The Pavilion’s pine-cone like exterior was made to collect as much sun as possible--and regulate the sunlight streaming inside. Photo credit: Adria Goula

With the magic of digital fabrication, it took just two weeks to assemble the structure on site. Photo credit: Adria Goula

At night, lights tucked away inside the jutting modules illuminate the interior. Photo credit: Adria Goula

The angle and size of the modules means that more sunlight enters in the winter, helping heat the building. In the summer months, the inside remains shaded and cool. Photo credit: Adria Goula

The south side of the structure has the most dramatic panels; the north side is relatively flat, shielding it from the sun. Photo credit: Adria Goula

The Pavilion cuts an impressive asymmetrical figure. Photo credit: Adria Goula

The shape and size of each module was determined directly by two pieces of software--Ecotect for evaluating the site’s solar radiation and Grasshopper for the dynamic geometry. Photo credit: Adria Goula

Inside, the modules can be used for storage, keeping the space uncluttered. Photo credit: Adria Goula

A control panel inside can be used to check how much energy the house is using. It usually produces about 150% of its own needs. Photo credit: Adria Goula

Shaped By Algorithms, A Solar Powered Pavilion That Soaks Up Maximum Rays

The Endesa Pavilion’s pinecone-like exterior was designed by computer software to soak up the perfect amount of sunlight.

The Endesa Pavilion, also referred to as the Solar House 2.0, sits just off the water at the Olimpic Port in Barcelona. Its jagged facade would be striking in any environment, but the structure wouldn’t really make sense anywhere else. That’s because each of the solar panel-equipped shards comprising its pinecone-like exterior were designed by a piece of software to make optimal use of the sun’s path over that exact location.

The project, headed by Rodrigo Rubio at the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia, is an incredible example of how we can let sustainability truly inform a structure’s design, instead of just building something and trying to shoehorn in some green niceties after the fact. To start, Rubio gathered data on how the sun traveled across the sky above the Olimpic Port throughout the year. That data was then plugged into a piece of software which used it to determine the optimal size and shape of each module on the Pavilion’s exterior. The result is a structure that’s intimately connected with its surroundings.

And it’s even smarter than it seems on the surface. Each irregular "solar brick" on the Pavilion’s southern facade is outfitted with a photovoltaic panel and positioned not only to collect the optimal amount of sunlight but also to control how much light enters the building, depending on the season. In the winter, when the maximum inclination of the sun is about 30 degrees, the slanting solar bricks allow light in through the windows, heating the house; in the summer, when the maximum inclination is around 70 degrees, the bricks keep the windows shaded and the interior cooled.

On the inside, the jutting solar bricks serve another purpose: storage. By utilizing the compartments for the storage of random stuff, the 1,658-square-foot interior stays uncluttered. The hollow modules also house the light fixtures which illuminate the Pavilion at night.

The Pavilion, which will remain in place for a year as a central hub for Barcelona’s Smart City Congress, was uniquely efficient in its construction, too. In an excellent video on the design of the structure by, Rubio explains that he can send files directly from the computer software which created the solar-optimized design to the computerized fabricators, just as simply as you can send text to a printer. "It’s a balance between prefabrication and total customization," he says. Once the wooden pieces were cut, it took just three weeks of pre-assembly and two weeks on site to erect the building.

In that same video, Rubio shows off the control panel inside the Pavilion that monitors its energy use. Even in the summer with the AC pumping, it typically produced more electricity than it was using; he told me it usually runs at about 150% efficiency, generating enough electricity for itself and another small building.

The benefits of a site-optimized structure like the Endesa Pavilion are obvious, and Rubio says the same computer model can be used to create buildings optimized for any region. But this type of design seems particularly well-suited to take one of the major but not-often-discussed problems posed by climate change: the dramatic increase in the use of air conditioners in some of the world’s most rapidly developing countries. Elizabeth Rosenthal outlined the sobering state of affairs in the New York Times earlier this month:

In 2007, only 11 percent of households in Brazil and 2 percent in India had air-conditioning, compared with 87 percent in the United States, which has a more temperate climate, said Michael Sivak, a research professor in energy at the University of Michigan. "There is huge latent demand," Mr. Sivak said. "Current energy demand does not yet reflect what will happen when these countries have more money and more people can afford air-conditioning." He has estimated that, based on its climate and the size of the population, the cooling needs of Mumbai alone could be about a quarter of those of the entire United States, which he calls "one scary statistic."

The Endesa Pavilion is doubly efficient in this regard: it not only generates its own electricity instead of sucking it from the grid, but its season-aware design means that it’s working in concert with the climate it inhabits, instead of creating a desired indoor climate independently, energy cost be dammed.

Any architectural design that incorporates sustainable elements is better than one that doesn’t, but the Pavilion is a striking reminder that not all sustainable designs are created equal. In fact, a good deal of the green architecture we see seems to treat sustainability as an afterthought: we design a house, just like we always have, and then we see how we can tweak it to be kinder to the environment. "[The] construction industry is very slow, with strong inertias," Rubio told Co.Design, "but markets [need to] reinvent themselves in crisis situations."

But as Rubio pointed out to me, green technologies are still developing at a rapid pace, and new structures need to be nimble enough to update alongside those technologies. "Photovoltaics … are developing fast, what today is advanced maybe could be outdated or not efficient enough in five years," he explained. Future structures "will be something more dynamic, devices you upgrade continuously, like you do with your phone, updating your OS each year."

Broadly speaking, right now, we’re adapting green tech to buildings as we’ve always understood them, when what we need to be doing is rethinking buildings from the ground up. Or maybe from the sun down.

All photos courtesy Adria Goula

[Hat tip: Contemporist]

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  • Archetris

    The note that the building was shaped by algorithms and 'pinecone-like' reminded me of D'Arcy Thompson's "On Growth and Form".  If we can create algorithms for all of the forces shaping a structure (including those of it's inhabitants) we might be able to generate the ideal building.  Until then, our computers are handy supplements to knowledge, experience, intuition and a lot of hard work.

  • $1608411

    The wind would have a hay-day in destroying this house.
    Mechanical Engineering Technology grad, Purdue.

  • guest

     Nothing some steel reinforced concrete can't fix.  I suspect the materials chosen here were more geared to proving the concept at as low a cost as possible for a temporary demonstration structure.

  • Jeff Sibbach

    I like the point that this house starts with sustainable in mind rather than trying to force sustainability into the existing models we view as normal homes. I could see this concept taking off in Phoenix / Scottsdale because of the ample days of sunshine.

  • Scott

    Sketchup has built-in shadows that can be adjusted for date, time of day, and (I believe) even latitude. Simple as click, drag, and watch what happens. No sun-tracking, data-gathering, or algorithm-writing required.

  • Fogg

    I love it. But the wind also rises.
    Having once spent the night snuggled in an ancient farm house in the mountains of Asturias well protected from terrible 150-200 km/h winds that tore out centenarian chestnut and walnut trees and the all the roofs off modern farm buildings nearby, I awoke to learn that that same winds roared through Catalonia tearing asunder a modern sports complex killing several people. In this brave new computer assisted world we should always factor in the wisdom of the ancients whose planning included the perils inherent in the cycles of the centuries, not simply the easily predicted rise of the sun.

  • okram ovic

    yes, perfect point, one "multiscientist" (václav cílek) in our country, czech republic, also keeps emphasizing the need of not forgeting "longer" cycles