Faculty Member Bridges Gap between Architecture and Sustainability

Published on Wed, August 29, 2012

What do trees and solar panels have in common?

If this sounds like the setup of a bad joke, you're mistaken. For Joe Gluba, this question is serious—the beginning of research that could one day aid efforts in solving the world's energy problems.

In his efforts to integrate solar technology into building design, Gluba, an assistant professor in the School of Architecture, conceived his "Solar Leaves Project"—the first project for the Bureau of Solar Research—after considering the similarities between the natural aesthetics of trees and building design.

"We all find trees to be beautiful," Gluba said. "When the wind blows the leaves, it creates a fluttering effect. We want to take that quality and put it into the solar panels. People usually think of solar panels as these ugly things that get stuck on a roof, but we can make them more interesting."

In the process of designing a more sustainable solar panel, Gluba faces multiple challenges. First, he says, is the design side, where he has to create a utilitarian design that uses cost-effective materials. On the whole, new technologies tend to be expensive, so the designer must consider how cost might play a role in the practical outcome of the design. The next challenge, as Gluba puts it, is "getting the idea out into the world."

"Scientists can make [solar technology] more efficient, but, as an architect, my job is to make it something people actually want to use," he said. "I want solar technology to be beautiful and desirable so that its environmental benefits spread throughout the world."

Gluba hopes to have a working prototype of his designed finished by October. Then, with the help of students, he plans on presenting the idea to the public at various venues. Finally, when asked about what he hopes for the future, rather than making a statement, he posed this question:

"Can I continue marrying something that has changing, dynamic qualities with something that is so utilitarian?"

Based on his work thus far, the answer seems to be a clear "Yes."