SolarVille: Work in Progress with SachsNottveit
Around 2 billion people in the world still have little to no access to electricity. It’s an almost impossibly expensive task to reach these people with the centralised energy networks we have in place today, often because they’re too slow and economically adequate to reach those locked in energy poverty. In response, we created SolarVille: a Playful Research project aiming to showcase that, when combined, technologies such as solar panels and micro-grids open new opportunities for off-grid systems—allowing people to leapfrog traditional grid electricity.
Specifically, SolarVille is a working prototype of a miniature neighbourhood completely powered by solar energy. Built to a 1:50 scale, some households generate their own renewable energy using solar panels, while others automatically purchase excess electricity directly from the producer using blockchain technology. The whole transaction is showcased through a string of LED lights that respond to houses buying and selling.
Although SolarVille is a collaborative project between a range of partners, the actual architecture of it was designed by SachsNottveit—an architectural studio composed of Theodor Sachs and Anders Nottveit, based in Copenhagen. With that in mind, we took some time to talk to the duo about their design process, the quest for an inclusive architectural language and the importance of a childlike approach to architecture.
What’s the core idea behind your design approach towards SolarVille?
Anders: We wanted to challenge ourselves to create an inclusive architectural language. Because the installation may be exhibited internationally, it’s important to us not to alienate someone from a different culture or background. To achieve this, we needed to do heavy research.
What did your research process look like?
Anders: We started out by looking at maps and satellite images from around the world. On the one hand, we looked for planned cities and areas we think function well. And on the other, we were rolling the dice and trying to find random places in the world. Next, we tried to merge our findings to create a new, fictional area composed of various elements from around the world. Take the roads in SolarVille, for example: instead of having New York City style, six-lane roads, we have one lane. Roads and cars aren’t an important part of the project—but they’re an important part of communicating a city.
Then, we started zooming in on the buildings themselves. We found a website called Dollar Street which catalogues how people live. So you have, for example, a family from China which has been tasked with taking photos of their windows, doors, roofs… all the elements of their house. We used that dataset to compare and analyse how people live in the cities we’d found beforehand, and get to the small details which make you reference, for example, Hong Kong. Without being very stereotypical, of course.
How did you identify which cities were particularly interesting for this project?
Anders: We looked into planned and unplanned grids of cities from an architectural standpoint. For example, you have Barcelona, which is a very planned city but also rather dense. But then we turned to other cities—like Copenhagen—which are more open, less populated and have a lower average building height. Also, we looked at Chandigarh, which is a city in India planned by Le Corbusier. It’s interesting because it’s an experimental city that still exists; people live there. But it’s so different from the rest of India.
Theo: We were also influenced by the book ‘Architecture Without Architects’, which focuses on different houses around the world made without architectural perspectives. It’s all about asking, ‘what is the most functional building and how does that work in a certain culture or climate?’
What was the most challenging part of trying to create a completely inclusive architectural language?
Theo: If we had totally focused on the analytical part and simply fused all of our research together, it would have become a little bit boring. I think the challenging part was integrating our own architectural style as well and trying to combine that with our research in a trustworthy way. The main question was, how could we unite everything instead of making our project look like separate architectural styles?
Anders: Also, the installation is very much based on design research. That’s why we don’t call it a universal language, because you can’t prove that everyone recognises what we recognise. This is based on our feelings and our understandings of these places. You can’t really back it up with data. But then on the other hand, if you had an algorithm which analysed every building in the world and created its own approach, I am not sure you would get a universal language, either. Styles of buildings are so rooted in culture, climate… there’s so much data to sort through.
The aesthetics of the project are quite playful. Why?
Anders: The project in itself is so technical and advanced that we wanted to make the visual aspects playful and easy to understand. Usually when you make an architectural model, the aim is to communicate the essence of the project. We wanted to do that here as well, but because it’s not something that is supposed to be built in real life, we’re communicating the system and the possibilities.
How did you tease out that playful feeling?
