Solar Garage

The completed Solar Project after various periods of construction from 2013-2016 out at the Research and Demonstration Facility (RDF). Below are some of the details of the project including a few photos of the construction process.

The Solar Garage is a work many years in the making. The beginning of the Solar Garage was in 2012 when the first sketches were developed in the Thesis corner that I, Ross, Logan and Trent shared in Mario’s studio. We had been told to put something together since a faculty in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department had seen some our previous work and wanted a structure built for his electric car next to the 2002 Solar Decathlon House at the Research and Demonstration Facility in Blacksurg, Virginia near Virginia Tech’s Campus.

These initial sketches would start multiple years of collecting materials and finding out how to build something that was significantly larger than what we had done in the past. To be honest it was a real relief that the project was approved for construction. Everyone was very understanding in the process and we broke ground in the fall of 2013.

In a way the design of a structure in studio is an ideal, of what ought to be. When you face a strict budget of $5000 for the entire structure and technical limitations of using only power tools and brute strength, you get creative quickly. The project was designed to be constructible by anyone with a power circular saw and a power drill. That design should not be exclusive to a chosen few.

The project taught us very quickly that working by hand takes time. It taught me that architecture has weight both literally and figuratively. The decisions made have impacts on the entire process and structure. These decisions impact those around you who have to work and their safety. No amount of aesthetically pleasing design can make up for injuring those who work beside you. Our attention to detail made the project take longer to complete, but was ultimately necessary and no one was injured during the project.

It is this weight of architecture or making that defines the work. We worked with a brown-site that was cleared of older project materials and then filled to provide a flat surface for the vehicle. Thousands of bricks and blocks were recovered to use in solidifying the ground plane for the Solar Garage and developing an experimental floor for inductively charging an electric vehicle. Composite beams and wooden bents were moved into place and tilted up akin to a barn raising. Pallets made their way into the design, strengthening the bents and providing a continuum of design started years before. The roof began to span the openings left behind by blocking and made a sense of inside and out. Cladding enclosed the Solar Garage, further developing this sense of place and with the addition of a north wall to cap the series of bents the project was deemed complete.

The process, the experience and the development of a place suitable for the desires and needs of others weighs on the mind and sharpens the expectations that not only the designer has for the structure, but that others have of the architect. The built environment is something we use every single day and architecture demands much and becomes the place that focuses our lives. It becomes our place of dwelling, our place for reflection, our place for discovery. It develops our sense of our world and our place within it.

Coming full circle, our designs have a graphic weight that inform us of our craft, our skill, our technique. This graphic weight is critical in understanding what lines become in our mind and in our world. The line drawn on the page or in the computer has meaning and consequence.

As architects we begin somewhere, an idea that come forth from our experiences. This ever-present well to draw upon for ideation is a continuum that is not necessarily linear. It folds and weaves back on itself, strengthening its ties within our design process. This process, though unique to every architect is a place within the mind that grounds work in the physical realm.

The Solar Garage does not just spring up out of nowhere and its the development of a line of inquiry into the architectural profession. These past experiences become the memories, both fond and critical that we use to develop our ideas further, contribute to the body of knowledge, drive the profession forward and develop ourselves as part of something larger.

From these experiences and memories, from these thoughts, I present to you the Solar Garage, its graphic weight realized in the physical world, its processes both in the mind and in construction, and its lessons that will serve others in the future.


The Idea

Different Images of the process of developing the Solar Garage from ideation to complete construction.

This was from my undergraduate thesis, a series of winterized cabins constructed from pallets and wooden bents with a brick core. This project served as the basis for the Solar garage project a few years later. many of the same details used in the thesis were developed and finalized in the full-scale construction process.


The Process

The Solar Garage was not made overnight. Architecture has weight and the scale was nothing like the other project that I, or others had undertaken. Further a design constraint was that the whole project was developed using only two power tools: a hand saw and drills. The main beams were tilted into place similar to a barn raising, and all materials were gathered by hand from other sites near RDF. A vast majority of these materials were reclaimed for other project or were leftover from the construction of RDF itself.


The piles of concrete masonry units that were left over from the construction of RDF. Many had not been moved for even a decade.


Slowly filling the work truck of foundation pavers. These were 8 inch solid cubes which at first are easy to lift, but after a whole day they seem to become heavier. This was just the beginning of learning the graphic weight of architecture.


Digging the foundation columns. The 12 inch diameter Sono-tubes were placed 4 feet into the ground, and the metal connectors were recovered from a past project at RDF.


All of the columns poured and mounted as well as the construciton of the retaining wall. The old site often pooled with water and needed to be raised.


Working in the snow to make sure that the frost heave on the foundation would not break, nor reach the underside of the grade beam.


Fixing frost damage to the top-side of the beam. This would be protected in the final design, but was exposed during the prolonged construction period.


Filling in the site and testing different configuration of pavers. The first tow bents were also tilted up into place.


Cutting the summer growth back. When we first started on the site the intire space had been covered in weeds of similar height to these.



The Solar garage under construction in 2015 with the pallets in place and beginning to add in the blocking of the walls and roof.


Installing the roof the next summer. It was made of plywood and red corrugated panels.


Installing the smaller hip-wall and making sure they were all level and square.


Installing the poly-carbonate panels to let in morning light to warm the space.


Finished Solar Garage