Sacramento Solar Commentary – Driving through an Auburn neighborhood earlier today I noticed a local solar company installing panels on the roof of a very expensive home. My mind first went to the dollar signs flashing in my head for the savings the homeowners were going to realize. But there is much more to solar than just money in the pocket. What I also saw were 3 – 4 workers who had a job installing the solar panels and had a means to support their family at the end of the day. I saw the local Metro Sacramento supermarket business which was going to benefit from the dollars from the workers as well as the savings the homeowner could now spend on other local purchases.
I also saw the pride in the workers faces as they went about their task with the knowledge they were making a difference in the world. Bravo to the homeowner who had the courage to take the step and go solar in Metro Sacramento.
Solar is more that beauty in the eye of the beholder. Solar is beautiful beyond the aesthetics of panels on a roof. Read More –
The Solar Aesthetic: Why Beauty Depends on Eye of the Beholder. Sunpluggers. By Meredith Nelson;
What do Notre Dame, the World Trade Center, windmills and the Eiffel Tower have in common with solar panels? They’re ugly. Or beautiful. It all depends upon the time, the place and your state of mind.
Enlightened men of the Renaissance considered the original Gothic scheme of the Cathedral of Notre Dame a symbol of grotesque barbarism. On ground now hallowed by the most infamous terrorist attack in history stood the Twin Towers, aesthetically lambasted in the ’60s by the American Institute of Architects and others, including noted philosopher of cityscapes Lewis Mumford, who called them “just glass-and-metal filing cabinets” and an “example of purposeless giantism and technological exhibitionism that are now eviscerating the living tissue of every great city.”
How one Brooklyn eatery takes solar in stride. Even in Holland, with a landscape as inseparable from windmills as it is from tulips, the nostalgic romance of this farm skyline ingredient was not always uniformly appreciated. Parisians’ initial uproar over the Eiffel Tower, a landmark now synonymous with the City of Light and Love, is hardly conceivable these days.
And so the 21st century brings us, in earnest, the solar problem. With President Barack Obama allocating $2 billion for solar initiatives in July of 2010 and Europe already way ahead of the United States on this front, the Green Revolution is not just imminent, but in full swing. Solar-electric homes, it seems, will not be the passing fad that solar-thermal systems were in the ’70s. (Solar thermal is itself in a revival.) The frustrating triangular convergence of policy, finance and technology that comprises solar design, installation and architecture is here to stay. The evolution of a solar aesthetic will first and foremost be about overcoming certain barriers – preconceptions, misconceptions and, above all, the great American homeowner’s fear of the unknown.
‘Americans Are Conformists’ “There are a certain amount of people out there who think their houses should look like the house right next door to them,” says Angela Brooks AIA, principal of Pugh + Scarpa, an architectural firm at the forefront of sustainable design and construction. “We’ve got a bigger problem than that. Global warming is going to eliminate our society. We need solar panels. They need to get over it.”
The nation’s vast electricity production and delivery infrastructure has long been a little-discussed background feature of American life. While some solar PV installations have drawn complaints about appearance, the ubiquitous utility pole carries on.
Pugh + Scarpa is behind Colorado Court in Santa Monica, Calif., a 44-unit, multifamily affordable housing project that was the first building of its kind to be 100 percent energy neutral and to earn a LEED Gold rating. The structure sparked one of numerous controversies erupting across the country over solar building after it went up in 2002. Its solar panels, which the firm chose to put down the front of the building rather than on the roof, greet drivers heading into the city squarely in the face from their position just off the freeway.
Depending on who you talk to, the daring move even in green-friendly California may or may not have resulted in the Santa Monica City Council’s passing an ordinance in the summer of 2009 that aimed to keep solar technology hidden away if at all possible on future building projects. At the time, Mayor Ken Genser said that the policy change “respects reasonable aesthetic concerns” and would also “simplify permitting for the installation of solar panels.”
“Americans are conformists,” declares Sheila Lintott, assistant professor of philosophy at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, who has written extensively about aesthetics and ecology, including editing a 2008 collection of essays called “Nature, Aesthetics, and Environmentalism.” When it comes to the green movement, she explains, the criterion for people’s aesthetic judgments has been turned on its head.
“In the history of writing about the philosophy of aesthetics, tradition tells us that when we judge something in order to say whether it’s beautiful or not, those who are the most disinterested are deemed to be the most reliable. In the art world, for example, if you were going to judge whether a particular work is a masterpiece, you wouldn’t ask the artist’s mother. The same thing happens in a court. If the judge doesn’t think he’s objective, or even a lawyer, he recuses himself from the case. We think the person who has a personal interest is unlikely to give us the most objective judgment.
“In the art world, it is the experts, curators or art historians, those with really specialized knowledge, who are considered the most disinterested. When it comes to environmentalism and aesthetics, though, we have this tendency to think the experts are the biased ones. If someone says these solar panels are ugly, and it isn’t coming from someone who is thinking about the sustainability of the practice, it has more credibility.
