Solar-Powered Artspaces for Houston Fotofest 2016

Posted by on Dec 1, 2015
Solar-Powered Artspaces for Houston Fotofest 2016

You may have noticed some new structures on campus recently: three containers mounted with solar panels located next to the site of the new Moody Center for the Arts. Designed and donated by Rice architecture alumnus Joe Meppelink, each container is a flexible artspace that will be the setting of CENHS’s project for Houston Fotofest 2016, a biennial event that draws up to 250,000 visitors to the city. Each of these “juiceboxes” is a self-contained microgrid, powered by its own solar panels. While Rice has a few other solar panels (not enough!), the juiceboxes are the campus’s first self-contained microgrid. During Fotofest (12 March – 24 April 2016), they will exhibit the work of artists supported by CENHS: Marina Zurkow, Una Chaudhuri, Fritz Ertl, and Oliver Kellhammer’s Dear Climate and Judy Natal’s Another Storm is Coming. Please subscribe to this website for more information about the Fotofest installation as March approaches.


(Images from Dear Climate and Another Storm Is Coming)

Zurkow and friend’s project is a series of messages to the Earth’s climate and (often comical) calls to action for the human beings who must adapt to it. As her website describes the project, “Dear Climate responds to the psychic dimensions of climate change and global ‘weirding.’ It is a training program for the spirit and the imagination, using a tone, aesthetic and vocabulary that’s the opposite of the prevailing ones: instead of crisis and catastrophe, Dear Climate animates the familiar and ordinary; instead of desperation and heroism, it fosters playfulness and friendliness.” Zurkow has worked with CENHS on more than one occasion in the past following her fabulous Necrocracy installation at DiverseWorks Houston in 2012. We look forward to having her back.

Judy Natal’s Another Storm is Coming is a photography project about region between Houston and New Orleans during the decade after Katrina. Documenting a region heavily affected by storms, flooding, subsidence, and rising sea levels, the project sheds light on a fascinating rural coast that receives little attention in the contemporary geographical imagination of the United States. Natal participated in the 2014 CENHS symposium, and we look forward to having her back in town as well. As her website describes it, Another Storm is Coming “explores the tragic history that forever unites these two cities while imagining the future potential for environmental disaster they hold, this project explores the watery coastlines between New Orleans and Houston, photographing the idiosyncratic characteristics of oil, water, and reflection, to portray our stubborn insistence to ignore all the warning signs of climate change.”

Joe Meppelink owns the firm Metalab, and the juiceboxes are one of his new products. Employing proprietary design and material innovation, each SPACE (Solar Powered Adaptive Container for Everyone) is made up of four major components: an up-cycled 20 ft x 8 foot shipping container housing a climate controlled work/ storage space, a proprietary solar rack capable of producing up to 5 kW of solar power, a self-contained battery with 5 days of backup, and a fully integrated renewable power management system. At Rice, each Juicebox SPACE is thus a mobile solar generator artspace. Capable of accommodating job site activities, special events, emergency response operations, and more, the juiceboxes will remain on campus after Fotofest to be repurposed for other activities.

I interviewed Joe to learn more about the project and his other work, including his philosophy of ecological design. We started by talking about a plan to install juiceboxes at the south pole, in an Antarctic research facility. Joe told me that, understandably when you think about it, the solar panels there would be arranged in a circle rather than pointed south (or north if you’re in the southern hemisphere). This of course because the sun circles overhead there, which means that during the summer months, the south pole is an excellent place for solar panel productivity.

Joe  has also been at work on another solar project: a lightweight and portable design for installing solar panels on rooftops. These PV Pods can be nomadic. They don’t need to be fixed to the roof, because a large tank of water holds them in place. Since the tank can be empty when you lift it to the roof or any other awkward-to-reach sunny place, weight is not an issue. Joe thinks that these tanks will be appealing to people who don’t want to break theirs backs or banks installing solar panels,  or who move a lot and want to take a source of energy along with them. Fixed installations are more costly and difficult, but lifting a tank on to the roof is something you can do during lunch. In other words, solar power doesn’t just have to be for people with lots of money or lots of handiness. The sun is for everyone.

