Harnessing sunshine

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Endesa Pavilion, Barcelona by IAAC. A self-sufficient solar prototype, with a façade composed of modular components. Built in 2011 for the International BCN Smart City Congress.

Endesa Pavilion, Barcelona by IAAC. A self-sufficient solar prototype, with a façade composed of modular components. Built in 2011 for the International BCN Smart City Congress. Image: Adrià Goula

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Endesa Pavilion, Barcelona. The structure uses "solar bricks," which insulates the interior from solar radiation and collects information about the building's energy usage.

Endesa Pavilion, Barcelona. The structure uses “solar bricks,” which insulates the interior from solar radiation and collects information about the building’s energy usage. Image: Adrià Goula

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Kathleen Kilgour Centre, Tauranga by Wingate + Farquhar. A distinctive sawtooth roofline optimises the efficiency of the 450-square-meter rooftop solar array.

Kathleen Kilgour Centre, Tauranga by Wingate + Farquhar. A distinctive sawtooth roofline optimises the efficiency of the 450-square-meter rooftop solar array. Image: Simon Devitt

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Kathleen Kilgour Centre. Sustainable credentials of the building include energy-efficient lighting, high thermal mass, solar hot water heating and rainwater harvesting.

Kathleen Kilgour Centre. Sustainable credentials of the building include energy-efficient lighting, high thermal mass, solar hot water heating and rainwater harvesting. Image: Simon Devitt

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House in Bioclimatic Experimental Urbanization by José Luis Rodríguez Gil, Canary Islands. The inclined surface of the structure is best positioned for maximum solar exposure.

House in Bioclimatic Experimental Urbanization by José Luis Rodríguez Gil, Canary Islands. The inclined surface of the structure is best positioned for maximum solar exposure. Image: courtesy of Estudio José Luis Rodríguez

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House in Bioclimatic Experimental Urbanization. Built in 1995, this is a net zero house composed of mainly natural materials, with a site that even boasts wind turbines.

House in Bioclimatic Experimental Urbanization. Built in 1995, this is a net zero house composed of mainly natural materials, with a site that even boasts wind turbines. Image: courtesy of Estudio José Luis Rodríguez

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INES: French National Solar Energy Institute by Atelier Michel Rémon + Agence Frédéric Nicolas. At least forty per cent of the building's energy is provided by solar power.

INES: French National Solar Energy Institute by Atelier Michel Rémon + Agence Frédéric Nicolas. At least forty per cent of the building’s energy is provided by solar power. Image: Mathieu Ducros

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French National Solar Energy Institute. The glass roof is designed on a north-south axis to maximise the use of the sun and regulate the temperature inside the atrium.

French National Solar Energy Institute. The glass roof is designed on a north-south axis to maximise the use of the sun and regulate the temperature inside the atrium. Image: Mathieu Ducros

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South Canterbury Farmhouse by Jarrod Midgley Architect. Energy for the home is produced in several ways including a wind turbine and solar panels feeding a bank of batteries.

South Canterbury Farmhouse by Jarrod Midgley Architect. Energy for the home is produced in several ways including a wind turbine and solar panels feeding a bank of batteries. Image: Marina Mathews

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South Canterbury Farmhouse. The home is off-grid and uses a variety of systems to deal with this, including passive thermal design and a waste oil burner for heating water.

South Canterbury Farmhouse. The home is off-grid and uses a variety of systems to deal with this, including passive thermal design and a waste oil burner for heating water. Image: Marina Mathews

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Nature & Environment Learning Center, Netherlands by Bureau SLA. The building features a passive solar heating and cooling system that is known as a Trombe wall.

Nature & Environment Learning Center, Netherlands by Bureau SLA. The building features a passive solar heating and cooling system that is known as a Trombe wall.

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Nature & Environment Learning Center, Netherlands. An energy neutral structure that features a sloping rooftop of embedded photovoltaic panels that can be viewed from below.

Nature & Environment Learning Center, Netherlands. An energy neutral structure that features a sloping rooftop of embedded photovoltaic panels that can be viewed from below.

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Kathleen Grimm School, Staten Island by SOM. The net-zero building features a large canopy that holds an array of solar panels that generate power for the school.

Kathleen Grimm School, Staten Island by SOM. The net-zero building features a large canopy that holds an array of solar panels that generate power for the school. Image: James Ewing/OTTO

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Kathleen Grimm School. Skylights and reflective ceiling panels reduce the need for artificial lighting, and solar hot water units further reduce energy use.

Kathleen Grimm School. Skylights and reflective ceiling panels reduce the need for artificial lighting, and solar hot water units further reduce energy use. Image: James Ewing/OTTO

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Taiwan National Stadium by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, 2009. The dragon-shaped stadium’s 14,155 square meter roof is covered by an impressive 8,844 solar panels.

Taiwan National Stadium by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, 2009. The dragon-shaped stadium’s 14,155 square meter roof is covered by an impressive 8,844 solar panels. Image: Paul Darling

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Taiwan National Stadium. Overall, the stadium generates 1.14 million KWh per year, preventing the release of 660 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.

