Sheila Kennedy and the Portable Light Project

TreeHugger: How does this fit into the architectural discipline?

Kennedy: I think that architecture is a very broad discipline, and part of our architectural education--at it's best--is to imagine a future reality and create a set of plans that take us there from the present. So as architects, we're pretty accustomed to organizing fairly large and complex projects, which we call urban design or building design, with many different pieces, working with a broad team of collaborators.

And in the Portable Light Project we've been fortunate to have a very large and interdisciplinary team of collaborators that includes doctors, architects, industrial designers, interaction designers, new media people, anthropologists, a whole wide range of people. It's been a fantastic experience working with this kind of team.

The funny part is that first we had to de-attach the infrastructure from the building and let it go free. Let it be mobile. Let it be portable. And we did this with the Portable Light Project. We're now trying in our practice to explore how architecture can be a kind of scaffolding for new forms of energy and architecture.

We're doing this in projects like our proposal for smart material housing in Germany, in Hamburg. And also with our Soft House project here in the United States.

TreeHugger: Tell us about Soft House.

Kennedy: We've been working with the Rocky Mountain Institute to help scale the Portable Light Project and Soft House. The name Soft House came from a paper that Amory Lovins, the founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, wrote in the late 1970s. It was a very important paper because Amory spoke about the fact that we need not think about a singular source of energy.

We can instead contemplate a coming reality of multiple sources of energy, some of which could be centralized and some of which could be distributed; some of which could be fixed and some of which could be mobile. And so in a way, Amory's "soft power" paper really was a path that allowed us to rethink the walls and ceilings, the envelope of architecture, to try to develop new layers that could be produced with far less embodied energy and could be considered as housing for new clean energy infrastructure.

So we've been focusing on how some of these so-called "thin film" technologies, flexible solar materials, could be integrated into the facade and cladding of architectural buildings.

TreeHugger: How does the manufacturing of things like flexible solar and thin films differ from these rigid panels that we're more familiar with?

Kennedy: We are indeed more familiar with rigid solar panels, and I think there's a place for rigid solar panels and large solar farms and so forth. And in the American popular imagination, when you say "solar panel," people think of a glass solar panel that might be on the roof of their house.

But to create glass solar panels, poly-crystalline or mono-crystalline panels, you need a fair amount of energy in the industrial process to form and create the glass, and to encapsulate the photovoltaic materials that are active within that sandwich of glass. And so you may need to run a solar panel for up to two years to even pay back the energy that went into it.

So from a material science point of view, and given the magnitude of the energy challenge, there must be a better set of materials and a better set of industrial processes that take less energy to produce.

Thin film can be one of those processes. There's a very large throughput. It's a flexible material that rolls through in what's called a roll-to-roll process, while the photovoltaic material is being sprayed or laminated on. So you have a different production paradigm with thin film.

There are also trade-offs. Thin films is not perfect. There's been a lot of investment and attention from the scientific community that's going into the development right now. One of the problems of thin film is that the barrier that protects it from the harmful aspect of the sun's rays is not as secure as it should be. So there are barrier problems in the industry.

So there are some trade-offs. But from the point of view of re-imagining what energy could be like and feel like, and how it could participate in a new way in architecture, I think that there's a lot of potential in thin film.

TreeHugger: And this is what allows you to create a flexible curtain or a window dressing that is able to produce electricity?

Kennedy: That's right. It is really a very different model. Because it's distributed, you can have multiple autonomous units that can be interconnected. And they're flexible, so that means that their form is really subject to exploration--that's what's exciting about them.

TreeHugger: You teach and you deal with a lot of young, idealistic and forward- looking people. What's the message you want to give folks like that?

Kennedy: Young designers, architects, and industrial designers are sometime discouraged by the economic slowdown, about job loss, and about other things that are real and tangible in their lives. Sometimes it's interesting to take one step back and just say this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to be living in this moment, to live in a transitional energy culture. To see side-by-side the old--what Amory would call the old and brittle--centralized grid, compared with an emergent and not yet totally successful new set of infrastructural forms.

And in the difference between the old and the new, a lot is revealed about our culture. In those moments when you have this kind of fissure, that's really where design and architecture can contribute. I think it is really a once-in-lifetime opportunity. It's pretty exciting.

I tell the young people that I meet, and certainly those that work here, that you can't be afraid to really let design create a new vision for what energy can be. And to let design drive markets. But that design needs to be smart.

I'm not talking about "smart materials" here, I'm talking about an intelligent approach to really understanding the parameters and limitations of whatever material that designer is working with. If they can do that, I think there's enormous potential for design to really change; to produce new cultural ideas and change the behavior that we're accustomed to.

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