Turning energy generation into an art form

The work of inventor and solar designer Marjan van Aubel on harvesting energy from sunlight lies at the cutting edge of art, design and technology. Her creative and innovative way of finding solutions to energy problems is pioneering and a good reason for V8 to allow Marjan to make an important contribution to the development of the Netherlands pavilion at the Expo 2020 Dubai.

First and foremost, why was V8 Architects set on working with specialists for this project?

Michiel Raaphorst: “This is actually something we’ve been doing for a much longer time, though not consciously. However, around three years ago when the project for the World Expo in Dubai began, we decided as architects to take on the role of creative director. We see the Netherlands pavilion in Dubai as a biotope in which technology, architecture, and nature are connected with each other. We also fairly soon realised the importance of offering a space for craftspeople, specialists and designers who are much more immersed in their specialities than we are. To get the most out of this project as generalists, we have to include these specialists in the process and give them the freedom and scope to excel. As energy is crucially important for this project, we thought that Marjan’s splendid and innovative way of harvesting energy from the sun would be an extremely valuable enhancement for the project. That’s why it earned a place on the stage at Expo 2020.”

How were you introduced to each other?

Michiel Raaphorst: “At the start of the project, many people played a part in shaping ideas that created a basis for the concept of the pavilion.

We were open to giving raw ideas a chance and tried many experiments where we started working with lots of different innovations, such as the Ab Verheggen’s water machine and Buro Belén’s textiles. During that period, Peter Mensinga, who is an engineer/designer and was advising us on sustainability, introduced us to Marjan.

The idea behind the pavilion

The ambition of the Dutch government for the Netherlands pavilion is to create a physical environment in which it is possible to explain the connection between water, energy and food. This should be done preferably, and necessarily, in a completely circular manner. The World Expo will last for six months and after that period we will need to return the plot in a clean and pristine condition.

The government had quite a substantial ambition. How did V8 achieve this?

The idea that I can contribute to leaving something behind that we will be proud of and that is not polluting or damaging, is very satisfying.

Solar energy – but not as you know it
For most people, solar energy is synonymous with large, dark panels on a roof or in a field. Marjan van Aubel has a different take on this. Over the last few years, she has immersed herself in the technology for generating solar energy and the role of colours and materials in that process.

Marjan van Aubel: “For me, the pavilion was a rewarding subject. Most of it is constructed from steel sheet piling, and steel pipes are used for the roof. Gaps have been left between those pipes which provide space for my solar panels. When light passes through these gaps and reflects on the sheet piling, it creates a leaded glass effect reminiscent of churches and cathedrals. So much so that we soon nicknamed the pavilion the ‘steel cathedral’. Incidentally, only the part of the light needed for the food mountain in the pavilion to function passes through the gaps. The remainder is converted into energy.”

“The pavilion shows us that creating energy is not only something technical, but that it can also be very beautiful. It means that energy generation can also give buildings an added aesthetic value. Looking ahead to the future, it serves as a statement and an example for projects that should be created in a future-proof manner.”

Michiel Raaphorst: “The pavilion is a blueprint for the development of ‘generous buildings’ that give or supply more than they need or take. It is also a blueprint for approaching energy generation from a different angle as it clearly shows that there really is an alternative to indiscriminately covering fields with black solar panels as production units. That’s because, as Marjan has shown us, you can also generate energy in a very pleasant manner on a large or small scale.”

“Marjan’s work is fascinating because she understands the art behind technology and she makes innovation comprehensible. The Netherlands pavilion is all about sensory experiences – like when you get goosebumps from the power of natural phenomena. However, it is done in a way that will also make you understand why we use natural phenomena. In this way you will understand through technology how smartly mother nature does everything behind the scenes.

“In any event, that was the effect that Marjan’s approach had on us. She allowed us to experience how you can make something very attractive by applying intelligent design to solar panels for harvesting sunlight. When you see her work up close, it suddenly dawns on you just how insanely valuable it is that you have a solar panel that looks great but is also incredibly smart. The part of the sunlight needed for photosynthesis to take place (and allow the plants to grow) passes through the panel, while the remainder of the light is harvested as energy.”

Technical interlude
Where did the idea for the technique come from? And how does it work?

Marjan van Aubel: “Some years ago, I wondered how you could add emotional value to solar energy. I asked myself how you could create a design for generating solar energy that feels good to have around you. I discovered the technology behind solar design, and I researched and immersed myself in this. I went on to make leaded glass windows where I used the glass to generate energy. I then started a project called Powerplant in which I researched the spectrum of sunlight needed by solar panels to generate energy and the spectrum that plants need to grow. I brought these two studies together in the pavilion in Dubai and I went further with the study on how sunlight enters a space and how it works in a space. I also looked at how technology and aesthetics can be linked together.”