The self-contained quality of these tanks has something in common with the juiceboxes. Both work well for somewhat nomadic and cobbled-together ways of dwelling. These two projects seem to invite practical uses in situations where plans can change quickly. They are everyday objects like greenhouses and barbeques rather than (for example) the major green power installations we hear the most about. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, it will be common to have a self-sufficient solar units on hand in the same way that people have these other objects.

 The fact that these Metalab projects are discrete units could say something about Joe’s philosophy of ecodesign. The term ecology is often associated with open systems, flows, networks, and overall connectedness, but the point of these designs is to be cut off rather than connected. Though the juiceboxes can be connected to the grid, Joe thinks that they will be more effective as disconnected, mobile spaces. If such closure seems in some sense less ecological, it actually allows space to be used more creatively. This is because the juiceboxes can be situated in (sunny!) places that can’t easily reach the grid, whether rural or urban. Quite often, the location of electrified structures is constrained by the location of the grid, but with self-contained units this is no longer a problem. The potential of solar for reducing dependence on fossil fuels lies not just in replacing them on a large scale, but on creating multiple microgrids that ease demand. If microgrids become common enough, the spatial constraints for architecture and geographical planning will begin to change. It could be that closed systems can be just as “ecological” as open ones, offering potential reductions in energy use and new ways of dwelling.

Joe started out by working with metal—thus the name of his firm. I asked what it’s like shifting to eco-design, where the processed permanence of metal makes it seem antithetical to what many consider ecological. He responded with some interesting thoughts about aesthetics and sustainability in relation to energy that might be particularly interesting to readers of this blog.

Architects and engineers sometimes use the term “energy-embededness” to describe the total amount of energy used by the extractive, industrial, and transport processes that produce different materials. Energy embedeness is the quantity expressed by the device that concludes Stephanie LeMenager (who is giving a lecture at Rice in February) and Matthew Schneider Mayerson’s (a previous CENHS postdoctoral fellow) recent books about oil. Both books end with an account of the production process of the book itself, including the energy consumed. These literary commodities contain a representation of the energy systems that contributed to making them what they are—self-reflexive accounts of their own energy embededness.

For Joe, there is often a directly proportional relationship between energy and beauty. Materials such as metals have a high energy embeddedness. More permanent materials require a lot of energy to produce, and often a lot of labor to build into structures. Thus one of the oft-cited reasons why buildings are rarely made out of stone these days is that labor, in countries such as the United States, has become too expensive.

Using materials with high energy embeddedness seems like the opposite of sustainability insofar as sustainability is an ethical program that asks us to use less and take future generations into consideration. Yet as Joe pointed out, this depends on how long we want a building to survive. Beautiful materials designed into beautiful buildings can become all but timeless, holding their value and inspiring people to protect them from future development. A building with high energy embeddedness might last far longer than one with uglier materials, which is likely to be torn down a few decades later. On a given site, perhaps one design could stand for two hundred years while others get replaced every few decades, with their materials ending up in landfills.

We also discussed what Joe’s point about beauty and energy embededness means for the vagueness of sustainability as a policy concept. While environmental thinkers and activists understandably lament the lack of concern for future generations in consumerist economies, sustainability invites a number of questions. One has to do with the time scales involved. How many generations are we talking about? Do current living conditions have to be sustained for all eternity? Sustained for whom? At Rice, Abby Goode, a PhD candidate in English, has been teaching a course that asks these kinds of questions in relation to agrarianism and the American literary tradition.

In a strange way, the inability of policy-makers to answer such questions seems more rational to many than the idea that we should simply estimate durations for things. Yet the relationship between beauty and energy-embededness suggests that such estimations are both possible and important. In this sense, a building that is not made to last is paradoxically more “timeless” than a beautiful and durable one, but not in a good way. Developers might construct cheap and functional buildings with low energy embededness without taking their duration into account at all, assuming that they will only last for so long before something else replaces them according to the whims of the market. But beautiful buildings require that we think about time in a way that has implications for the notion of sustainability. They are objects that last across generations, across the mid-length  durations that sustainability discourse often blurs into perpetuity.