A group of architecture students gathers in an open field, between a stand of old-growth oak trees and the first of 3,200 gleaming black solar panels that stretch one-quarter mile into UB’s North Campus to form the UB Solar Strand.
To Walter Hood, the Oakland-based artist and landscape architect who designed the ground-mounted solar array, this is a perfect start for his tour. “When we started this, we asked ourselves, ‘can we bring some of that wildness, that messiness in?’” says Hood, sweeping his arm from the craggy trees and the vernal pools beneath them to the clean lines and rigid steel frames of the solar panels.
A statement of engineering and technological innovation, the Solar Strand has also been carefully woven into the fabric of the surrounding campus landscape — a balance that gets to the core of Hood’s vision for the Solar Strand.
“That’s what we’re talking about here, the dialectic over time between humans and place. We’re in this landscape,” said Hood, founding principal of Hood Design and professor and former chair of the Landscape Architecture Department at the University of California-Berkeley.
Selected through an international design competition, Hood was in town for a site visit as the Solar Strand, powered on last spring, receives the finishing touches before opening to the public. On this crisp October morning, Hood and Dean Robert G. Shibley, who oversees the project as UB’s campus architect, prepare to reflect on the Solar Strand’s evolution with 12 graduate architecture students and their instructor, Assistant Professor Martha Bohm.
“Every decision of this process has sought to balance functionality with beauty, sustainability, accessibility and a broader sense of place,” says Shibley, who directed the project’s design competition and chaired the artist selection committee. The project began in 2009 when the New York Power Authority gave the university $7.5 million to build a large-scale solar field on its campus. Shibley and university leadership, however, saw an opportunity to do something more, leading to the international design competition and an intensive design and construction process engaging the university community, artist values, NYPA, and dozens of contractors and local suppliers.
“The result is a solar array that at once serves as a land art installation, an iconic campus gateway, a powerful and practical energy resource, and one of the most publicly accessible large energy production sites in the world,” Shibley continues.
Indeed, the 1,250’ x 140’ array generates 750 kilowatts of renewable energy, enough to power hundreds of on-campus student apartments. Its 3,200 panels, arranged into three rows, entwine like the molecules of a strand of DNA arrayed in gel packs — Hood’s nod to UB’s research mission.
The Solar Strand is also integrated into the campus through walkways, public gathering spaces and the creation of new habitat for native plant and animal species. It is envisioned as a classroom and laboratory for the university and the region.
As the tour begins, Hood beckons the students onto the strand’s central pathway. “We really made a core decision early on that this place needs to be occupied.”
He points to two steel pipes that run the entire length of the pathway. They collect — and protect — the solar array’s vast network of wiring. But they also provide visitors a place to pause and rest their feet (several members of the group have already discovered this function).
“We see the strand begin to relate to us. It’s a functional thing that becomes aesthetic,” Hood says.
Gathering spaces embedded in the array include an open-air chamber paved with concrete sidewalk slabs recycled from another university construction project. On the north end of the array, a grouping of its tallest panels forms a slanted roof over three outdoor “social rooms.” In another section, the steel piping is set back so visitors can get up close to some of the site’s largest panels.
“The Solar Strand will serve as an active laboratory, both in respect to how solar energy happens, and how solar and the landscape are part of the larger system together — from issues of design and accessibility to engineering technology to biodiversity and ecology,” says Shibley.
The university was drawn to Hood’s thoughtful response to the history and geography of the campus space, including careful consideration of how the Solar Strand would relate to the “Building UB” master plan, which Shibley helped to develop. For instance, walkways running between the Solar Strand’s rows of panels connect to local roads, the Center for Tomorrow and naturally generated meadows and wetland areas for the public to enjoy.
“Walter came to this project with the sense not that it would be its own thing, but that it would be part of the larger campus landscape,” says Shibley, looking through the array to the meadows beyond. “The columns are spaced so that the structure seems to float in the field. In effect, Walter has made the horizon part of the site.”
Matthew Ryberg, a second-year student in the school’s Master of Architecture program, says he appreciates that the Solar Strand is not “just plopped down.”
Hood points out that the Solar Strand reflects humans’ delicate relationship with nature and the landscape. For instance, “weeds” have begun to creep into the site and its naturalization will allow native plants and animals to thrive. A fallen tree from the stand of oaks has been hewn into seats in the strand’s open-air chamber. The uneven edges of the recycled concrete pavers have been left. And the university will minimize mowing by turning mowers into “artists” to create six-foot pathways echoing the geometry of the strand for walking and navigating the site and the surrounding meadow.
“There’s something prophetic about letting things go to a certain degree,” Hood says. “But we also objectify our landscape.”
Martha Bohm notes that the strand’s relationship with the landscape also creates a different perception of time. “Photovoltaic is always monitored for its hour-by-hour performance. But the Solar Strand adds a more seasonal perspective. Its technology is fixed but the landscape changes around it.”
The tour lets out on the north end of the site, where pine trees line a pathway that crosses Audubon Parkway to the heart of North Campus. Hood notes the sparse landscape across the road, and that no tree rises above the two-story student apartment buildings.
But that can change, he says. In the same way the Solar Strand brought the “messiness” of nature in, it can also send it back out. “It’s about allowing this,” he says, gesturing to the thick pines and solar panels, “to change the order of business for that side.”
Shibley is hopeful the impact of the Solar Strand will extend even further. “In the end, the Solar Strand establishes a new design vocabulary for solar installations. We believe this can promote the acceptance and use of renewable energy sources well beyond the boundaries of our campus.”