What is the value of colour when harvesting solar energy?

Marjan van Aubel: “There are many colours in the sunlight spectrum. When sunlight strikes a surface, it reflects those colours or the light is absorbed. Solar panels take part of that spectrum and convert the sunlight into energy. You can use various techniques to accurately adjust a solar panel so that it absorbs a small, specific part of the spectrum or allows it to pass through. Coloured solar panels allow you to make that technology visible, or actually the game you play with the colours of the sunlight.

“Regular solar panels are based on a technology in which a mixture of black and dark blue dominate because those colours absorb the greatest amount of light. Harvesting sunlight with coloured glass and even with transparent glass requires a different technology, namely organic photovoltaic cells. For this technology, organic solar cells are printed onto a transparent film which allows you to make very flexible solar panels in any colour. For instance, you can devise a custom solution for any solar energy requirement and completely balance the efficiency, appearance and finish.”

Why is organic photovoltaic technology not used more widely?

Marjan van Aubel: “I’ve been working with this technology for six years but I’ve never seen it used on a large scale. That’s why a stage such as the Expo is also needed to make this technology more widely known and allow people to gain confidence with it. After all, this technology makes it possible to do much more than just enabling a building to generate energy. Literally anything with a surface can function as a solar panel.”

“Solar panels are already installed on the roofs of building, but buildings also have façades and glass, which also should and can contribute to harvesting solar energy. However, streets, trains and railway can also have this function, and large distribution centres can function as a battery for the environment by making a simple enhancement. For instance, why could an entire city not be made to supply energy? On the one hand, we need to think on a larger scale. On the other hand, we need to think smaller. For instance, curtains can also be ideal for generating energy. We have to think differently. Why don’t we make energy generation mobile so that we can also temporary convert areas such as vacant plots of land into a source of energy?”

Michiel Raaphorst: “This innovation and its application clearly show that you can also make a technical solution aesthetically pleasing and it can become part of our living environment in an agreeable manner. It can be done in such a way that it is comprehensible for everyone. This technology dispels the idea that the technology is cold and complicated and enables us to relate to it. In that sense, the association with leaded glass in the pavilion is very relevant.

Leaded glass solar panels
Where does that association with leaded glass come from?

Michiel Raaphorst: “There was a competition that we had to win. Every aspect of our proposal needed to be clear, it needed to be within a set budget, and as I mentioned earlier, it needed to connect water, energy and food together. In addition, a graphical style had already been developed based on various colours and this needed to find its way into the design. That was what led us to think about graphical shapes in leaded glass.”

Marjan van Aubel: “That basic idea remained firm, as we developed a graphical interplay in the solar panels using the colours, orange, blue and red, that resembles that leaded glass effect.”

Michiel Raaphorst: “The solar panels allude to the idea of leaded glass that was once intended to create an impression, but that in this form now generates energy.”

Marjan van Aubel: “Leaded glass does more than create an impression, it also has a hidden effect that enables it to play a role in keeping a house cool. That is why leaded glass is often used in skylights where sunlight enters.”

Michiel Raaphorst: “Something else I liked was that Marjan created a scale model to evaluate the space, design and effect of the leaded glass in which she simulated the entry of light into the pavilion with coloured film. It was fantastic to see, and you can’t match this experience with a computer simulation.”

Marjan van Aubel: “It means you can check what will happen with the light and colour play in the pavilion. I can’t wait to see that steel cathedral come to life.”

The pavilion has to be completely circular, something that is not self-evident in the world of solar panels. How far can we say that organic photovoltaic technology is circular?

Is there a place for this technology in contemporary architecture?

Michiel Raaphorst: “I think there certainly is. We’re currently working on putting solar panels in façades, and although they are less efficient that solar panels on a roof, that will change as development continues. At present, a number of ideas in this area sometimes perish in the technical phase, whereas in the past that used to happen in the design phase. From that perspective, we are dependent on specialists such as Marjan to help us with this.”

Marjan van Aubel: “Innovations are far too often related to efficiency and the payback time, which are actually very old-fashioned issues. When you change perspective and think about how much surface you are not using and how much energy you are not generating, you wonder what you should measure the investment against. Art is not seen in terms of a payback time either. It’s more important that you ask what we are going to leave for the future.

Michiel Raaphorst: “That’s a very pertinent comment. You also notice that clients’ attitudes are changing in this area. It may happen more quickly than you think. After all, sustainability has moved from a wide catch-all term into something measurable. Nowadays, all of the performance of materials and buildings can be captured in figures. Sometimes these are also assumptions, and maybe not all of the figures are equally accurate, but it does enable everything to be measured in financial terms. The ideology of this has been overtaken by the daily practice of investors and has also gained a place on the agenda in the legislation. That can only be a good thing, as we have to solve the problems of seven generations in a single generation.”