ARCHITECT’s R+D Awards program celebrates innovation in architecture and design. Learn more and enter today. This piece is part of a series of articles that will examine the progress made by past award winners.
Solar panel technology continues to advance at a pace that makes pinpointing the state of the art a challenge. But Houston-based Metalab is prepared to support the evolving photovoltaic (PV) panel, literally. In 2012, the architecture, art, and product design studio wowed the judges of ARCHITECT’s sixth annual R+D Awards and graced the cover of ARCHITECT’s July 2012 issue with PV-Pod, an ergonomically shaped, plastic vessel on which to mount PV panels. Read more about PV-Pod’s win.
The jury was enamored by the pragmatism and utility of PV-Pod. The freestanding, 23-pound, 43.5-inch-by-41.5-inch vessel allows users to break away from the linear grid of conventional mounting racks and locate panels strategically—say, in alignment with structural columns—without penetrating the roofs to tie into the building's structure. For ballast, PV-Pod simply uses water, which can be drained right onto the roof.
Metalab entered the PV-Pod in the Production category of the 2012 R+D Awards. The firm has since completed a proof-of-concept installation. Forty 40 PV-Pod units now support solar panels on the roof of the Houston Permitting Center, which houses the city’s Green Building Resource Center.
ARCHITECT checked in with Metalab principals Joe Meppelink and Andrew Vrana to see when other architects will be able to specify the vessel for their projects.
The road to commercializing a product is a tricky but not unfamiliar one to Metalab, which is also behind the LED fixture Ringo, Mobile Grid, and digital photo booth Smilebooth. For PV-Pod, the team has soundly cleared several of the expected hurdles, including the paperwork-heavy process of acquiring a patent.
“I would describe the patent process as getting a building permit times 10,” Meppelink says. “It’s not a knock—just an observation.” Together with their patent lawyer, the Metalab team waded through the “arcane legalese and highly technical language” to prove the originality of PV-Pod to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and “ended up with a reasonably well-established patent,” Meppelink says.
PV-Pod also qualified for USPTO’s (now-defunct) Green Technology Pilot Program, through which patent applications for sustainable technologies could cut in front of non-“green” products pending review by the USPTO. Meppelink conservatively estimates that this fast track saved Metalab about six months in the queue. The overall patent-application process took about two years.
With patent in hand, Metalab has begun shopping PV-Pod to large manufacturers and distributors of solar panels and solar panel mounting equipment—none of which they can disclose yet, although Meppelink says one is a “Fortune 100 company that we have a good relationship with on other projects.”
It is through these connections that Metalab has garnered success in commercializing products in the past. “We recognize our limitations as architects and product designers to bring something to market,” Meppelink says. “It takes an incredible amount of money and time, and … a relentless drive to get any product or any design to the market.”
PV-Pod's pricing also remains to be determined. Since 2012, Vrana says, “The price of solar panels has dropped dramatically, and the expectation is that the price of the rack or mounting system will go with it.” And because the price of the high-density polyethylene is tied to the price of oil, which has gone down in the past 12 months, the material costs for PV-Pod are also in flux.
Meppelink lay outs the numbers. About four years ago, the typical estimate for installing solar panels was $5 per watt—$2 per watt for the panel itself a, $2 per watt for wiring and installation, and $1 per watt for racking and the structural system. “Now we’re seeing complete installations done at $2 per watt, with the solar panel down to $0.65 per watt” due to improvements in the panels' ability to harvest energy, he says. Labor has also come down to about $1 per watt, leaving about $0.25 to $0.35 per watt for the racking system. “The good news is that we’re still viable,” he says. “The bad news is that we aren’t crushing the competition anymore.”
Since its R+D Award win, Metalab has also learned that California, the state with the highest solar electricity capacity, requires mounting systems to fasten to the building’s structure, Meppelink says. “Which is too bad because if you think about a [seismic] damping system, the building slides on [isolation] pads," he adds.
But Metalab isn’t too concerned. “We’re not in a huge rush with PV-Pod,” Meppelink says. The studio has many other projects on its plate. "It's important for us as a practice to have products we're working on along with architecture and public art," he says. "We think it's well-rounded."