Published January 14, 2015
An article in The Wall Street Journal listing “The Best Architecture of 2014” includes the University at Buffalo’s Solar Strand, calling 3,200-panel, ground-mounted photovoltaic array a “small but telling model of landscape architecture at its most forward-thinking.”
Envisioning energy as part of the cultural and built landscape, the Solar Strand stands at the main entrance to UB's North Campus and provides a striking but practical campus gateway. The 750-kilowatt array generates enough energy to power hundreds of student apartments while offsetting the emission of nearly 400 tons of greenhouse gases annually.
Julie V. Iovine, the Journal’s architectural critic, writes: “At a time when fields of PV panels and wind turbine ‘farms’ are a reality, planted in vast undifferentiated arrays that assault the eye, not to mention birds and other animals, Solar Strand offers a thoughtful alternative.”
The array was designed by the celebrated landscape architect, artist and educator Walter Hood, who was selected through an international design competition sponsored by the University at Buffalo.
The design competition, attracting an initial field of 23 artists and landscape architects from around the world, called for a solar array that would be integrated into the campus landscape, accessible to students and the community and representative of a new design vocabulary for solar installations around the world.
The project got its start in 2009, when the New York Power Authority approached UB with an interest in funding the construction of a conventional ground-mounted photovoltaic array across several acres of UB’s North Campus entrance. University leadership took the project to the next level, with NYPA’s support, proposing to elevate design standards for the project through an international design competition.
Robert Shibley, UB’s campus architect and chair of the selection committee for the competition, reflected on the design process in a recent article in Domus, an international architectural publication:
“To transform a simple utility field into a land art installation, we mounted an international design competition that asked artists to consider solar panels as their medium and our campus gateway as their canvas. We were presenting the opportunity to make art from something that tended to be somewhat pedestrian, and that was increasingly subject to ‘Not-In-My-Backyard’ obstruction. I think for some artists that's a very interesting challenge.”
Walter Hood’s vision was to build the installation into the campus landscape. The 15-acre site features regenerating meadows, a meandering creek and vernal pools. Set in the background are the university’s chilled water plant and generator system.
The Solar Strand’s design logic is based on the “strand” concept: a linear landscape formation and DNA fingerprint. Groups of photovoltaic panels are mounted at staggering heights onto supports that stretch in three rows. Walkways run between the rows of panels, connecting the array with local roads, UB’s Center for Tomorrow and naturally regenerated meadows and wetland areas that the public can enjoy.
Shibley continues in Domus: “The jury was struck by his thoughtful response to the history, geography and ecology of the campus, from the way he envisioned the Solar Strand feathering into the wildness of the creek on the site to its non-invasive treatment of the indigenous vernal pools…Walter keyed in on the part of our invitation that said: ‘Make us a great entrance to our campus.’”
Distinguished by its accessibility and people-centered design, the Solar Strand is designed as a public gathering space and outdoor classroom. Its two largest panel sets rise to 28 feet, forming an almost cathedral like public plaza. In April 2013, UB invited 400 guests into the strand to celebrate its opening to the public with live music, local food and tours.
Since being powered on in 2012, the Solar Strand has generated more than 240,000 kilowatt hours, offsetting the emission of more than 1,700 tons of CO2 and the consumption of 194,000 gallons of gasoline.