous columns, will be located on the northern river bank. Using computers to track the sun from east to west, they will reflect sunlight on the fixed mirrors, measuring a massive 23 sq m, located above Rattenberg and shaped to direct rays precisely on to 10 to 15 locations in the town.
Selected spots include meeting points and "hot spots" along its gently curving high street.
The project throws up numerous challenges - notably pinpoint beaming. Even today's best mirrors involve a roughly one degree spillage, says Mr Peskoller. There is more than 400m between the sets of mirrors, and a further, smaller, leap on to the town - almost 10 times further than the company has designed for yet.
Environmental and political considerations are an-other stumbling block. Planning permission for the banks of heliostats and mirrors is not guaranteed.
Mr Wurzer, the civic architect, is confident such obstacles can be overcome. Initial political soundings have been positive.
Whether the project goes ahead depends on the feasibility study due to be completed by December and on funding.
Mr Peskoller, who continues to field e-mails from around the world with similar needs, is confident. "Will it happen in Rattenberg? I don't know, although I hope so. Will it happen somewhere? I'm sure of it."