“But think about postmodern art there’s a lot of weird stuff that is going on in the art world today, very bizarre things. If someone who has no background in art says that’s ugly and a piece of junk, we don’t pay much attention. But when someone who is really knowledgeable gives us some background into what this artist is responding to and trying to do, that person can actually open our eyes; if we listen and respond appropriately, we can see it. We get a museum tour and we say, ‘Oh, my God. In a million years I wouldn’t have gotten that.’ Then go back to the other side. Think about sustainable housing and solar panels. The novice says that’s ugly, for whatever reason a lot of people think it doesn’t look natural, it’s not familiar.”
A solar installation in California. Eventually, familiarity may breed acceptance, according to academics who
study perception and the environment. Imagine, Ms. Lintott proposes, if we had someone like the person who gives us the museum tour and helps us see this off-the-wall, postmodern artwork anew because we don’t get it, and can’t possibly, just by looking at it. People’s front lawns, she points out, are the perfect example. We’ve been indoctrinated into them. People don’t even notice them anymore. They seem perfectly natural, whether or not they are completely synthetic or riddled with pesticides that harm the environment.
“In everyday, or natural, settings, we don’t think we need a guide,” Ms. Lintott says. “We’re the expert it’s just my house, my backyard, my roof. I see this stuff every day. If we just listen, we could see everything anew. Just as we come to see Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ a urinal as a work of art, and that artworks don’t have to be beautiful in a common way, it makes us think more broadly about art. If we had the benefit of similar guidance and expertise, we would think more broadly about what’s beautiful in our homes, and what’s aesthetically valuable.”
Even in the absence of a solar tour guide, much of the flak over solar panels has turned out to be much ado about nothing. Such was the case in Flower Mound, Texas, in the spring of 2010, when a homeowners’ association filed a lawsuit contending that the solar photovoltaic panels on a resident’s back roof violated neighborhood rules designed to keep up property values. The man who installed the solar panels said, “I think they’re beautiful as can be. They may be ugly to some people, eyesores, but so were satellite dishes and recycle bins. You’re going to get used to them.”
“I think solar panels are beautiful as can be. They may be ugly to some people, eyesores, but so were satellite dishes and recycle bins. You’re going to get used to them.” A Flower Mound, Texas, resident Speaking of his solar panels Turned out he was right. A few weeks later the association dropped the suit after a survey showed that most homeowners favored the solar energy saving devices.
In the case of the Colorado Court building, both the planner and the city’s expert on ordinances and solar codes that relate to aesthetics agree that residents voiced little or no concern over the solar installation. Brenden McEneaney, green building program adviser for the city of Santa Monica, describes the 2009 ordinance more as a preemptive strike against future solar designs that just might be truly offensive, and as a way to streamline the process for getting solar installations approved. One of the major issues in the Santa Monica debate when the ordinance was being considered is a California state law that allows solar to be installed regardless of discretionary criteria, including aesthetic considerations.
“In general, most people do not have a problem with solar being unattractive,” Mr. McEneaney says, pointing out that, unlike multifamily buildings, single-family homes in the city do not have to undergo any sort of aesthetic review from an architectural standpoint.
“We wanted to put parameters around solar aesthetics not being on the table at all,” Mr. McEneaney says. The measure specifying standards for solar permits provides exceptions for when energy production would be decreased by more than 10 percent or the cost would go up significantly.
“By making specific guidelines to capture 99 percent of all solar installations, once you’re outside of those guidelines, we’re contending that solar is being used as an architectural feature and not an energy-generating source and then it should face an architectural review.”
Pugh + Scarpa’s Angela Brooks says the city was worried about a problem that doesn’t even exist. She points out that most affordable housing projects are built on tight budgets with cheap materials such as stucco. “The solar panels are beautiful. They give the people who live there a certain amount of dignity,” she says, adding that in that area, if the panels are not completely vertical, black gunk gets caught in them and they have to be cleaned every four months.
Even when neighborhood outrage over solar panels fizzles out, in the long run for solar to become accepted in a widespread way, the tempests in a teapot need more than just a teapot they need a whole cauldron, says Joan Iverson Nassauer, professor of landscape architecture at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment.
“You need more than one person to do it, even if one person has to be the bold solar renewable energy innovator,” she says. Ms. Nassauer has conducted numerous studies and written extensively on the cultural sustainability of ecologically sound design, in particular the influence of cultural norms and neighborhood norms on people’s acceptance of environmentally innovative and beneficial alternatives. This includes a study of Michigan homeowners titled, “What will the neighbors think? Cultural norms and ecological design,” which examined individual preferences for alternative designs for large residential front yards involving storm-water cleaning systems and biodiversity. Like solar panels, the alternatives looked different, with a lot less mown grass and a lot more plants.
When residents were asked to choose their preferences, the study found that neighborhood norms trumped even broad cultural norms. “There is a tipping point, a threshold beyond which, almost regardless of your own personal preference, you will choose what your neighbors are doing. What we’ve discovered with ecologically innovative ecosystem sublimation services also applies to using solar panels in Sacramento residential design. If there is a kind of critical mass of neighbors doing this, if you have a homogenous cluster of people all doing the same thing on their property, whether that is what a group of developers is doing or the neighbors have gotten together themselves to do it, then you are very likely to achieve high approval of people in that neighborhood regardless of their personal preferences.”