Taiwan National Stadium. Overall, the stadium generates 1.14 million KWh per year, preventing the release of 660 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. Image: Peellden

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Masdar Institute campus, Abu Dhabi by Foster + Partners. A 10 megawatt solar field within the masterplan provides energy and what is left is fed back to the Abu Dhabi grid.

Masdar Institute campus, Abu Dhabi by Foster + Partners. A 10 megawatt solar field within the masterplan provides energy and what is left is fed back to the Abu Dhabi grid.

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Masdar Institute campus, Abu Dhabi. The community is independent of any power grid and develops a surplus of 60 percent of its own energy needs.

Masdar Institute campus, Abu Dhabi. The community is independent of any power grid and develops a surplus of 60 percent of its own energy needs.

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Denver Botanic Gardens' Science Pyramid by BURKETTDESIGN. 30 hexagonal-shaped panels feature photovoltaic collectors tasked with gathering energy for interior exhibits.

Denver Botanic Gardens’ Science Pyramid by BURKETTDESIGN. 30 hexagonal-shaped panels feature photovoltaic collectors tasked with gathering energy for interior exhibits.

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Science Pyramid, Denver. The skin is covered with Swisspearl panels that act as rain screens, diverting water away while preventing thermal gain, keeping the interior cool.

Science Pyramid, Denver. The skin is covered with Swisspearl panels that act as rain screens, diverting water away while preventing thermal gain, keeping the interior cool.

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Nursery +E in Marburg, Germany by Opus Architekten. Solar panels are integrated in the folding facade, and are perfectly aligned to generate as much energy as possible.

Nursery +E in Marburg, Germany by Opus Architekten. Solar panels are integrated in the folding facade, and are perfectly aligned to generate as much energy as possible. Image: Eibe Sonnecken

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Nursery +E, Germany. The building features a striking folded glass exterior and is designed as a surplus energy house.

Nursery +E, Germany. The building features a striking folded glass exterior and is designed as a surplus energy house. Image: Eibe Sonnecken

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PIKO Wholefoods in Christchurch by Solarchitect Ltd. A passive solar and photovoltaic solar powered commercial building.

PIKO Wholefoods in Christchurch by Solarchitect Ltd. A passive solar and photovoltaic solar powered commercial building. Image: Dennis Radermacher

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PIKO Wholefoods store, Christchurch. The solar energy system on the roof generates 5kW of solar power, and the renovated building features recycled materials where possible.

PIKO Wholefoods store, Christchurch. The solar energy system on the roof generates 5kW of solar power, and the renovated building features recycled materials where possible.

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Branson School Student Commons, California by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. Overhangs, sunshades and Solarban-60 low E-squared double-glazed windows minimize heat gain.

Branson School Student Commons, California by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. Overhangs, sunshades and Solarban-60 low E-squared double-glazed windows minimize heat gain. Image: David Wakely

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Branson School Student Commons. An array of 136 photovoltaic panels generates 31 kilowatts or approximately 60 per cent of the energy needed to power the building.

Branson School Student Commons. An array of 136 photovoltaic panels generates 31 kilowatts or approximately 60 per cent of the energy needed to power the building. Image: David Wakely

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The SIEEB building, Beijing, by Mario Cucinella Architects. Designed to maximise passive solar capabilities and fitted with state-of-the-art active solar elements.

The SIEEB building, Beijing, by Mario Cucinella Architects. Designed to maximise passive solar capabilities and fitted with state-of-the-art active solar elements. Image: Daniele Domenicali

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The Sino-Italian Ecological and Energy-Efficient Building in Beijing was built to educate and showcase possibilities for energy-efficient building.

The Sino-Italian Ecological and Energy-Efficient Building in Beijing was built to educate and showcase possibilities for energy-efficient building. Image: Daniele Domenicali

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Future project: Shenzen Waste-to-Energy plant. If built, the huge circular building will boast a 66,000 sqm roof, two thirds of which will be covered with photovoltaic panels.

Future project: Shenzen Waste-to-Energy plant. If built, the huge circular building will boast a 66,000 sqm roof, two thirds of which will be covered with photovoltaic panels. Image: Beauty & the Bit and Ginsun

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The future? Schmidt Hammer Lassen's proposed huge Waste-to-Energy Plant in Shenzhen would "utilise the most advanced technology in waste incineration and power generation".

The future? Schmidt Hammer Lassen’s proposed huge Waste-to-Energy Plant in Shenzhen would “utilise the most advanced technology in waste incineration and power generation”. Image: Beauty & the Bit and Ginsun

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Consider these two facts. Firstly, the solar energy that hits the earth every second is equivalent to 4 trillion 100-watt lightbulbs. And, secondly, in 2015, about 40 per cent of total U.S energy consumption was consumed in residential and commercial buildings. The evident conclusion is that, if we are able to harness and use solar energy properly in our architectural design, its potential to make a positive and significant contribution towards the environment and towards our goal of a low-carbon economy is enormous.

Solar architecture refers to the integration of passive solar design and ‘active’ solar technologies with modern building techniques. Passive solar design is certainly not new. In the 5th century BC, a shortage of wood used for heating homes forced the Greek people to begin orienting their buildings so they were south-facing, alongside using materials such as stone that absorbed solar energy. The Romans went a step further and covered their southern-facing windows with a range of transparent materials to encourage solar gain.

