LA Designer: Alvin Huang, SDA and their Portable EV Charging Structure

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Alvin Huang and his firm Synthesis Design + Architecture have advanced the conversation about how to fuel electric cars, with their design for a portable tensile membrane structure with a PV skin. Named Pure Tension, it has just been selected as one of Time’s “25 Best Inventions of 2013.”

Alvin Huang is principal and founder of Synthesis Design + Architecture, an up-and-coming Los Angeles firm known for pushing the boundaries of digital design and fabrication. He and his team have inadvertently advanced the conversation about how to fuel electric cars, with their design for  a portable tensile membrane structure with a PV skin. Named Pure Tension, it has just been selected as one of Time’s “25 Best Inventions of 2013.”

Volvo Italy and The Plan Magazine launched a competition that asked for a portable yet iconic pavilion to showcase the V60 on a press trip through Italy. SDA won by adding two novel elements: one was the lightweight fabric and aluminum structure that could be collapsed into the trunk of the vehicle. The second element was a photovoltaic skin that could charge the new plug-in hybrid V60.

SDA Team Photo

Pure Tension may best be understood as a working prototype—don’t expect to see any in a Trader Joe’s parking lot soon—that speculates on the future of personal mobility and alternative energy while also exploring digital methodologies and innovative structural solutions. “Our original intent was to design something that highlighted the alternative energy basis of the car,” says Huang. So while it pushes the envelope for EV charging it is also part of SDA’s broader on-going drive to move architecture into a future where digital design and fabrication are more closely connected.

Team SDA (above) —unlike more traditional “name” firms Huang refuses to take the spotlight and highlights “the team”— has managed to reset the discussion on one of the EV sector’s most vexing and fundamental problems: how you charge electric cars when a station is not available for miles around? What do you think, Mr. Musk? Could portable charging be the future for EV’s? It could certainly be part of that future. What about integrated photovoltaics for that matter?

The current model for EV charging, relying on traditional, land-based infrastructure hooked into an even more traditional and boring power grid, seems a trifle behind the times considering how far EV and hybrid technology have come in recent years. Aren’t road-side charging stations that look like cheaper versions of R2D2 just a step away from the visual pollution of gas stations all over again? What if there was a way to charge EV’s without this costly and environmentally burdensome infrastructure? After all, while EV charging stations are cleaner than dotting the landscape with gas pumps, they still entail an environmental impact, a new layer of junk.

The pavilion, an expression of the tensioned equilibrium between its elastic membrane skin and rigid perimeter frame, is the result of a global effort with design and engineering being carried out in Los Angeles by SDA with Buro Happold engineers, fabrication being done by Chicago-based Fabric Images, solar panels being sourced from Ascent Solar of Texas. The completed pavilion was then shipped to Italy to embark on a 9 month, multi-city promotional tour starting with the launch event hosted by Volvo in Milan.  The next stop for the pavilion is the EcoMondo Trade Fair of Sustainable Material & Energy in November. Additional stops will be announced as they are confirmed. The tour will end at The Plan Magazine’s annual Perspective event in Venice next summer, coinciding with the Venice Biennalle.

At a mere 150lbs, the entire pavilion collapses neatly into two ‘B-cases’ and can be assembled and taken down in just under an hour by a team of two to three people. But imagine this, intended as a pavilion, being further developed into something a single driver could use on her own.

The PV pattern—not just for looks—is the result of intensive solar incidence analysis on the structure that found the average annual solar incidence of the skin for 360 degrees of orientation and mapped PV locations to the areas of greatest average annual solar incidence. Additionally a MPPT (Maximum Power Point Tracking) controller is utilized to sample the output of the cells, and selectively disable those that are not collecting enough energy, thereby ensuring that the pavilion is receiving as much charge as possible. The pavilion can recharge a fully depleted car in about 12 hours in optimum sun conditions. The target goal to achieve the minimum power required to charge the car was 300 watts of power. The current skin is testing at about 450 watts of power on optimum sun conditions. The wiring of the PV panels is integrated into the seams of the fabric and feed a portable battery system which in turn charges the Volvo V60.

“We wanted to challenge the notion of solar power as something that is an additive piece of engineering infrastructure,” says Huang. “The solar panels became a design feature and design driver, rather than something applied after the fact. The goal was to balance utility with beauty,” he adds.