Can you tell which roof has hidden solar panels?

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Would you believe all of them? Meet integrated rooftop solar.

In the dark of winter, when days are shortest, those of us in northern climes long for the sun. What better time to think about capturing and storing that sun’s energy? Solar electric power has been around for decades, and advances in the technology keep making it more efficient and practical. But for many, the desire to cut the household carbon footprint is tempered by aesthetic concerns. Rooftop solar panels don’t exactly look pretty, unless you’re going for Wall-E-meets-Windows chic.

Enter Tesla Motors. Not just a car company anymore, Tesla recently acquired SolarCity, the nation’s largest solar service provider. And the combo’s flagship product? A solar roof. It’s an array of photovoltaic panels, custom installed, that looks pretty much just like an ordinary roof. It will come in styles including slate and Tuscan tile. And with the star power of CEO Elon Musk, this product with curb appeal just might do for solar rooftop panels what Tesla has done for electric cars—make them cool. All part of the company’s professed mission: to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy.

Musk unveiled the roof last fall at a shareholders’ meeting held in Universal Studios’ backlot. Investors gathered on a street that has served as the generic suburban setting for TV fare from Leave it to Beaver to Desperate Housewives. To hit the market some time this year, the panels are printed with the shingle-looking designs in a process called hydrographic coloring. They’re made of exceptionally durable tempered quartz glass. See how the material holds up compared to conventional roofing tiles:

Hidden underneath the glass are photovoltaic cells that will harvest the sun’s rays, feeding the energy to Tesla’s Powerwall 2 battery. The company says the battery can power an average two-bedroom home for a full day.

“It looks viable,” said Josh Rollins, LEED AP BD+C. “If it is, it’s a total game-changer.” A senior manager of marketing at Suffolk Construction, Rollins is also a leading member of the company’s Green Committee. “Elon Musk reminds me a bit of Steve Jobs in the way that he hypes his products, but this one is particularly exciting for anyone who’s passionate about reducing their carbon footprint,” Rollins said.

Musk’s presentation lacked some details, but flurries of informed speculation on the part of industry professionals help fill in the blanks. The biggest question to many is the roof’s cost. Musk says Tesla’s system will be cheaper than a traditional roof, when you factor in projected savings on your utility bill over the Tesla roof’s lifetime (50 years).

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Image courtesy of Tesla

How could Tesla achieve that lower price tag? For one thing, the quartz glass is a fifth as heavy as typical roofing materials; meaning lower shipping costs. For another, Musk hinted that he’ll cut out middlemen in the current roofing supply chain, with Tesla doing the installations itself.

All that said, the cost of a traditional roof plus the cost of grid electricity is quite steep, so even a figure smaller than that sum will likely still be large. Consumer Reports put the total as high as $70,000, too much for many homeowners to bear up front. Will the company offer financing? What if a homeowner defaults on the loan? Will Tesla rip the roof off and take it back? Unclear as of yet.

But Tesla’s entry into the residential solar market can only be a good thing if you’re rooting for the environment. As many as five million roofs per year need to be replaced. If you need a new roof anyway, why not make it one that will save you money on utilities? At least a certain segment of homeowners will be able to afford the premium Tesla product. And for those who can’t, Tesla’s announcement should bring more attention to other, relatively affordable integrated rooftop solar products.

That’s right, Tesla has competitors in this niche—companies like SunTegra and CertainTeed. Though none of their solar products are quite as invisible as Tesla’s, many are pretty darn unobtrusive, especially compared to the standard rack-mounted panels. (Check out the examples below.) These companies welcome the new publicity. “I have to agree with Elon Musk: the future for roof integrated solar is bright,” wrote SunTegra CEO Oliver Koehler in a trade publication. “It’s going to be an exciting next couple of years.”

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Image courtesy of CertainTeed

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Image courtesy of SunTegra

What we really look forward to is learning whether the integrated technology can be scaled up to apartment complexes, and perhaps to even bigger projects—maybe even high-rises. After all, said Rollins, “Why stop at the roof?” Rollins recalled a previous Build Smart blog post about harnessing solar energy with windows, something a skyscraper in Australia plans to do. “Why not cover the skin of the entire building in solar panels? That’s another whole surface area that could be generating electricity,” Rollins said.

