Bishops Square: How do you communicate the benefits of solar power to unsuspecting office workers?

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Although it's not efficient to undertake a full life-cycle environmental assessment for a one-off project like this, we did use our experience to reduce environmental impact as much as possible. With the client, we chose to use a high-output, very efficient LED display to give the reach and impact required. We chose to accept the significant energy embodied in all those LEDs, which can be written off over the display's design life of 10 years. Elements of the panel are modular so that maintenance and repair may be carried out with low environmental impact.

Use Your Roof
Use Your Roof

Most roofs are only used for one purpose: for keeping out the rain. The urban environment - with all its underused roof area - is perfect for the collection of solar energy. Solar electricity has many advantages over electricity from conventional power-stations; it reduces environmental impact dramatically and, because it's generated locally, it cuts out the significant distribution losses that are otherwise incurred on the way from the power-station. And of course the fuel - which is simply daylight - is free.

More for less...

We identified another energy-saving opportunity which, despite being outside of the brief, we were able to include: a custom dimming circuit for the display board, allowing us to save extra energy in dim conditions, while being able to turn up the brightness and deliver full impact even in direct sunlight.

Thanks for the help!

Other contractors working on the sign included Assign Technologies, who built the LED board for us, and Rivermeade Signs, who designed and fabricated the site signage units. All the work was finished to an exceptional standard.

Invisible - visible

Bishops Square is a part of our wider practice of making important things visible. Whenever important things are invisible, we get twitchy. It is always a very serious and urgent risk, which is why a lot of our work is focussed on solving that problem.

Design...
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From the beginning, we used the graphic design to minimise the number of LEDs that needed to be lit at any particular time, thus reducing energy use further. We designed the animations so that fewer LEDs would be lit when energy production is low, and the highest power requirement would occur only very occasionally, and when the system's production is at its peak, in very bright sunshine.

Get Solar
Get Solar

Whether you are in control of significant industrial roof area, or just the roof of your house, you should consider the benefits of solar power. Have a look at solarcentury's website to find out how you could help save the planet while getting on-site power generation.

Sustainable design?

Sometimes we say we're sustainable designers. What we mean is that we do design right: using less materials, less resources, to achieve more. This is what good design - in it's purest sense - has always been about. Sustainable design is not about compromise, it's about finding powerful correspondences between materials and opportunities. Less stuff + less money + more thinking = more effect.

Bishops Square

When architects Foster and Partners decided to put the largest office-based solar installation in London on the roof of the Bishops Square development in Spitalfields, they knew that they needed a public display to help demonstrate the benefits.

The solar array at Bishops Square. - the largest installation of its kind in London!

The solar array at Bishops Square. - the largest installation of its kind in London!

Most roofs are only used for one purpose: for keeping out the rain. The urban environment - with all its underused roof area - is perfect for the collection of solar energy. Solar electricity has many advantages over electricity from conventional power-stations; it reduces environmental impact dramatically and, because it's generated locally, it cuts out the significant distribution losses that are otherwise incurred on the way from the power-station. And of course the fuel - which is simply daylight - is free.

We worked with renewable energy specialist solarcentury, architects Foster and Partners, and developers Sir Robert McAlpine to deliver a street-level experience communicating the benefits of the thirteenth-floor solar installation to an audience of people working in Bishops Square, shoppers and passers-by.

Up close to one solar panel on the roof of Bishops Square.

The context

The display was to be sited outside the main entrance to Number 1, Bishops Square in the heart of the City of London, mounted inside standard site signage designed by Fosters. The site would be visible from more than 100 metres away, and it needed to have impact even from that distance.

When it opens in September 2005, 4,000 people will work in the office, and many more will pass the site while commuting, shopping and so forth. The audience will get many repeated exposures to the display - many people will see it four or five times a day - and we set out to create something that was immediately informative without feeling brash or tiresome after a few months.

We needed to explain a natural phenomenon in a modern urban context, and find a representation that would feel connected to natural processes, changing slowly with the weather, with a feeling of constancy and dependability, while also speaking to the pace and language of city life. We wanted to open up the story of renewable energy beyond ecogeeks like us, and refer to energy in terms that people can understand, rather than just KWH and KG of CO2. Of course, we were also determined to minimise the power consumption of the display itself.

The design

The core idea of the display is simple: Every moment of the day, photons are raining down like little packages of free energy all over every city in the world - if people want to use it, they need only decide to collect it. The main animation shows a constant 'rainfall' of energy that relates to the amount of power being generated from minute to minute. A sunny day brings a torrential downpour of energy, a winter's evening will produce a light shower.

Most of the time, this is what the display shows. Live data showing power production scrolls across the display at moderate intervals. Every 8 minutes or so, the display cuts to an informative animation telling a simple story about energy use - how the generated power relates to cups of tea, digital cameras, and laptop computers for example. Information is also presented in standard units like Kilowatt hours for those lucky people who understand them.

The build

We started by refining the animation to have the right character, while minimising energy use. This was tested internally as simple animations matching a number of possible energy conditions (the animations were designed to change depending on the weather, the time of day, and the total cumulative output of the panels).

Testing the LED panel in the studio.

During this time, we modified the pacing of the animations quite significantly. We conceived and developed the intercut animations to allow us to use two different major 'characters' in the communication: the slow, natural character that runs most of the time, and the quick, fun modern character that shows up in the intercut animations.

This allowed us to get the best of both worlds in a way that would offer immediate impact, while engaging audiences over a long period. This approach would allow incremental improvement in respect of user feedback. These tests were approved by the client, and we moved on to develop the software that would draw these animations in real-time, depending on the performance of the panels.

We used our existing morePower software to communicate with the solar controller on the roof, and we built a small, very low power computer with a custom operating system to run the display. We also designed and built some custom hardware to handle communications with the controller and the display interface.