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Design Power, Off The Grid

Notes from Deborah Snoonian, P.E.
Senior Editor

I admit it: I’m biased toward architecture mixed with a social conscience, and Power to the People: Photovoltaic Shade Structures for the Developing World serves up just the right brew.

The exhibit at Fordham University presents three models of solar-powered community buildings for the developing world, designed by students in “Design and Nature.” During this semester-long course, the students learned how to seek design inspiration from forms in the natural world and local context—and how to implement projects with minimal environmental impact. The class was conceived and taught by Colin Cathcart, AIA, of Kiss + Cathcart, Architects, and Nicholas Goldsmith, FAIA, of FTL-Happold Design and Engineering Studio—two firms with established reputations in sustainable building practices, whose prototype solar power stations are displayed alongside the models.


Each proposed facility addresses community needs in areas with no access to the power grid. For regions of Botswana and Vietnam that struggle with soaring HIV infection rates, two student teams designed AIDS education and treatment clinics. A third team conceived of a communication center in a largely nomadic area of Morocco that would help knit together the few permanent residents there. The designs incorporate flexible solar panels in tension structures—also known by their humbler name, tents—that hover over the buildings they protect and serve.

The tents recall the local vernacular in each setting—in Botswana, for instance, the shape of the tents brings to mind thatched roofs; and in Morocco’s deserts, tents have long been used to provide shade and keep temperatures cool.

Worldwide, nearly two billion people (that’s two billion people) don’t have electricity—a reality that severely limits the quality of their health care, education, and communication. Power to the People acknowledges that while design alone won’t solve social or economic ills, it can stave off some of their more dire consequences. Adding solar panels to portable tent structures was merely a beneficial change to a building technique already familiar to the areas that were studied. And generating electricity locally is cost-effective and environmentally responsible—whether in developing countries or isolated regions of prosperous nations. Though the modest, unpretentious structures may lack finesse, their inherent value for the communities they serve far outweigh such imperfections. Now that’s design power.

“Power to the People” runs through January 19, 2002, at Fordham University’s Center Gallery, 113 West 60th Street, New York. The gallery is open Monday through Saturday from 9 am to 6 pm. Call 212.636.6303 for more information.

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