March 1, 2010
The Ripple Effect: Solar Ivy
A Brooklyn-based architect takes an aesthetic approach to harvesting solar energy.
Samuel Cochran’s net of photovoltaic “leaves” might look out of place on overgrown Tudors or stodgy East Coast dormitories, but what Solar Ivy lacks in nostalgia it makes up in cutting-edge, biomimetic technology. Back in 2005, when Cochran developed the concept as a student at Pratt Institute, it was called Grow and consisted of a sheet of ivy-leaf-shaped solar panels with tiny, wind-powered piezoelectric generators in their stems. Today, a series of fortuitous partnerships is transforming Grow: soon these colorful energy-generating PVs will be able to be draped across any facade, assuming there’s an adventurous architect involved.
Cochran now works on Solar Ivy with his sister, Teresita Cochran, and fellow Pratt grad Benjamin Wheeler Howes under the firm name SMIT. Grants from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance helped them develop prototypes, but the team couldn’t actually attach the ivy to a building on a large scale until Samuel saw an ad for a wire-mesh manufacturer. A few calls later, and Officium, the German company that produces metal nets like the ones used on the High Line handrails, in New York, was sharing its products—and even its engineering team—with SMIT.
Solar Ivy may soon be a reality, but its multicolored scales, set at fixed-angles on a high-tensile steel net, are a far cry from the Grow leaves that would have fluttered in the breeze. (SMIT is still working to develop that technology.) The piezos are gone (they were expensive and only generated one-sixth of a watt each), but a relationship with the Massachusetts-based company Konarka, which makes printable, organic solar panels, gives SMIT the ability to produce Solar Ivy leaves in a rainbow of colors, each pumping out half a watt of power. And its aesthetic possibilities may ultimately be the real selling point. “People who contact us, interested in it for their homes, want it as a billboard for sustainability,” Howes says. “But most architects see it as an architectural feature: abstract, geometric pixels.” HOK, for example, is currently testing the product and plans to incorporate it into a residential complex in western India, where it will serve both as a maroon-and-green art piece camouflaging a network of hillside terraces and as a leafy source of shade protecting fragile local plants from direct sunlight. “It doesn’t really look like ivy anymore,” Samuel says. “But it mimics what ivy does.”