MIT’s SOFT Rockers: Solar Power Stations Double As Lawn Furniture

No wait, make that triple — they’re outdoor lounging furniture, too.

Finding a comfortable place to lay around in between classes and making sure their iPhones are always charged: These are some of the most pressing problems faced by modern college students. Even the mini-geniuses at MIT. Which is why architect Sheila Kennedy‘s contribution to MIT’s 150th anniversary exhibition, the SOFT rocker, is so awesome. It lets you kick back on the quad and juice up your gear at the same time in a piece of solar-powered, parametrically designed lawn sculpture.


Parametric design software allowed single tweaks to readjust the whole system.

Students and visitors in MIT’s Killian Courtyard won’t be able to miss the SOFT rockers’ graceful looping shapes, with a strip of what Kennedy calls “a next-gen thin film solar panel” on top, soft-wood detailing below, and interior lighting that glows like something out of TRON. The solar panels feed a 6-volt battery during the day, and it’s powerful enough, says Kennedy, to “fully charge three iPhones together in about four hours.” Plus, the SOFT rockers are comfy. “I wanted to explore how new value can be created through design for rapid growth soft wood materials in the building industry, and how software and automated fabrication can be used to mass customize the form that wood can take,” Kennedy tells Co.Design.

The tools of parametric design were crucial to executing the project. Parametric design means a lot of things to different professionals — especially in architecture and industrial design — but the basic idea is a bit like a designer’s version of an Excel spreadsheet: algorithms link together different parameters in a 3-D model of the design (thus the name) so that the designer can tweak one detail and see how the whole system changes, without having to “re-do” all the other elements that connect with that detail. Kennedy and her team used parametric design tools to fabricate and seamlessly integrate the SOFT rocker’s high-tech components with its soft wood structure — and ensure that it was comfortable and inviting while also optimally functional.

The end result is a futuristic rocking chair, environmentally sustainable charging station, and interactive sculpture installation all in one. And the best thing about the SOFT rockers? You don’t have to be enrolled for the fall semester to take advantage of them — just visit MIT’s 150th anniversary arts and technology festival and enjoy the view.

[Images courtesy of Phil Seaton, Livingphoto]

About the author

John Pavlus is a writer and filmmaker focusing on science, tech, and design topics. His writing has appeared in Wired, New York, Scientific American, Technology Review, BBC Future, and other outlets.