Making Good Things Better

1. Let the Sun Shine

Matthew Myshkin from Brooklyn Solarworks (BSW) gave a presentation to the students at the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture‘s Solar Roofpod at the City College of New York last week. He talked about their key learning about building solar in the urban environment.

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I did a research for my Capstone on exploring opportunities to accelerate solar system expansion in New York City with two other students and two professors. From our research, we realized the challenges are from both the technical and administrative sides. I was happy to go back to school and hear Matt talking about some of the progress in the industry. The benefit of the solar energy for homeowners, utility companies and our planet is so clear that I don’t want to reemphasize.

– Technical –

Even a year ago, solar canopy is not a popular thing in NYC. Now the new solar systems ease the process for Fire Code compliance, while also draw some new challenges for structural engineering professionals. BSW spent a lot of time on researching the ways to make the new systems work steadily. Additionally, they had some unique Passive House projects, giving them interesting experience to put the racks to the rafters without breaking the enclosure.

Matt showed the translucent solar panels (I personally think it is better to call them bi-facial solar panels) which can generate electricity from both sides and boost the production. I visited the first residential Passive House project in San Francisco Bay Area called Sol-Lux Alpha in June. The developer told me the Bi-facial solar PV canopy at Sol-Lux Alpha can increase the power production by 30%. (I promise I will write a blog about this project later in my blog).

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– Administrative –

From BSW’s work in NYC, they have obtained some solid experience which may potentially streamline the design and permit process. BSW is seeking UL certification for some of their products/design. I believe if the NYC Department of Buildings can recognize some of the mainstream design for some of the very typical building structures, the savings of time and effort for both the solar industry and the DOB will be numerous.

Another exciting news is from the NYS Energy Code-2016. When I worked on my Capstone a year ago, “Solar Ready” was very conceptual which we decided to put aside. A year after, it is a part of the code! “All the new detached one- and two-family dwellings, and multiple single-family dwellings (townhouses) with not less than 600 square feet of roof area oriented between 110 degrees and 270 degrees of true north shall be solar ready”. This requirement will make the future roofs free from obstructions, and have the spaces reserved for connections and electrical service. Read more here

2. ADA (The Americans with Disabilities Act)

The Sol-Lux Alpha in San Francisco has to be ADA compliant, because they will have elevators in the building. People complain about the headache ADA requirement gives them. I guess probably because it is different from the way we usually practice. We feel we are forced to leave our “comfort zone” to make changes. Not all the people love changes. Particularly in the construction field. Am I right?

Two weeks ago, I volunteered at a Habitat for Humanity NYC site in Brooklyn. Our work was framing that day. Well, framing is not that hard. All the volunteers were divided into three groups. Our group worked on the first floor of the building. You got it: this unit has to be ADA compliant. What the other volunteers did one day ago was wrong. The width of the corridor and the width of the interior doors are not wide enough for the wheelchair to pass through. We were asked to move the tracks with the studs to the right position. What a simple “move-paste” in the CAD! Guess what, it took the entire group whole day and hadn’t finished yet.

Some problems only happen in the real world. We followed the instruction and measured a surface-to-surface distance between the studs in the corridor. We believed in measuring twice. We were confident enough for the movement. We moved the bottom track and then the top one. We double checked all the studs were leveled properly. When John, the General Contractor, came to our unit, we were happy to show him our team work result. “Oh, did you guys realize the thickness of the drywall?” “NO, we didn’t.” As you can imagine, the drywall will also eat up the distance.

We were all upset for our mistakes, to be more specific, some sort of “black swan”. I know we will need to put drywall. I know how to do the math to calculate the distance by adding the thickness of the drywall. But I didn’t think about this at all! John has tons of experience in construction management, learning from his mentors and mistakes. John explained why it is essential to leave enough space and showed us the drawings. He said HPD is his friend. Their pre-inspection work prevents them to change things at the last stage, which costs too much to fix the problems.

Again in the real world, there are always things out of your control: the schedule of HPD, the schedule of electricians, the schedule of plumbers… Sometimes, ironic things will happen: after passing the pre-inspection, some structure will be moved, maybe for the electrical work.

Both solar energy and ADA aim to do good things. Rather than impeding or disputing them, I think we should think about how to embrace them and make them better.

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