Taking an action: reinventing the role of renewable energy in architecture

Best of 2022: STIR probes into five architectural projects that manoeuvred the potential of renewable energy in design.

by Sunena V MajuPublished on : Dec 22, 2022

While discourse and search for solutions persist, the conversation around climate change and global warming seems inconsistent. Despite an alarming implication of the global crisis, the world still seems to be spiralling in the conventional means of mitigating these changes. With younger generations now stepping into the realm of protecting their future, there is a renewed interest in developing new approaches, from all industries.

While sustainability has been the word decorating every project, these past few years, its ambiguous and recurring usage, somewhere presents itself as a greenwashing strategy. In 2022, the design and architecture world ventured to break away from the meaningless usage of the term and find practical solutions to reinstate 'sustainability' as a practice with a hold. In the course of this radical move was the renewed use of energy generation in architecture. Moving away from the conventional use of solar panels on rooftops and barren land, we witnessed a multitude of possibilities for renewable energy in architecture.

In their attempt to counter climate crisis and help create a sustainable future, architects around the world approached design as an instrument for prominent change. STIR dives into five architectural projects from 2022 that employ renewable energy.

1. Google's new Bay View Campus by Heatherwick Studio and BIG
Location: Silicon Valley, California

  • Aerial view of Google’s Bay View Campus in close proximity to NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    Aerial view of Google’s Bay View Campus in close proximity to NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley Image: Iwan Baan
  • Incorporating biophilic design principles and core attention to sustainability, the Bay View Campus is the largest to pursue multiple green building certificates | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    Incorporating biophilic design principles and core attention to sustainability, the Bay View Campus is the largest to pursue multiple green building certificates Image: Iwan Baan
  • The canopy takes shape in the dragonscale solar skin and clerestory windows which harvest and regulate light respectively | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    The canopy takes shape in the dragonscale solar skin and clerestory windows which harvest and regulate light respectively Image: Iwan Baan

While campus and tech multinationals seek to move away from the conventional 'floor-on-a-skyscraper' typology of workplace design, (a low-rise fortress surrounded by parking in the case of Silicon Valley) the design of Google’s new headquarters in California by two world renowned firms—Bjarke Ingels' BIG and Thomas Heatherwick's Heatherwick Studio—seems to follow up on a single question, definitively harbouring Google's design brief: How can you make the office more human?

The most striking feature of the campus perhaps—even more so than the enormous yet horizontally expansive scale of the development, its form, or its ribbed, dragon-scale like skin—is how the entire spatial program of the building is accommodated in only two floors, marking a succinct, clear distinction in functional aesthetic. The entire low-rise expanse seems to spread like a village along the site's plane, bearing semblance to the Californian landscape with the 'pitching of a tent' framing the overall appearance of the buildings in the campus. The progressive canopies capping the campus buildings and their tent-like enclosures are composed of waves of dragon-scale photovoltaic tiles, transforming energy generation systems into an incorporated design feature. At the building’s roots, North America's largest geothermal pile system forms the foundation of individual structures. Bearing testament to the scale and scope of the undertaking, the Bay View campus, comprising three of the most sustainable workplace buildings in the world, a 17.3-acre park and wetlands reserve, is only the first phase of the development.

2. The Novartis Pavillon by AMDL Circle
Location: Basel, Switzerland

  • The Novartis Pavillon aims to be an area where the city of Basel meets the company and a new model for the exploration of scientific research | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    The Novartis Pavillon aims to be an area where the city of Basel meets the company and a new model for the exploration of scientific research Image: © Laurits Jensen
  • Covering the upper part of the pavilion is a multimedia membrane that is technologically equipped to communicate images | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    Covering the upper part of the pavilion is a multimedia membrane that is technologically equipped to communicate images Image: © Laurits Jensen
  • Interactive walls and a refined range of projection techniques allow infinite flexibility in layout design | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    Interactive walls and a refined range of projection techniques allow infinite flexibility in layout design Image: © ATELIER-BRÜCKNER, Michael-Reiner

"Future-orientated, innovative, open and optimistic" is how Italian architect Michele De Lucchi's AMDL Circle introduced its design for the Novartis Pavillon in Basel, Switzerland. Presenting itself as an architectural symbol, the sculptural form of the new pavilion with its technologically advanced lattice facade explores the potential of architecture to communicate the values of science. Creating an interface between the clients and visitors, the pavilion is anchored outside the perimeter of the Novartis campus, in a park designed by Gunther Vogt. While creating a place where the city connects to the pharmaceutical company—inside a ring-like configurable plan—the architects introduced flexible spaces for discussion and soaring high volumes for interactive exhibitions. Amid the many architectural marvels on the campus, the Novartis Pavillon aims to be "educational, expository, receptive, dynamic, and encourage the coming together of people."

While marking technological intervention to represent the relation between science and architecture, the Novartis Pavillon goes beyond being just a showcase for the company to a self-powered art installation. However, the initial idea of creating a circular plan stems from the architects' consideration of it as "a powerful field of psychophysical energy, a sort of sacred area where all physical and spiritual forces are concentrated."

