UH students bring the sun down to earth

Graduate architecture students at the University of Houston spent last summer designing and building a solar-powered outdoor classroom and butterfly pavilion across the street from Youngblood Intermediate School in Alief, but they’re still raising money for the solar component.

When completed, it will become the second solar-powered project by the UH Graduate Design/Build studio, which each year takes on a project at one of the city’s schools, parks or nonprofit organizations. The first was a solar-powered shade space along the soccer fields at McReynolds Middle School, completed in 2011.

Architecture professor Patrick Peters, who leads the studio, talked with the Chronicle about the students’ experiences in designing and building solar-powered structures. Edited excerpts:

Q: What are some of the advantages of using solar?

A: For installations like ours, they are not near an available electrical supply, so the only affordable option in many cases is to have a stand-alone solar system. In other locations, it may be that electrical power is available, but there’s a wealth of power coming from the sun every day.

The system we designed this year in Alief is patterned after the one last year. It’s not tied to the grid. It’s autonomous.

Q: Tell me about the project at McReynolds Middle School.

A: Its role was to provide a respite in a setting where there was very little shade and no real place to get out of the heat. It’s on a middle school campus, adjacent to a field. This shade structure, which we called the McReynolds Middle School Solar Shade Tree, is a place for teachers to take students for outdoor lessons, for families to rest while family members are playing soccer.

We wanted to demonstrate to students who may not be aware of alternative energy, what it looks like, how it works. It has a four-panel array that powers four 6-volt batteries. The batteries power the light and the fan. It’s been running nonstop for about 18 months.

Q: And what were some of the challenges?

A: In our studio, the construction takes place in the summer. Anything we can, we do indoors, although it’s not air-conditioned. But at some point, the work has to move outdoors. As a physical challenge, that took place in the historic drought and heat.

As an intellectual challenge, it takes place in their first year of architectural training. They learn a lot about green building, site-specific decision-making. Each project includes interviewing the client, not just faculty and staff, if it’s at a school, but also the students. As they shape the ideas, they present them to those parties and then move through the permitting process, which is also a learning process.

They learn how to fabricate steel, to install the solar equipment.

Q: Does solar add to the upfront costs or change the long-term maintenance costs?

A: It does add to the upfront costs. These projects, they are particular in a couple of ways. They are off-grid, so they don’t have to tie to a power system that exists, which helps to keep the costs down and keep them simple. The other reason for the solar is really as a demonstration, a learning tool for the community.

At McReynolds we were able to install the solar for $1,000, because we had a number of partnerships. This year (in Alief), because some of those partnerships are not available and some equipment has gotten more expensive, it will be about $2,000.

We assume the projects will get very little maintenance. They’re able to take that abuse. They’re out in public.

Q: Do you expect renewables to become a routine part of your students’ future work?

A: I definitely do. I’m involved in a startup, a group of people committed to providing solar-powered car-charging stations, using our former students. That’s just one example. In every professional setting, students will get involved in renewable power generation and renewable architectural projects.

That’s been one of the inspirations for us to incorporate it in the projects, not just for the users but also to allow our students to become more familiar with them, to address their curiosity.

Houston is obviously a showcase for fossil fuel. Many of us think it’s a natural step to become a powerhouse in alternative energy as well.