Colin Touhey is the founder of Pvilion, a New York-based company that designs and manufactures flexible photovoltaic (PV) solar structures and products. He is also wrapping up a fall semester fabrication studio at Columbia University GSAPP titled “Wired Skin.” Touhey will be presenting at the upcoming Facades+AM San Francisco conference on the concluding panel, titled Facades: The Next Generation.
The Architect’s Newspaper (AN): What’s your office like?
Half of our office is a design office, and the other half is a workshop where we get our hands dirty. We are also building what we’re designing. We’re not a contractor, we’re not an engineer, and we’re not an architect—we’re a little bit of all of those things.
We come into a project as scrappy experts. We’re talking about how to hoist up a building component early on in the design process. When we sign a contract with someone, we don’t know how we’re going to solve a problem, but we know that we will be able to figure out a solution. More conservative firms would say, ‘Oh we’ll sell this when we know exactly how it’s going to get done.’ If we knew exactly how to do a project before we started it, we wouldn’t be in business.
How does Pvilion balance futuristic tech with commercial work?
We see what’s 10-years out, and are working on that. But we also have [a] real product today. The two feed off each other. While we [have] a futuristic technology, we’re not futurists. We’re not sitting around speculating about what’s going to happen in 50 years.
What are some issues you are working through at Pvilion?
We’re trying to create building skins that both increase energy performance and reduce fossil fuel consumption. We’re also providing a platform in which an architect can create. Rather than working with glass or steel, if you’re wrapping a building in a flexible material, you can create interesting forms, and with those forms you can produce electricity.
Also, we are thinking a lot about the installation process. Like Christmas lights, 30 to 50 solar panels can arrive on site folded up and pre-wired. When you’re paying union labor to hang off the side of a facade with a tower crane, you want an efficient installation process. Due to the modularity of the system, you can replace components as needed without taking the entire system down.
What’s next for facades?
We’re not only coming up with some rendering and saying, ‘Wouldn’t this be the city of the future!?’ This is real now. We’re not a research lab with kooky ideas about stuff that will never be built. We have real projects, we’re really building things, and we have experience. Our work is UL certified, grid-tied, and warranty-able for 25 years.
One of the really interesting things we’re looking at now is dynamic facade elements. [With] these pieces, you have…south, east, and west facades [that] may all be moving throughout the course of the day, like a solar tracker. When you add the fourth dimension into a building, which is time, you end up with a moving system—your building is changing over the course of a day, and over the course of its lifetime. That’s an entirely new concept that is really exciting for us. When your goal is to maximize energy production, dynamic facade elements are very intriguing.
For example, consider a fabric membrane that’s twisting over the course of the day, so it’s opening up the facade when there isn’t much light, and it’s closing it up where there’s more light, and it’s simultaneously producing more energy.
Can you give us a preview of what we can expect from your studio at Columbia?
We are looking at the building facade as an opportunity to provide shade, increase building performance, and provide electricity. The idea of a wired skin—a living breathing organism—is electrical and mechanical and serves many purposes. The skin should protect you from the environment. It is a porous envelope, but also an enclosure.
How do you balance the openness of the facade? Do you cut holes in it? Do you open it up? Do you fully enclose it? Do you create heat chimneys so that air flows between the glazing and your skin? Also, what are its thermal properties, and how can you take advantage of shading the building. Those are all the things we’re exploring.
Since we are not academic professors, we’re grounding this course in reality—which is important to us. It’s a fabrication studio class, so we’re building facade elements. The deliverable at the end of the semester is to build a facade element that moves and works, and then provide a scale model of the building that has hundreds of facade elements on it. We’re saying if you can’t build it, you shouldn’t be designing it.
Touhey takes the stage with Jason Kelly Johnson of Future Cities Lab and Sanjeev Tankha of Walter P. Moore to discuss the next generation of facades. Go to Facades+ AM San Francisco to learn more about the event and the other sessions taking place.