Anders: In ‘Architecture Without Architects’, there are many examples of vernacular architecture which had been developed over thousands of years. Some of the examples we found in that book were pretty much ‘optimal’ houses—which looked very much like a child’s drawing! They all had one door, one window; basic needs, you know. So, we used a child’s drawing of a house—a classic square house with a sloped roof, one window, a chimney, a door—to create a mashup of all the examples of styles we found. The degree of recognition from that child’s drawing was what we wanted to combine with our research. That way, when you look at our houses, you get this feeling of playfulness and recognise it somehow.
Theo: The inclusive architectural language we developed is mostly visible in the facades of our buildings with the reliefs and roofings. But when we drew windows, we were more free, in a way. For me, that was the playful element. We felt free to decorate.
Those details make the project feel approachable, too.
Theo: Yes, and it’s important to mention the roofing: the way the roofs meet the solar panels is not very realistic. It’s something we wanted to make look almost naive.
Anders: So the technology grows out of the roofs, in a way.
Do the slanted shapes of the roofs have a function other than aesthetics?
Anders: Usually the slant is there so you can maximally leverage the sun’s power. But since this village doesn’t exist on earth, there is no real trajectory of the sun. We basically just used our own standard. So if you look at the model, all the houses have the same slant and angle. That’s the important part in terms of communication. When people think about solar panels, they think about the direction of the sun. So the slants make it easier to connect to the concept of producing power through the sun.
Can you tell us a little bit about your choice of materials?
Anders: The base wood is plywood, but the houses are American ash, which is a hardwood. The choice for the base material goes back to creating this playful approach to showcasing the technology. We want people to interact with the model and touch it and feel the texture of it. With that in mind, wood is maybe the most natural material and it feels good to the touch.
Theo: I think it also brings back memories of those small, wooden toys we used to play with as kids.
And why American ash for the houses?
Anders: It is a very typical hardwood. That’s also something important, because SolarVille may be exhibited around the world, so we needed something that won’t chip during shipping. It takes on patina really well, too, so it just looks better when you touch it.
Theo: It’s also very light, and we wanted something that would look neutral.
Anders: We actually picked it out ourselves at this huge hardwood shop outside of Copenhagen. Every plank is handpicked in terms of grains and colour. The model itself is built up with different thicknesses of wood to create this variation, but if you combine different pieces of wood you need to match the grains and that can look quite off.
What did you find were the advantages of using a CNC machine to create SolarVille?
Theo: I think it was great because the buildings became so tight, which makes it more architectural. And when you combine it with sanding afterwards, it has this human touch. I love when it’s technical and human at the same time. If we had made everything by hand, it would have looked too homemade for the project and not trustworthy.
Anders: It would lose a sense of scale. The whole project is in a 1:50 architectural scale. You can measure the doors and the windows and they will add up to our scale.
Theo: Also, we could draw the whole project in 3D at first to imagine how it would look, and then we could basically print it. We wouldn’t have had the chance to do that if we had carved it out by hand.
What’s a small detail that you really love about this project that people usually wouldn’t really notice?
Anders: There’s so many!
Theo: I really like the relief the CNC could help us make, which tells a story about wooden panels in houses. It’s something familiar. That’s an element you wouldn’t have been able to do by hand. There are also lots of references to the Asian tradition with these little grooves on the roof, which I think is a nice element.
Anders: It directly references some people we found during our research. Specifically, we came across this Chinese family living in a brick house. In the corners where the bricks meet, they added one extra brick. In a very standard house, they communicated the tradition of Chinese architecture. That’s an idea we tried to include in some places in the model. And to reference what Theo was saying before, the reliefs are a way to communicate diverse materiality with only one material, wood. It gets your mind thinking, ‘this looks like a brick house, this looks like a wooden one…’ etc.
Will you take what you’ve learned here into your regular practice as architects?
Anders: Bringing this kind of way of attacking a project into your practice is a good idea, I think. It’s important to do research and look into what the project is actually about, instead of just charging in and creating something which looks beautiful. What are you communicating? And how can you do that in the best possible way? You need the backstory and the research to make it believable, unique and just better.