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High Design With Solar Panels

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Living off the grid may not be as easy as slapping some solar panels on a roof or side of a building, but it definitely helps reduce those electricity bills. But if one decides to add solar panels to a house, how to do it? While the panels have slimmed down in size and are making strides towards looking less solar-panel-like, most homeowners do not want to call attention to them. And integrating them into an existing house requires some consideration and skill. What follows are some examples of various ways solar panels are being integrated into home design.

While it’s a common practice to put solar panels on the roof, this multi-family project by Pb Elemental uses them as canopies overlooking the garden. In this case it’s important to coordinate the panels with the adjacent landscaping, so the latter does not block the sun; otherwise the panels might be better suited on the roof.

What I like a lot about this application is they way the solar panels do triple duty: They create energy but they also shade the inside space and shed water away from the operable garage-type door. Thanks to this canopy, the large opening unites inside and outside even when it rains.

The ideal orientation for solar panels is southerly (in the northern hemisphere) and at an angle that takes advantage of the sun’s arc across the sky throughout the year. Therefore the exact orientation and angle varies, but a situation such as this photo predominates, since horizontal (flat roof) and vertical (wall) applications do not absorb enough of the sun’s rays to make them viable energy producers.

In an effort to explore the design of active (solar panels, photovoltaics) and passive (direct solar heating) solar design, a Solar Decathlon is held every summer, inviting architecture schools to design and build a prototype house in a competition for the most “energy-efficient houses powered exclusively by the sun.” Previously located on the National Mall in the nation’s capital — this year the competition will be held in nearby West Potomac Park — examples like this 2005 entry from Cornell University illustrate what happens when solar energy drives a design.

The east-west orientation of the National Mall means houses gesture towards the south to soak up the sun’s rays. In this case it’s the roof that does the work in terms of active solar design. Photovoltaic panels can be found on the sides, but in the center is something different: a solar thermal system that uses the sun to heat water circulated through tubes. This water is then used to heat water in a boiler, reducing the need for outside energy to do the same. One common application of this system is to help heat pools.

In terms of passive solar design, the south-facing elevation has very little glass: a couple small openings and a folding glass wall. The latter allows sunlight into the living area and opens the space to the terrace. The predominantly wood cladding minimizes direct sunlight in the rest of the house, thereby reducing the need for cooling the house in warm weather. Horizontal shades at the of each opening cut down on direct summer sunlight.

In 2006 Workshop/apd won a competition for GREEN.O.LA, a competition co-sponsored by Brad Pitt as part of his efforts for rebuilding New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina. Their design features a shed roof outfitted with solar panels clipped to a standing-seam metal roof. Like the Solar Decathlon house previous, this house lets the sun generate part of its form.

In this project in Seattle, Wash., the solar panels are confined to one small pop-up portion of the house. It’s as if the walls and roof are reaching towards the sun and the sky, grabbing sunlight for energy use. This portion is angled from part of the house below to reap maximum benefit from the sun’s rays.

This last example departs from all of the previous designs, in that the solar panels are applied to horizontal skylights. House Ocho by Feldman Architecture has an abundance of windows, but this skylight helps daylight reach the deep core of the plan.

The integration of photovoltaics into House Ocho’s glass skylight allows for a filtering of the sunlight entering the spaces. This view also shows how the grid of the PV panels are like a microcosm of the larger grids made by the wood and steel beams; aesthetics is still a concern in this simple application.

Last is a view of House Ocho’s skylights from outside. Surrounding them is a green roof. This illustrates that active solar design is typically one aspect of a larger embrace of sustainability, extending to considerations of water, vegetation, biodiversity, and so forth.