3. ECHO, TU Delft’s new campus by UNStudio
Location: Delft, The Netherlands

  • ECHO at TU Delft is conceived by UNStudio in collaboration with Arup and BBN | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    ECHO at TU Delft is conceived by UNStudio in collaboration with Arup and BBN Image: © Evabloem
  • ECHO at TU Delft is designed is designed to promote physical, psychological and social health | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    ECHO at TU Delft is designed is designed to promote physical, psychological and social health Image: © Evabloem
  • The distinct central staircase facilitates physical movement through the building  Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    The distinct central staircase facilitates physical movement through the building Image: © Hufton+Crow

Global architectural firm UNStudio leads by example with their recently completed project ECHO, the new energy-generating interfaculty teaching building at TU Delft in the Netherlands. Future flexibility and wellbeing of the university building's users were considered key aspects driving the ethos of the project, from getting maximum daylight to generating clean energy on its own, as well as ensuring the cleanest air quality for students and faculty alike. A healthy building promotes a healthy sense of being, physically, psychologically, and socially.

Five years in the making (2017-2022), ECHO is being heralded as the most sustainable building at the Technical University Delft, contributing to the university’s ambitions to operate as a fully sustainable campus by 2030. Harvesting and producing more energy than it consumes, ECHO combats the growing number of students and their need for more educational space with its multifaceted design, meeting the acclaimed Dutch university's requirement for extra teaching spaces "now and in the future." The Dutch architects relay that the project "transcends current learning environments (as) a model for new ways of learning and for future campus buildings."

4. Rain Harvest Home by Robert Hutchison Architecture and JSa Arquitectura
Location: Temascaltepec, Mexico

  • The <em>Rain Harvest Home</em> is nestled deep within a verdant mountainous site in Mexico | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    The Rain Harvest Home is nestled deep within a verdant mountainous site in Mexico Image: Jaime Navarro
  • Also called <em>Casa Cosecha de Lluvia,</em> the project is made of three low lying forms including a main residence, a detached art studio and a bathhouse | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    Also called Casa Cosecha de Lluvia, the project is made of three low lying forms including a main residence, a detached art studio and a bathhouse Image: Jaime Navarro
  • The interiors of the Rain Harvest Home features an almost Nordic aesthetic, with plain materiality and cosy spaces | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    The interiors of the Rain Harvest Home features an almost Nordic aesthetic, with plain materiality and cosy spaces Image: Javier Sanchez

Rooted in and heavily influenced by its dramatic, breathtaking and verdant location, the Rain Harvest Home known as Casa Cosecha de Lluvia in Temascaltepec, Mexico, conceived as a collaboration between Robert Hutchison Architecture and JSa Arquitectura reveals itself as a society of three distinct forms, a main residence, a detached art studio, and a bathhouse, that has rainwater harvesting at the core of its distinct architecture. A sustainable and off-grid haven, Rain Harvest Home displays a picturesque and sturdy example of what sustainable architecture defined strictly by context can be, and how the built can form symbiotic friendships with its surroundings.

Residing in the mountains a couple of hours west of Mexico City, the unassuming project encompasses permaculture principles to establish an all-inclusive, integrated relationship between people and place. “Here, as in the surrounding region of Central Mexico, water has become an increasingly precious resource as temperatures rise and populations increase. Although the region sees a robust rainy season, rainwater harvesting is not common; instead, pumping in water from distant watersheds is standard practice. Rain Harvest Home takes a different tack, proposing an integrated approach to designing regeneratively with water,” shares Javier Sanchez, who is also the client. Currently a family retreat, the project will transition to a permanent residence soon.

5. The Sun Rock by MVRDV
Location: Taichung, Taiwan

  • Designed to maximise the absorption of sunlight, the Sun Rock focuses on generating solar energy as efficiently as possible | Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    Designed to maximise the absorption of sunlight, the Sun Rock focuses on generating solar energy as efficiently as possible Image: Antonio Coco, Pavlos Ventouris, Jaroslaw Jeda, Emanuele Fortunati and Gianlorenzo Petrini
  • Along with the production of green energy, the project invites the public to be a part of the green initiative |  Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    Along with the production of green energy, the project invites the public to be a part of the green initiative Image: Antonio Coco, Pavlos Ventouris, Jaroslaw Jeda, Emanuele Fortunati and Gianlorenzo Petrini
  • The Sun Rock: Design process |  Designs that reinvented and employed various formats of renewable energy | STIRworld
    The Sun Rock: Design process Image: © MVRDV

Amid efforts to mitigate the climate crisis and global warming, Taiwan is aiming towards a planned transition to green energy. Building on the East Asian country’s ambitious aim of a clean energy spree through 2030, Rotterdam-based architecture firm MVRDV shapes a built manifesto for the government-owned power company, Taipower. The Sun Rock will represent in fullness, the company’s aim for a carbon-free future by focusing on generating clean solar energy as efficiently as possible. A literal translation of its moniker, Sun Rock is imagined as a smooth, boulder-like form wrapped almost entirely in photovoltaic panels. The sustainable architecture is aptly described as "a manifesto in a building,” and will house an operation facility containing offices, a maintenance workshop, storage spaces, and a public gallery.

The site situated at the Changhua Coastal Industrial Park, near Taichung, receives a substantial amount of solar exposure throughout the year. Designed to maximise the absorption of sunlight, the structure slopes gently on its southern side, with a visibly bulbous dome rising towards the north. The resulting form facilitates maximum possible area to harness solar energy throughout the day, according to the Dutch architects. Layering on the efficient form of the building (estimated to reach completion by 2024) is the innovative façade design dressed almost entirely in solar panels.

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