Perhaps we can yet break our addiction to supply-limited fossil fuels, thanks in part to visionaries such as Musk. Heck, the last time a Tesla release made us this optimistic, it was an awesome late-1980s power ballad. Here’s to solar finding a way.

This post was written by Suffolk Construction’s Content Writer Patrick L. Kennedy. If you have questions, Patrick can be reached at PKennedy@suffolk.com. You can connect with him on LinkedIn here or follow him on Twitter at @PK_Build_Smart.

Best of the Build Smart Blog 2016

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Before we pop the bubbly and close the book on year two of the Build Smart Blog, let’s take a look back at some of our favorite posts of 2016. In case you missed them the first time around, here are five stories that captured our imagination, revealing ways that tomorrow’s built environment might take shape, and delving into the advances in architecture, engineering and construction that make these visions attainable.

Super Bowl shuffle: Stadiums of the future will feature interactive and civic spaces: Putting the brakes on your tailgate party to go watch the game? So early 21st century. Future fans will enjoy tailgating inside the stadium. That stadium, by the way, will expand and contract depending on the size of the event, for year-round use.

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Office space of tomorrow: Millennials and “accidental encounters” drive future of office design: Say goodbye to static rows of cubes. Open plans, smart technology, and greater attention to collaboration and wellness are driving changes in the corporate workplace. What does this mean for designers and builders?

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Throwback Thursday: Turning the first sod: For a new twist on an old ceremony, Suffolk set the bar high with its “virtual groundbreaking.” But what’s the story behind groundbreakings? When we dug into it (no pun intended), we discovered the ancient roots and colorful past of this familiar construction tradition.

MIT students win Hyperloop competition: Elon Musk’s audacious Hyperloop—a magnetic transit system taking passengers between Los Angeles and San Francisco in 35 minutes—will require a massive infrastructure build. And when it comes to making the Hyperloop train go, the smartest engineers in the room might be a team of students from MIT.

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High-tech timber erected at UMass: This ain’t your great-grandfather’s wood construction. Cross-laminated timber makes for a building that is sustainable, fire resistant, and versatile. See why this story remains one of our most popular.

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We look forward to bringing you more stories about cool stuff happening in the construction industry in 2017! Got your own story ideas? Send them to Patrick L. Kennedy at PKennedy@suffolk.com.

How to build your Martian dream house

Some day, humans will live on Mars. That’s the vision of some of today’s highest-profile forward-thinkers. This week, in an op-ed for CNN, President Barack Obama wrote that he hopes America will send humans safely to Mars and back by the 2030s. And late last month, SpaceX founder Elon Musk announced plans to colonize Mars within the next 50 to 100 years, with the help of the most powerful rocket ever, sending up a reusable spaceship that could carry a hundred humans at a time to the Red Planet.

But once the expat Earthlings land, what kind of structures will they live in? Scientists are working on myriad answers to that question (among others). One major obstacle to homebuilding on Mars is the limited capacity of any realistic spacecraft to carry all the materials needed to erect substantial, durable habitats. Ideally, the pioneers would use local materials, just as early European settlers in North America chopped down pines to build log cabins. With no forests on Mars, what can 21st-century space settlers use?

Frosty reception

There is water on Mars—most of it frozen. That’s one of the attractions that make the fourth rock from the sun a good candidate for colonization. (It also has an atmosphere to absorb radiation, a surface temperature range that could be bearable with the right protective gear, and a day/night cycle similar to ours at 24 hours, 37 minutes.)

