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Should I install solar panels?

Electricity generation from renewables overtook fossil fuels for the first time in 2020, and solar energy now accounts for almost 5% of the UK’s power.

The rise in solar use is in some part down to falling costs - solar electricity was between 5 and 8x cheaper last year than it was in 2010 and, in some cases, solar and wind have become cheaper options than coal and gas.

Feed-in tariffs have been dropped, meaning that individuals will no longer be reimbursed for surplus energy that they produce at home which is then fed into the National Grid. However, advancements in battery storage technology combined with airtight and super insulated buildings means that much less renewable energy generated will go to waste.

Solar is traditionally an afterthought

In residential architecture, solar panels were often considered a mechanical system and not integrated into the design and style of a home.

Traditionally, they were added after the fact - in some cases, a long time after the home was built. Environmentally conscious individuals could select this renewable option without considering how it would fit aesthetically. As a result, many serve a purpose but disrupt a design.

Fanis Anastasiadis, Lead Architect at Facit Homes, commented that “Years ago, when the climate change discussions were not so prominent, these systems were considered an advantage or even a luxury by many people.

At this time, the cost was considered too much for the benefits they provided. So many houses were designed without the solar panels, but with provision for their use later on. When the time came to install them, they ended up looking like an ugly add-on that was not part of the original design.”

Photo by Margot Polinder on Unsplash.

The planning process also treated solar panels as an add-on rather than as an integrated part of the design. It was a tick box exercise and the bulky nature of many of the solar panel products in the market contributed to this functional approach.

Designing with solar in mind

If you’re building a new home, you are in the unique position of being able to integrate solar panels into your design from the start. They can be discreetly hidden on pitched or flat roofs, as with some of our past projects, or you can invest in a more complete approach, such as solar tiles.

Solar tiles hidden in a pitch roof in an East London Facit Home.

Thoughtful design can be used to optimise the location and the orientation of the panelling systems - further improving the efficiency and appearance of the system.

If you're building with the fabric first approach and to Passivhaus principles, your new home will be south facing to make the most of solar gain. This is great news for integrating solar power into your design - and panels can still be included out of sight. Fanis commented that “For larger developments and flat roofed houses, the large open surfaces are not visible from ground level so it's always easier to put normal panels on the roofs and not worry about integrating with the design.”

Bruce, CEO and Founder of Facit Homes, has always been interested in enhancing the environmental performance of a home and is excited by the battery storage technology emerging at a more affordable rate. He notes that “being able to store the renewable energy generated means that you won’t waste a single kW of energy, for example, by being out of the house on a sunny day. Something that many don’t realise is that solar power is only useful when you are residing in the house at the time it is generated. Battery storage is essential to bring renewable energy to the future.”

New (and pretty) solar panel products

Subsidies in the solar power industry encouraged research and development that has led to exciting advancements in the technology. Intelligent design and efficient manufacturing in the industry have brought the prices down and led to more affordable products. Manufacturers have caught on to market needs and started providing new aesthetically pleasing products that follow the design trends.

Three main options to consider are solar tiles, solar glass and solar cladding.

We believe that a new solar panelling system should be integrated in the design and not just a mechanical system add-on. These new products allow for exciting design options such as a solar roof that does not read as a solar panel system or glass curtain walls made from solar glass panels.

The products:

  • Tesla solar tiles partnered with the Tesla Powerwall battery can provide 100% of the daily needs for a house of 4 bedrooms when a 7KW solar roof system is installed. These tiles are not placed on top of an existing roof; they are the roof. There are other similar products that exist depending on the design and finishes requirements.

  • Solar window products can replace existing glass and harness power from the vertical surfaces of large glass structures. A fabric first approach ensures that the windows are south facing - and also that the highly insulated and airtight building fabric doesn't waste any energy generated. In terms of design, Fanis comments that, “you can split the elevation into a grid with certain parts purely designed to house solar panels.”

  • Also known as a solar facade system, solar cladding can be used as an exterior finish (rather than timber, stone or brick) that harnesses the natural sunlight to create energy. Not just a utilitarian decision, it should be a surface finish decision and, as such, part of the initial moodboards and design discussions from the early stages.

A Tesla solar roof. Source: Tech Crunch.

Planning and solar panel systems

Planning policies have adapted to reflect the evolving design of solar panels and their inclusion has become a valuable part of a planning application. As Fanis states, “Architects now have a greater incentive to integrate solar panel systems into their designs as there are more solid requirements in the new planning applications.”

Fanis also discussed how these emerging solar panel systems (e.g. solar tiles) might affect planning decisions. “There is always difficulty introducing a new material like this in conservation areas so the planning officers will need to show some flexibility, but there are some solar panel systems that can fit in with existing traditional finishes if this becomes a problem for planning permission.”

Q&A with Fanis

  • Have you designed a scheme incorporating any of the latest solar panel systems?

I have designed houses with integrated glass panelling systems, unfortunately the solar panel system was discarded as it had a slightly increased upfront cost which deterred the clients.

Their decision was supported by the fact that planners would accept a similarly efficient system located somewhere else and not considering the design aspect, hence the tick-box exercise reference above.

  • Is the aesthetic of solar systems increasingly important?

Architects are more aware of the environmental and design possibilities of aesthetic solar systems but the demand hasn’t caught up with the potential. There is growing understanding on how these systems can be integrated to the fabric of the building, and further integrated in the emerging smart home systems.

The energy storage options are now slimmer and more welcoming products that can be placed on protected elevations without causing visual disruption.

  • Have solar systems always been hidden?

Traditionally, yes. The older photovoltaic systems looked chunky and ugly and the solar thermal systems (with water tanks) were disproportionate to the elevations. The best way to deal with those was to have a large site area where those could be installed in the garden close by, disconnected from the main house. Or they ended up on the roof as black spots on a red tile roof.

We need to treat the products as cladding material and not as an add on to an external surface of the building. Framing them with distinct boundaries means that their function is visible but they also form part of the elevation from the early stages of the design.

For more information on other renewable technologies, visit our article here.


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