Today, energy use in buildings can be reduced dramatically by working with easy to apply design principles. This includes proper orientation to the path of the sun, using materials with good thermal mass properties and designing homes that encourage a natural flow of heat in the winter and good ventilation in the summer. All of these design features add nearly nothing to the normal cost of building a home, but can make a remarkable difference in both energy bills and impact on the environment.

The 1976 Solar One house by the University of Delaware was created to demonstrate that future solar homes could have an electric energy supply but also be heated by sunlight in a cost-efficient way.

Design techniques alone, however, do not create highly environmentally responsible buildings. Other elements to take into consideration include air-tight construction, the use of high levels of insulation, high-performance doors and windows, and the use of durable, recyclable and preferably natural building materials in construction. 

Active solar technologies involve the use of mechanical and electrical equipment to move solar heated fluids from solar collectors to the home’s interior, where it is released as needed. This, in conjunction with passive solar design, contributes to the energy requirements of the building. 

When one thinks of solar power, what often comes to mind is photovoltaic (PV) panels on the roofs of homes. Solar panels were introduced in 1954 with the invention of the photovoltaic cell by Bell Labs. Due to their original inefficiency, they were not widely used for many years. One of the first solar-powered homes was Solar One, built by the University of Delaware in 1976. The home was created to showcase the first major thin-film solar cell.

Recent advancements in photovoltaic technologies include perovskite solar cells that are thin enough to incorporate into windows, developed by Oxford Photovoltaics. The company states: “Through the deployment of solar cells in areas where solar has traditionally struggled, such as the glass facades of high-rise commercial buildings, solar energy can contribute a much higher proportion of electricity than is possible today, and help to position PV as a significant factor in the global energy market.”

Russell Devlin, director of Solarchitect in Christchurch, says that the capital cost of PV systems has dropped substantially in recent years, which has encouraged considerable uptake across the country. He comments, “The cost of PV systems is now well within reach of Kiwi homeowners, and the dream of being self-sufficient in energy is also more than feasible with a design-led approach. Architects designing less energy-hungry buildings are making a positive contribution to the take up of solar options in New Zealand.”

Below, we feature fifteen sustainable, low-energy buildings that utilise a mix of passive and active solar design techniques and technologies.

Endesa Pavilion, Barcelona. The structure uses “solar bricks,” which insulates the interior from solar radiation and collects information about the building’s energy usage. Image:  Adrià Goula
Kathleen Kilgour Centre, Tauranga by Wingate + Farquhar. A distinctive sawtooth roofline optimises the efficiency of the 450-square-meter rooftop solar array. Image:  Simon Devitt
House in Bioclimatic Experimental Urbanization by José Luis Rodríguez Gil, Canary Islands. The inclined surface of the structure is best positioned for maximum solar exposure. Image:  courtesy of Estudio José Luis Rodríguez
INES: French National Solar Energy Institute by Atelier Michel Rémon + Agence Frédéric Nicolas. At least forty per cent of the building’s energy is provided by solar power. Image:  Mathieu Ducros
South Canterbury Farmhouse by Jarrod Midgley Architect. Energy for the home is produced in several ways including a wind turbine and solar panels feeding a bank of batteries.  Image:  Marina Mathews
Nature & Environment Learning Center, Netherlands by Bureau SLA. The building features a passive solar heating and cooling system that is known as a Trombe wall.
Kathleen Grimm School, Staten Island by SOM. The net-zero building features a large canopy that holds an array of solar panels that generate power for the school. Image:  James Ewing/OTTO
Taiwan National Stadium by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, 2009. The dragon-shaped stadium’s 14,155 square meter roof is covered by an impressive 8,844 solar panels. Image:  Paul Darling
Masdar Institute campus, Abu Dhabi by Foster + Partners. A 10 megawatt solar field within the masterplan provides energy and what is left is fed back to the Abu Dhabi grid.
Denver Botanic Gardens’ Science Pyramid by BURKETTDESIGN. 30 hexagonal-shaped panels feature photovoltaic collectors tasked with gathering energy for interior exhibits.
Nursery +E in Marburg, Germany by Opus Architekten. Solar panels are integrated in the folding facade, and are perfectly aligned to generate as much energy as possible. Image:  Eibe Sonnecken
PIKO Wholefoods in Christchurch by Solarchitect Ltd. A passive solar and photovoltaic solar powered commercial building. Image:  Dennis Radermacher
Branson School Student Commons, California by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. Overhangs, sunshades and Solarban-60 low E-squared double-glazed windows minimize heat gain. Image:  David Wakely
The SIEEB building, Beijing, by Mario Cucinella Architects. Designed to maximise passive solar capabilities and fitted with state-of-the-art active solar elements. Image:  Daniele Domenicali
Future project: Shenzen Waste-to-Energy plant. If built, the huge circular building will boast a 66,000 sqm roof, two thirds of which will be covered with photovoltaic panels.  Image:  Beauty & the Bit and Ginsun

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