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Source: Mars Ice House

So when NASA held its 3D-Printed Habitat Challenge last fall, one team of designers tapped H20 as its substance of choice to fabricate homes. Team Space Exploration Architecture (SEArch) and Clouds AO topped 165 entrants with their design, Ice House. The design takes a page from Alaska’s Inuit people, who for centuries have built temporary shelters out of snow during hunting expeditions. Envisioning a settlement in Mars’ northern climes, the NASA competition winners proposed that frozen water be harvested from the subsurface and run through a massive 3D printer to craft a sleek shell of ice that would cover the astronauts’ lander (which would serve as the living quarters), sealing it in a pressurized, habitable environment. Then another, still larger ice shell would be created to cover the first, not unlike a Russian nesting doll.

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Source: Mars Ice House

The multi-layered setup is designed for redundancy—you’d probably feel safer with a backup shell, wouldn’t you?—but the general purpose of the ice shell is to give the colonists a kind of artificial yard: they could obtain a feeling of being outdoors without having to suit up and venture out into the planet’s harsh environment. That’s because the translucent outer ice shell, while repelling cosmic rays, would let in sunlight, something vital to the colonists’ food garden, not to mention their sanity. And with temps in the region (Alba Mons) consistently below freezing, the shell would stand year-round without melting.

But what if the explorers wanted to conserve that water for other uses, like drinking it? Continue Reading ›

Airports of the future

In the midst of holiday travel season, we continue our transportation series with innovations that will impact the airports of the future. In case you missed it, check out our last transportation story about Elon Musk’s supersonic transport system, Hyperloop.

Seth Young, the director of the Center for Aviation Studies at The Ohio State University, dreams of the day when travelers will step out of an Uber at the airport and walk all the way to their airplane seat without being stopped at a single checkpoint.

“There are technologies to do that right now,” Young said. “If we can use that technology to just walk through the airport and get on the plane and go, that’s cool!”

Airport operators will need to adopt these types of technologies as one billion passengers are projected to be flying the friendly skies by 2029 and 1.14 billion by 2035. In the next five years alone, airports estimate they will need $75.7 billion to improve existing infrastructures and those capital campaigns will need to consider innovations for alleviating congestion at security and baggage checkpoints, as well as the most innovative airport amenities in the marketplace.   

The automation of airports 

Young’s vision for going from curbside to airside without a single checkpoint could begin with air travelers’ cars being parked by robots.

Robot valets are already employed at Dusseldorf Airport in Germany, where passengers use a smartphone app to make a parking reservation. Travelers leave their vehicles at a designated area so the robots can transport and park their cars. The robot detects the size of the car in order to assign it to a spot that makes the most efficient use of space, allowing the garage to fit 40 to 60 percent more cars than it could otherwise. The system also links itineraries to license plates, so cars can be returned curbside after their owners return home.

Continue Reading ›

Musk’s Hyperloop inches closer to the future

With holiday travel fast approaching we have transportation on our minds. Check out Elon Musk’s Hyperloop, which could someday transport passengers from Los Angeles to San Francisco at supersonic speeds. Stay tuned for future posts on innovation in airports, as well as the passenger-train project All Aboard Florida.

The CEO of electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket-building company SpaceX, Elon Musk, is now turning his attention to a supersonic transportation system called Hyperloop.

The CEO of electric carmaker Tesla and the rocket-building company SpaceX, Elon Musk is now turning his attention to a supersonic transportation system called Hyperloop.

When you inevitably curse your decision to drive, fly or take the train to grandma’s this Thanksgiving, take solace that some of the country’s smartest engineers are working on a better way to get there: Visionary billionaire Elon Musk’s supersonic ground transportation system. Like something out of a Jules Verne novel, Hyperloop pods travel through a steel tube at speeds of more than 750 miles per hour. But passengers being rocketed through the California countryside would feel no sensation of speed. The above-ground transit system is incredibly faster than the one-and-a-half-hour flight and nearly six-hour drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco. The 35-minute Hyperloop trip would make it possible to live in San Francisco and commute to L.A.

Hyperloop would travel more than two times faster than the world’s fastest train, Japan’s new maglev bullet train, which currently travels at speeds up to 366 mph. 

Best of all, Hyperloop is estimated to only cost $20 one way. Plus, it would be quieter and more environmentally friendly than existing modes of transit.

Continue Reading ›