Aesthetically appealing solar-powered architecture is considered an oxymoron in the AEC community. When powering buildings with solar panels, most designers and architects struggle to try to hide the unsightly large-sized panels. In most designs, they are relegated to the rooftops. However, solar panels are essential when it comes to creating environmentally-friendly buildings. They help harness energy that can power extremely large buildings and projects. These include not just residential structures but commercial projects, resorts, hospitals, and more.
Luckily, there has been a huge focus on designing and developing solar panels that are inconspicuous. Manufacturers have come to realize that to prevent their product from becoming a commodity, they must create panels with differentiating design. Architects can now choose from a vast array of solar power generating products that suit the design of their architecture. Of course, their certain tricks that architects can adapt to use the generic solar panels too. Let us explore, the current advances in aesthetically appealing solar-powered architecture.
Researchers at Michigan State University have developed transparent or color neutral solar panels. These solar cells were created with the objective of using largely wasted glass window surfaces that are exposed to the sun. These almost invisible panels have the capacity to produce the same amount of electricity as rooftop panels. In the future, these are intended to be used on cars, cell phones, and other clear surface devices.
Recently, scientists have upgraded the initial invention and have set a record for energy efficiency. The original silicon panels have been upgraded to a carbon-based material. The new design achieves 8.1% efficiency. While it has a slight green tint, it is like tinted windows. Once commercial production begins, architects will have a new option for creating aesthetically appealing solar-powered architecture.
Good-looking architectural design is not a frivolous factor and is a desirable trait like any other. Recognizing this, Netherlands based Design Innovation Group, TNO, UNStudio, and three other partners formed a consortium towards the cause in 2017. The resultant, Dutch Solar Design group has developed solar panels that combine unlimited aesthetic designs with the power of solar energy. The panels created by them are technologically advanced and give architects the freedom of designing what they wish.
The designs are achieved by developing a technique that allows for printing full-color digital prints onto the panels. The process, however, is complicated as one needs to optimize the basic function of the solar panels i.e. to generate solar energy. So, the prints are basically a series of ‘dots’ which come together and can be perceived by the human eye as a complete design. The printed panels were first showcased at the Dutch Design Week 2018. Currently, the panels are being commercially produced by Solar Visuals Ltd, a manufacturing venture formed by the consortium.
Solar installation companies in the past decade, have developed tweaks that have helped architects design aesthetically appealing solar-powered architecture. One of them is ‘solar skins’ which are used to create solar roof tiles. These are solar panels that are made to blend with the roof of the structure. For example, architects can choose from shingle-like panels or clay tile panels. One such company is Solecco Solar which offers terracotta, slate grey, anthracite, and other colored options.
Another easily available option is frameless panels which do away with the bulky metal frames. They seem to float on the roof, much like an infinity pool. However, they are slightly more expensive to install and delicate. Lastly, solar panels are now available in bold black colors which go with most designs and architects can use these to create aesthetically appealing solar-powered architecture.
There are multiple global examples of projects where architects have managed to create ground-breaking solar-powered structures, which look good. One critically acclaimed example is Copenhagen International School. It was designed by CF Moller and is located on the Nordhavn Harbour. The façade of the building has 12,000 solar panels which power 50% of the school’s electricity requirement. Touted as Denmark’s largest construction integrated solar plant; the panels cover a total area of 6048 square meters. Despite this, the building is an excellent example of aesthetically appealing solar-powered architecture. The specially sourced solar tiles are the same color, but reflect three different hues, due to the way they are angled. This results in an awe-inspiring sequin like effect.
Another example is Dubai Vertical Village. It is a commercial, residential cum entertainment zone designed by GRAFT Architects. Solar energy production is maximized via the way it has been designed. The noteworthy point however is the way the village is designed. The buildings within, are leaned and sliced in such a way that it creates multiple eye-catching focal points. The buildings’ skyline constantly shifts, as one moves around the buildings. The aerial view of this aesthetically appealing solar-powered architecture is breath-taking. It is a testament to the fact that solar-powered buildings need not be dull and can be benchmarks for great architectural design.
There are multiple solar projects with a discerning design orientation, which have been proposed in the past. One of them was an entry, for the Pristina Central Mosque competition held by the Serbian government. Italian architect Paolo Venturella, proposed that the uniquely shaped mosque would be made with a line of louvers which would have a double skin of thin photovoltaic film. The harvesting of the sun’s energy was optimized via the spherical shape. The design is stunningly unique and has an element of surrealism to it.
The renovation of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, is another recent example. As most would be aware, the world-famous cathedral burned down in parts due to a fire accident. The French government called upon architects to submit designs for rebuilding the cathedral, mainly the roof. The Parisian firm- Vincent Callebaut Architectures in their proposal, suggested that the new roof be eco-friendly and be powered by solar energy. The architect visualized a glass roof, supported by oak beams and carbon fiber. The wooden frame would hold the eye-catching solar 3D crystal glass panels. The rendering of the designs shows how cleverly used solar panels can create a fairytale-like effect on a roof.
Unfortunately, though, the design didn’t win the competition. However, attempts like these are an indicator that architects are going to increasingly embrace aesthetically appealing solar-powered architecture. And luckily for them, the AEC industry is evolving to develop products that can support projects like these. It is a sign of the times to come, which luckily will be eco-friendly.