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Best Green Houses:

Best of Both Worlds

An algorithm optimizes photovoltaic production and passive solar performance.

By David Sokol
October 2012
Photo © Adrià Goula

One of the last times the Barcelona underwent major transformation was 1992, when government redeveloped a industrial-era waterfront district in time for the Olympic Games. The old port area is now a seaside urban district linked to downtown life via the famous main street La Rambla. More recently, the utility company Endesa is effecting an equally consequential but less visible change, by upgrading Barcelona’s power grid with advanced metering and microgrid storage. It also is incorporating renewable energy sources and electric vehicle charging capability into the local infrastructure, among other efforts.

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A temporary, residential-scale building symbolically located at Port Olympic is giving face to this latest transformation. The 1,650-square-foot Endesa Pavilion serves as a control room, in which the public can learn more about the city’s new power generation. A visit will also provide impressive data readings on the building itself: In the spirit of futuristic energy, the pavilion is a net-positive design by students and faculty from the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia (IAAC) with which Endesa has collaborated on several projects regarding smart energy management. Architect Rodrigo Rubio, who led the IAAC team, says the partnership resonates with the local university’s research of information and responsive technologies.

Some of those digital tools were responsible for the Endesa Pavilion’s accordion-like shape. The IAAC designers determined sun angles at Port Olympic and fed them into parametric design software. They also directed the algorithm to shape the building for maximum photovoltaic production, without sacrificing daylight penetration or solar thermal gain. Made mostly of plywood, the building was fabricated in IAAC’s digital production laboratory; pre-assembly and construction took five weeks.

“The Endesa Pavilion is actually a research prototype of a new solar-optimized prefabricated skin system,” Rubio says of the result. Indeed, what looks like a bellows is really a series of mass-customized modules, each of which includes a PV-clad side and at least one surface into which a window is inserted. The various surface areas and angles optimize both PV exposure and passive solar performance. “A wooden skin based on digitally designed components, parametrically adapted to their different orientations, behaves in the same way a tree’s leaves do. The components generate their own energy, and at the same time produce a micro-climate by controlling shadows, ventilation, [and] light.”

This is not Rubio’s first attempt at what he calls a “self-sufficient facade solution.” To create its FabLab house for the Solar Decathlon Europe in 2010, IAAC employed computer-aided approaches that squeeze the most kilowatts from rooftop PVs, although that house boasted the curving forms that many commentators attribute to parametric design software. “The 2010 had a strong domestic character,” Rubio also notes. “But in this case we tried to give a more abstract and universal answer. The pavilion is just a skin solution applicable to any scale or typology —a modular skin based on the logic of sun protection and radiation gaining, but all of them with different geometry to allow a perfect adaptation to the sun path.”

In addition to lending itself to more building types than IAAC’s FabLab, the Endesa Pavilion concept may better adapt to sustainability discoveries not yet ready for market. “These could be software updates, like responsive artificial lighting or digitally controlled energy consumption,” Rubio imagines, adding that the high-tech modular construction may be particularly responsive to change. “We could think in hardware updates, too: updating the photovoltaics whenever they become obsolete; updating the facade components when a more dynamic system appears; updating the roof when a better environmental solution comes out.”

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