The world needs a green transition. As we look ahead, searching for the energy sources that will require, we need only look up: The sun remains, as it always has, a source that provides more than enough energy to meet our needs with the right infrastructure and application. This solar architecture of renewable, emission-free production and low operating costs is powered with a promising energy, one where its only limitations lie in our ability to turn it into the efficient and cost-effective solutions we need.
There’s gigantic potential behind solar energy use. From turning on our lights and powering our daily lives to harnessing how it hits buildings from every angle to heat them, sunlight can naturally infuse our lives and enhance buildings’ interiors in ways that benefit operational efficiency and boost our moods.
Solar energy translates to both electricity and heat, but its possibilities extend well beyond electricity, heating and lighting to water heating, ventilation, portable devices that can cook food and transportation. Forming a key part of the possibilities found with the sustainable strategies of Net Positive™, we’ve applied it everywhere in our designs, from a multitude of projects ranging from university complexes, workplaces and parking lots to our own Montreal office.
Maximizing the sun
Our Montreal office of the Phenix is an experimental laboratory for innovations in sustainability and workplace design, and it’s where we’ve tried and tested the limits of solar energy applications through a combination of strategies to test how these technologies can be used and how far they can go. It’s part of a growing form of solar architecture which uses the sun both actively and passively. In the Phenix’s case, when combined with the natural powerhouse that hydroelectricity provides, it’s capable of providing all of a building’s needs for renewable energy sources.
In this 1950’s warehouse-turned-office, the sun is integral to its operations with a prevalent use of solar paneling on its reinsulated white rooftop. Using 379 photovoltaic bifacial panels capable of harnessing sunlight coming from both above as well as below when reflected off the roof, it’s the second largest installation of its kind in its city, forming an integral part of the building’s significant carbon footprint reduction of 86% when contrasted with a comparable building. As we continue to grapple with the infrastructural challenges of solar energy’s incorporation into power grids, it’s technologies like these that demonstrate how buildings can be self-sustaining and environmentally beneficial.
Each is linked to an energy storage system—a battery with a storage capacity of 137 kWh and a peak load capacity of 66 kW, resulting in a system capable of generating up to 180 MWh annually—all of which is integrated into the building’s management system to provide an electrical backup for critical loads in case of a blackout.
Not only are the roof’s panels essential to the Phenix’s energy consumption, but so is its prominent solar wall: A svelte installation visible to the public on the southern facing side of the building, this wall maximizes the sun’s heat in the winter while accounting for less sun exposure during the spring and summer. It shows how the effects of this technology extend well beyond electricity, where energy demands for heat and air conditioning could be taken into account by preheating fresh air and automating the detection and regulation of temperature zone by zone.
Designing around the sun has allowed the structure to optimize how much natural light the building receives, radiating out to lighting made efficient via motion detection systems, interior plant walls that improve air quality, the powering of low-flow plumbing which reduces water consumption, and offering electric charging stations in the Phenix’s indoor parking lot—all within flexible interiors that can be functionally redeveloped as needed.
Once it was thoroughly tested to ensure that this entire solar system could instantly supply power when needed, it could act as a proof of concept for how structures can optimize the ROI of a structure’s sustainable efforts.
Casting the net as widely as possible
We’ve been able to see how designing with the sun in mind can positively impact built environments well beyond our own front doors, from the passive solar gains of the University of Montreal Sciences Complex and outdoor “solar flower” pavilions that act as hybrid generators for renewable energy to heat recovery systems for manufacturing processes.
While these are isolated, solar energy has been increasing in efficiency while dropping in upfront costs with each passing year in urban environments—think solar-paneled skyscrapers and suburban home’s rooftops tiled with panels for self-sufficiency.
Because of these developments, countries around the world have been finding new and more expansive methods of using the sun: Longstanding solar farms are now being joined by solar parks on both land and bodies of water that don’t intrude on agricultural land and maximize former industrial sites. While these are human interventions, well-managed solar farms and parks can even have huge benefits for wildlife and biodiversity by enabling wildflowers, pollinators and other wildlife to thrive.
Looking to a future of green energy, solar power plays an integral role in green retrofits and energy transitions that minimize our carbon emissions and meet targets like that of the IPCC’s global warming goals for 2050. By intensifying our efforts and redesigning cities, neighbourhoods and individual built environments to be works of solar architecture, we’ll not only have greater self-sufficiency; we’ll have a world that we can give back to.
Learn how solar architecture and energy can transform the world around us by exploring the sustainable strategies of Net Positive here™.