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5 Ways to Design Solar Architecture Beautifully—Not as an Ugly Afterthought

No one puts solar panels on their house because they’re sexy—at least, not yet.

Jon Gardzelewski, an architect and associate lecturer at the University of Wyoming in the Building Energy Research Group (UW-BERG), wants to change that. He believes the fact that solar panels are usually an afterthought to the design of a building is a big barrier to integrating them into a critical mass of houses and buildings.

[solar architecture medicine bow]

Medicine Bow before-and-after models featuring undesigned and designed solar panels, Courtesy UW-BERG.

“Economics is the biggest barrier, and aesthetics are the second,” Gardzelewski says. He says these two things stand in the way of solar becoming the standard for architecture design, rather than a risky and costly add-on.

The economic aspect of solar panels is multifaceted. First, there’s cost and risk perception, and then there’s the larger impact on the economy, such as the creation of green-collar jobs. Some people think that their home’s resale value is at risk when they install solar. One appraiser Gardzelewski spoke to said, “I won’t give a house with solar panels any more value in an appraisal. The appraisal will be the same with or without them.” Because the appraisal industry itself is ambivalent about assigning value to solar panels, many homeowners fear that installing them could actually decrease the value of their home—despite potential savings for buyers on future energy bills.

The initial cost of installing solar panels is notoriously exorbitant. Gardzelewski insists that the actual price of the panels has decreased tremendously, so there is no reason that solar-panel installation costs should remain so high. “Solar-panel installers will give you a quote to put solar panels on your home, and they’re lying to your face,” Gardzelweski says. “They’re telling you it costs a lot more than it should cost or what it needs to cost. The panels themselves have come down to where they’re just a fraction of the overall cost.”

One reason solar installation remains such a high-ticket item is that builders haven’t wholeheartedly adopted it. “Once solar integrates into the home-building industry, the price of labor will go down because the contractor is going to manage that pretty tightly,”Gardzelewski says. “If you manage the cost and the labor of solar-panel installation, there’s no room for the price to get jacked way up.”

In coal-industry-driven states, there is also some fear that the rise of solar energy will hurt the economy and take away jobs. But Gardzelewski disagrees. He believes that the long-standing blue-collar jobs of the coal industry could become the long-standing green-collar jobs of the solar industry.

“People who are the salt of the earth are usually the ones who carry traditions forward from generation to generation,” he says. “So we need to work at creating new traditions and a new working culture around the solar industry.”

Hopefully, more green-collar jobs are coming: San Francisco now requires that new buildings feature solar panels on their roofs, and California State Senator Scott Wiener recently introduced legislation “to make California the first state in the nation to require solar panels on new buildings,” he said in a Medium post.

But even beyond economic barriers, Gardzelewski says there would still be resistance to using solar panels because of the way they look. Currently, they’re often integrated into a design as an afterthought, which explains why a solar installation is often perceived as an eyesore. “Even in zero-energy houses—and definitely in solar installations on conventional homes—the solar panels do not fit with the design of the architecture, and it stands out in a bad way,” he says.

So the architect/researcher and other members of UW-BERG (including Dr. Anthony Denzer) came up with a taxonomy to help architects and designers integrate solar panels into the architecture early and with intention. That way, the panels will become a feature of the house instead of a mismatched visual burden. BERG’s architectural taxonomy for integrating solar panels consists of five strategies:

1. Legibility. Revealing and celebrating the building systems so you can see how they work. This is an industrial look with the “guts” of the building exposed. In this paradigm, seeing the inner workings, wiring, structure, and connection of the solar panels fits in with the overall industrial design.

[solar architecture fox house]

An energy-systems plan (including a radiant-floor heating system, insulation, shade structures, a ground-source heat pump, and design-integrated solar) for the Fox House in Pavilion, Wyoming. Courtesy UW-BERG.

2. Material Planes. Gerrit Rietveld’s Schroder House and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion are two examples of buildings focused on planar composition. In the case of the Barcelona Pavilion, Mies used planar composition to celebrate the richness of materials such as glass, marble, onyx, and travertine. With this strategy, the material aspect of a solar panel is celebrated, too. “We really love looking at the crystals and the wiring and all the intricacies of a solar panel,” Gardzelewski says.

3. Form Follows. From the principle “form follows function,” this concept means designing a building that adapts its shape to the path of the sun. This strategy is obvious when a design is altered to provide optimal orientation for a large number of solar panels, often with a stretched-out or swooping form on the south roof. “A solar panel is a huge module of 3 1/2 feet by 5 1/2 feet, and this can seriously influence the size of your roof,” Gardzelewski says. Designing a roof to fit this module can make the actual solar installation not only easier and more effective but also much better looking.

4. Shading. Solar panels can provide shade for the building itself or the adjacent outdoor space; this method is a good solution when you have a difficult existing roof. “If you build an exterior structure and you can pull out an enclosed porch—a space that you’re not trying to fit onto the existing roof—you can use it to shade a small space outside,” he says. “You can add solar panels to this new area, and it won’t have to blend into the rest of the roof because it is a completely separate thing.”

[solar architecture fox home model]

3D model of the Fox House in Pavilion, Wyoming. Courtesy UW-BERG.

5. Disguise. In this approach, the solar panels are hidden through either compositional strategy or design innovation. This strategy is best used in conjunction with “form follows,” as architecture designed around the size and shape of a solar panel is best suited to disguise the panel (like these solar rooftops from Tesla). “If you can fit them perfectly onto your roof, then you can float or frame the solar panels so you don’t see all of the infrastructure under it—you just see the reflective glass,” Gardzelewski says.

Getting the economic equation for solar panels to work for average middle- and working-class families may take some time. But incorporating BERG’s architectural taxonomy, which integrates solar panels in the design phase, is something architects can do now. Even if a client isn’t going to install solar right away, the taxonomy can help home and building owners incorporate solar panels more aesthetically down the road. And by considering solar as an early constraint that influences building design, architects may be able to usher in an era when solar is finally ubiquitous.

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