Why isn’t solar energy’s future brighter among designers?

For this building, solar panels perform double duty, offering energy for electricity and shade over the windows to help lower ambient temperature within the building. A new research team is examining the obstacles to use such technology. Photo © Bigstockphoto/Jeff Whyte Photography.

If solar energy can be harnessed to both heat and power buildings, why is it not being specified more often in building design? That is the question two Canadian professors are now trying to answer.

Miljana Horvat (Toronto’s Ryerson University) and Marie-Claude Dubois (Québec City’s Université Laval) are leading an International Energy Agency’s Solar Heating and Cooling (IEA-SHC) research project—Task 41: Solar Energy and Architecture. It involves 70 researchers, academics, professionals, and graduate students from 15 countries. The Canadian contingent includes faculty and students from the architectural schools at Ryerson and Laval, and the engineering department at Concordia University (Montréal).

While architects believe solar energy to be an increasingly viable option, many face significant obstacles that hinder them from incorporating this renewable energy resource into building designs. Horvat said that while barriers exist, they are still finding architects are interested in making a difference by integrating solar strategies into their designs.

The goals of the three-year IEA-SHC project is to achieve high-quality architecture that uses active and passive solar strategies, and to improve the qualifications of architects in implementing them, including their interactions with engineers, manufacturers, and clients. International researchers are working to develop criteria for architectural integration of solar energy systems, identify methods and tools for solar design, and establish concepts, guidelines, and case studies.

Team Canada’s research included a survey of architects from 14 different countries that has yielded important insights into how to improve digital tools for solar design to make it easier for architects to integrate both passive and active solar energy strategies during the early design stage. They also found that better training, for example, would help many architects improve their skills in working with solar and energy simulation tools and address the perception these tools are too complex, expensive, and time-consuming.

To date, the IEA-SHC Task 41 teams have completed a total of five reports and conference papers that identify existing barriers to implementing solar energy and the knowledge required for architects, engineers, manufacturers, and developers to integrate solar strategies into building design.

“It’s important to conduct research like this, because we know that up to 80 per cent of design decisions that can influence buildings’ energy performance are made at the early design stage,” Horvat said. “Now, the question is, do architects have the right tools to make those decisions?”

The team will continue to develop guidelines to overcome these barriers and facilitate the implementation of solar technologies and strategies in buildings from the early design stage.

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