The sky was overcast and a downpour imminent on the afternoon of this year’s Living Green Expo on the grounds of the Minnesota State Fair. But St. Paul architect Kerrik Wessel would stay warm and dry. He’d set up his newest innovation: a carport with solar panels made of polycarbonate panels fastened together like puzzle pieces, and was welcoming in curious passersby. The carport was a prototype and the first finished product of a new building system he invented, called Parasol Modular.
The 18-foot-long carport, open on both ends and about 12 feet wide, was basically the size of one-car garage. (We still have some of those in St. Paul.) While most of the 160 or so panels were clear, others were tinted yellow, blue or red, adding a Tinkertoy-like sense of fun and playfulness to the structure. The colored panels also filter sunlight, creating a beguiling, dappled shade inside the structure.
The carport was also hooked up to solar panels, which would easily provide the power to recharge an electric vehicle. A member of an electric-car club, Wessel was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the Parasol Modular carport. When electric vehicles hit the market, he said, owners will need an inexpensive power source to keep them running. Why not use the sun? And stash the car in a clever, eye-catching, architect-designed structure to boot?
The Power of Play
Wessel spent almost nine months putting the carport together, finding the right materials and getting the connectors to work. But the genesis of the project started long before. The impetus: Too much downtime.
The economic downturn, with its contributing housing bust, has affected nearly everyone and architects are no exception. In the Twin Cities, some large architectural firms have laid off more than half their staff; other firms simply folded. Small and one-person offices have been equally hard hit—Wessel’s firm among them.
Wessel is a fourth-generation architect specializing in residential design and runs his practice, Wessel Design, with help from his wife Heather Sexton (who works at Target Corporation full time as a project architect). As commissions for cabins, house remodels, and new residential designs began drying up or were put on hold, Wessel found himself with a lot of time on his hands. So he began to partake of an activity he’s passionate about: Play.
“I started fooling around with some of my kids’ toys, the ones called Crystal Climbers, and looking at cool plexiglass sculptures on the Internet,” he says. Crystal Climbers are a tectonic learning toy; brightly colored pieces of plastic with cutout slots that children slip together to create walls, sculptures and structures. “I’ve always loved art, and the closer I get to art the happier I am designing things.”
Wessel decided to redesign his business card, beginning with cardboard squares he fit together like a puzzle pieces. Then he moved on to Plexiglass squares. Next he began composing the squares into “repetitive, minimalist patterns, sort of like those made by Donald Judd,” he says. These patterns became small sculptures. “Then I started to build a wall, and after that I painted some of the panels to experiment with color.”
“It’s all kind of vague,” he says of the creative process that led to the carport, “but that’s what happens. You start here and end of up there. But the Parasol system if very sculptural and fun.” The idea to incorporate solar panels, and build a carport for sheltering and charging electric vehicles, came soon after. Wessel and Sexton decided to name the project Parasol Modular.
It Doesn’t Have Solar Panels — It Is Solar Panels
“The parasol was first used as protection against the scorching heat of the sun,” Wessel explains, “and it dates back to ancient Egypt. The name comes from para, meaning to stop or shield, and sol, meaning sun.” Parasol Modular is a flexible system of parts that can be assembled for any number of sheltering or solar-power generating uses—especially, he adds, since he’s discovered a company, GreenSun Energy in Israel, that can integrate the photovoltaics right into the colorful panels.
“Now, instead of putting solar panels on the roof, the structure will be made of solar panels,” he says. “That is very exciting and would really bridge the gap between the design of Parasol Modular and solar technology! And Parasol Modular is a fun way to have solar pv panels in on your garage, or carport or an auxiliary structure.” His next step will be to design and produce vibrant lawn sculptures that can produce solar power for home use.
The process has been like “kids experimenting with science,” he says. “Like when you’re putting something together for a science project, and you shouldn’t have to be thinking about greenhouse gases and polar icecaps, but instead about the sun, what you can do with the sun and what you can build with the sun. That’s where I’m coming from with this whole thing.”
A Parasolar Future?
So where’s the carport now? Stacked in the driveway. “We might put it up in Lino Lakes and convert it into a three-season cabin, display it at an abandoned gas station site in the Twin Cities, donate it to the Everglades National Park whom I have been talking to, or sell it,” Wessel says. “I haven’t had any offers yet and it was such an effort to get it built a few months ago, that I haven’t really advertised it since then.” The prototype cost him about $7,000.
But he’s also moving ahead with the whole concept of Parasol Modular. “I plan on exhibiting again next spring in Palm Springs for Modernism Week and possibly next June in Los Angeles for the Dwell show,” he says. “In both of these cases, I am going to build smaller lawn sculptures that will be more affordable than an entire carport structure.”
Meanwhile, his practice has started picking up again, and Parasol Modular has helped. “It’s been a way of marketing myself and my residential services and cast a wider net,” he says. “It’s also been a way to introduce myself to solar panel installers, and companies that make the panels, and talk to electric car clubs. It’s a different approach to marketing.”
He’s also hoping his new and returning clients will be open to incorporating the colorful solar panels into their projects. “As an architect, I’m looking at including the panels in residential projects as a service I can offer,” he says. “Parasol Modular could be a lean to, a garage or a pavilion in the backyard for a pool.” Because, he adds, infusing each word with enthusiasm, “This is fun!”
Camille LeFevre is a St. Paul-based arts journalist who writes about art and architecture. This article is reprinted in partnership with The Line, an online chronicle of Twin Cities creativity in entrepreneurship, culture, retail, placemaking, the arts, and other elements of the new creative economy.