Including sustainable strategies in architectural projects is not just a trend, it is a necessity. Each day we become more aware of the importance of responsibly managing natural resources and understanding the environmental factors involved in designing a project.
Solar energy is one of the most commonly employed strategies in residential architecture, both active and passive. Many countries around the world offer incentives to encourage the use of solar systems, and the benefits of installing these systems can be seen in a short period of time, with a reduction of up to 95% in the monthly energy expenses, which makes this strategy one of the most attractive of all sustainable solutions. Furthermore, the average lifespan of a solar panel is 25 years, operating entirely on its own and requiring only basic cleaning once a year.
However, despite the popularization of solar systems in architecture due to their many undeniable advantages, their impact on aesthetics is still an obstacle for architects and clients. The biggest challenge seems to be integrating them into the architecture from the beginning of the design process and not just adding them on top of the finished project.
Nowadays, some alternatives allow better integration of this technology into architecture since the newest photovoltaic panels can also be used as cladding in flat or sloped roofs, facades, or even in shading structures such as pergolas, sun baffles, verandas, etc.
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With this in mind, projects such as the Yin Yang House, built in California, incorporate solar panels into the design from the very start. The system developed by students at the US Department of Energy elegantly combines engineering technology with the aesthetics of good residential architecture. The bifacial photovoltaic panels can absorb solar energy from sunlight on the front surface and by reflected light on the rear, maximizing the amount of energy produced per square meter. In addition, they are visually appealing and create an interesting composition when applied to balconies, as seen here.
Similarly, the Bundeena Beach House features a sixteen-panel photovoltaic system and Tesla battery, seen as a linear reflection pond within the roof garden design that provides all the owner’s electricity needs. It was important that the PV panels thoroughly integrated into the house and roof garden design, serving as an example of how environmental features can enhance, rather than detract, from a design.
It is impossible to talk about innovations in residential solar systems without mentioning the Solar Decathlon student competition. Known as the "Olympics of Sustainable Architecture," the Solar Decathlon is a biannual design competition that challenges 20 teams of students to design, build, and operate affordable and appealing off-grid solar homes. Among the many projects that are built every year, one of them stands out precisely because it is a flexible solar panel system. UrbanEden, North Carolina's proposal in the 2013 edition, is powered by an array of photovoltaic panels on an adjustable track system over the roof of the house. The solar panels can be moved out over the deck to provide shading to both the exterior rooms and to the southern wall during the summer. The panels can be retracted in the winter to allow the sun to passively heat and light the home through the southern glass wall. A creative approach that can lead to interesting and versatile compositions.
However, it is also worth mentioning some projects with more conventional solutions but also very careful and elegant nonetheless, such as the Jenson-DeLeeuw NZE House. This house in the United States is a 200-square-meter home that generates enough renewable energy to service the home’s energy needs as well as fully power an electric car. The roof was designed in the perfect position and slope to accommodate 56 photovoltaic panels, creating a single, remarkable surface. The dark color also dialogues with the material palette used in the house. The Passive House also features this same strategy, adding the panels over the sloping bamboo roof structure.
The Newhall South Chase houses also use this strategy, each house featuring 5.4 sqm of photovoltaic roof tiling. Although much more modest than the previous example in terms of scale, the addition of the panel over the sloping roof, which is clad in gray stone, is discreet but also very efficient.
However, this solution doesn't always have to be discreet or invisible, photovoltaic panels can be used to create contrast and different compositions resulting in a distinctive architectural feature. The CO2 Saver House is a good example of this by positioning the solar panels on the main facade in alignment with the glazed roof to emphasize the projecting structure.
Although there are still very limited options available on the market today, especially in terms of aesthetics, sustainable technology is improving every day, with solar panels being produced from food waste that can harvest power from invisible UV rays to generate electricity and solar tiles that are completely camouflaged on the roof. But while this technology is not yet available to everyone, we can continue to find creative ways of balancing functionality and aesthetics in our projects.