In an age where technology seems to be getting smaller and sleeker, renewable energy is lagging behind. Even though people are constantly encouraged to live green, no one wants to see giant windmills in their parks or have metal panels on top of their roofs.
Limited resources and cost restraints in North America have created challenges for architects, engineers, and even artists in the design of sustainable buildings.
“Solar in North America often looks ugly, and then people reject renewable energy,” Toronto artist Sarah Hall says. “We have to start using as many renewables as possible, and I thought ‘well, if it’s beautiful, we can change people’s minds and help transform the industry as well’.”
Hall is one of the few innovators incorporating renewable energy into artwork. One of her most notable pieces is “Waterglass”, a stained glass piece that can be found wrapped around the Enwave Theatre at Harbourfront in Toronto. While seemingly unnoticeable during the day, the piece comes alive at night. LED lights powered by the sun reveal 360 archived photographs of Lake Ontario, all stunningly preserved on di-chroic glass, the most expensive glass in the world at $1,000 per square foot.
The piece will create 1,750 kilowatt hours worth of electricity annually, enough to power the plug outlets within the building, according to Livio Nichilo, an engineering manager at Interenat Energy Solutions Canada. Nichilo consulted on “Waterglass” and analyzed the environmental impact of the project. He said that one of the biggest challenges was not to compromise artistic vision or technical efficiencies.
“The glass we designed for this project is the first of its kind in the world and we had to incorporate many technologies at once,” Nichilo says. “From my knowledge it hasn’t been done yet.”
“Waterglass” is one of six pieces Hall has created in North America using photovoltaic cells, which convert the sun’s rays into electric voltage. Each piece is connected into the power distribution of the building. For example, her piece “Leaves of Light” can be found outside the Life Sciences Building at York University illuminating the entranceway. Solar panels allow energy to be collected from the sun, which powers the LED lights that were placed between two beautifully painted pieces of glass.
Hall is also experimenting with bird-friendly glass that, in addition to collecting solar energy, will alter the reflections on large buildings in an effort to decrease the number of bird deaths in Canada.
About 10 million birds die in Toronto because they fly into glass buildings, particularly high-rise condominiums that are reflective and transparent. “I was astounded by that information and thought I may be able to do something in that direction and began thinking of al the technologies I’ve worked in and I knew these organic solar things were being done in the labs and I’ve never thought of using them”
The challenge is to make the glass transparent enough for people to see out of, but still opaque enough that birds won’t be tricked into flying towards it. Hall will be using organic photovoltaic cells used for this project — a relatively new technology developed by Oxford Photovoltaics in London. Once the prototype is complete, it will be tested at the American Bird Conservancy in New York before Hall can start to create proposals; although she has already provided a few sample designs.
Hall fell in love with glasswork at the age of nine. She studied in Canada, as well as in the United Kingdom and Jerusalem, and ended up opening a studio in Germany. It was there that an engineer named Christof Erban approached her with a way to integrate photovoltaic cells into glasswork. While other artists in the studio believed this would hinder their artistic abilities, Hall saw it as a challenge.
“All those guys said no. They said it would be an imposition to have a grid on their work, but I liked the idea of trying to work with that grid of technology in art and trying to change people’s mind about solar,” Hall says.
The challenge with using photovoltaic cells in art is that the designs have to be geometrical. Solar cells are square and require the use of wiring, which can hinder creative freedom.
“My artwork for many years was always geometry and organic, naturalistic work. To combine this geometry wasn’t as hard as another artist.”
Before she begins a design, Hall has to consult engineers and ensure that the electrical wires are properly introduced into the building’s systems and that they adhere to city codes. The traveling can also be tedious, as most of the work has to be done overseas. Hall’s main studio is in Germany. She had to move from Toronto because her studio on Dupont St. just wasn’t big enough for the scale of glasswork she wanted to complete.
“Germany and Austria was where the work had to be done,” Nichilo explains. “The biggest challenge was that what we were asking to do in terms of design couldn’t be completed here locally. We didn’t have the skill or equipment needed to do it.”
Unfortunately, it’s been up to artists like Sarah Hall to ensure that the architectural field is aware of its options and doesn’t shy away from using renewable energy for fear it will interfere with the functionality of a building. But at the same time, Hall is simply an artist, and above else she just wants to be creative and
“At first, there was quite a bit of scepticism taking something traditional like stained glass and moving it into an environmental positioning,” Hall says. “I also hope that other companies will get interested and figure this stuff out for themselves. As an artist … the commercial aspect isn’t the reason why I do it, but I hope that others will do it commercially — and I think they will.”