Words: Nick Vaccaro, Rich Hicks
Like so many other industries, the construction industry is aggressively going green. One significant new player in the masonry sector is SolaBlock, the innovative manufacturer behind the Solar Masonry Unit (SMU). The SMU is a robust, standard-dimension masonry block that directly harnesses energy from the sun and channels the power it creates into the building or the grid.
SolaBlock is a simple, effective partnership of standard masonry and premium solar technology, yielding a wall system usable in a broad spectrum of construction areas. More versatile than other solar-capture mediums, its technology wins by offering robust weight-bearing ability, united with a dependable, weather-resistant, power-generating source.
Beginning with Bricks
Every new technology is born from an inspirational concept. According to President and Co-Founder Jason Laverty (also a Local 3 Boston Bricklayer), who joined SolaBlock in 2015, the company was formed by him and Patrick Quinlan in 2012.
Quinlan had worked in mechanical and industrial engineering since the early 1980s and was long motivated to improve how solar energy could be gathered and distributed. He deduced that a vertical application of solar panels, such as on the buildings’ sides, was the most efficient path forward. Motivated by the growing importance of renewable energy, Quinlan sought to design solar-capturing capability into a wall construction unit.
“Patrick is our green guru,” said Laverty. “He had been working in solar and clean energy since the late ‘70s and was continually tracking the costs of solar energy versus fossil fuels. As it became economically feasible to migrate some applications to solar, Patrick saw the additional merit of putting solar-capturing technology into a vertical façade application, versus traditional ground arrays or roof-mounted panels.”
Scott Longley, who serves as the company’s chief operating officer, also noted Quinlan’s deep experience as President Bill Clinton’s Renewable Energy Advisor. Three of Quinlan’s projects are included in the Smithsonian Institution’s collections.
SolaBlock might not exist today except for a Thanksgiving 2012 meeting attended by both bricklayer Laverty and engineer Quinlan. During the meal, Quinlan explained his concept to Laverty and a business idea was born. The now co-founders drew up what would become the core SolaBlock concept after dinner. Originally, Quinland had sought to use conventional bricks as the target construction unit. About a year into the young project, Laverty, drawing on his experience as a professional R&D mason, advocated switching from bricks to an industry-standard construction block dimension. From there, research and development raced forward as the idea was polished – or, more literally, baked. With his wife’s assistance, Laverty started baking test blocks in his home oven.
Applauding Laverty’s dedication and commitment to the cause, Longley said, “You’re talking to a guy who was baking blocks in his oven to make the early products. We’re not talking turkeys – the man cooked blocks in his oven.”
Laverty rationalized the process with a chuckle as part of an unwavering dedication to the project, maintaining that it takes an all-in mentality to accomplish something significant.
“Yeah, we were kiln-drying blocks in my oven at 185 degrees,” said Laverty. “But, it was what we had to do at the time. We’ve always had that mindset: whatever we have to do to move the project along.”
Longley paid homage to the systematic approach the co-founders took in developing a superior product. Recognizing that each of them brings something different and essential to the table, Longley credits the unique combination of individual talents as the winning factor.
“We consider ourselves to be a sort of ‘Island of Misfit Toys,’” said Longley. “But we have a terrific synergy; you put us together and it’s better than the separate parts. We’ve always had this vision, this passion, and an unwavering belief that we would bring quality, effective solar-capturing construction blocks to market.”
Building a Wall of Energy
While the company made continuous improvements, there were many hurdles to cross before the product could be readied for market, said Laverty.
“One of the biggest early challenges was the block’s physical appearance. The original block SMU unit looked visually ‘busy’ because you could still see all the lines on the solar panels themselves,” said Laverty. “It was a very legitimate aesthetic issue, and the architects pointed that out quickly.”
Laverty recalled the discouraged team sitting in a restaurant, deflated by the critiques, and a eureka moment occurred. He happened to check his Blackberry and found himself looking intently at its all-black screen. It was a moment of revelation as he exclaimed to the others, “Good grief! This is what our panel should look like! Pure black, with no visible lines.”
Given the solar panel’s innovative circuitry, it was no easy feat to eliminate the visible lines beneath the glass, but ingenuity eventually prevailed. Soon enough, a smooth, fully-black panel graced the front of the SMU, and the SolaBlock team pushed forward again.
Laverty explained the synergistic blend of mechanics and engineering behind the product. The re-imagined SolaBlock Solar Masonry Unit now encompassed the same area as a standard masonry block. This ensured instant dimensional compatibility for installers and designers – a simple plug-and-play – and it also looked cleaner and more elegant.
In time, the block-and-panel system also passed critical crush tests, meaning it was now truly ready for prime time in real-world construction scenarios. The circuit system also benefited from many subsequent tweaks, enabling the blocks to generate power without interruption, even if one block in the array was damaged accidentally.
Recapping how the product has continually developed and improved, Longley referenced both evolutionary and revolutionary changes. Explaining the evolutionary change, he pointed out that a new computer screen might be one-centimeter thinner than before, but it could also be two-millimeters wider. He countered that revolutionary changes, on the other hand, represent two factors or actions that come together and function successfully. Longley expressed excitement when something works that you did not initially think would and said, “It’s a paradigm shift.”
Longley supported his argument by referencing the iPhone. Before the iPhone’s introduction, no one would have thought it was possible for a cellular phone to possess the ability to surf the internet. Soon came additional functionalities, such as GPS, cameras, and calculators.
“That was a combination of two things at once. The iPhone just got better since the core concept was realized,” said Longley. “With SolaBlock, it’s similar. What we have here is a brand-new building component that will eat up carbon, become carbon neutral, and eventually pay for itself because it’s generating green energy.”
A Greener Green Future
The SolaBlock team also notes the product’s additional contributions to society. Longley points out traditional ground-based solar farms, where large tracts of land must be cleared, and thousands of trees are cut down – a direct contradiction of green energy principles.
“With solar farms, they’re removing trees and digging up the ground to pour concrete foundations,” said Longley. “It’s a tremendous amount of needless loss and effort, especially when those vital carbon-sequestering trees could still be there. None of that ever has to happen with a vertical, structure-integrated system such as SolaBlock.”
The SolaBlock design eliminates the need for such destructive activity and offers another inherent bonus: it can generate solar power neatly. While one would not expect to encounter a solar farm in the heart of a city, the SolaBlock product works every bit as well in both rural and urban applications.
“This product provides the immense benefits of a green-energy solution virtually everywhere there is construction,” Longley said, “on a waterfront, in a dense urban setting, on steep hillsides, and so many other locations that old-style solar farms just can’t go.”
What seals the deal? With SolaBlock, the power goes directly to the building itself. Longley points out that this crucial feature eliminates additional costs, such as transmission infrastructure like power lines, land acquisition, build-out, etc. However, for construction in areas already grid-connected, the power generated by SolaBlock can be fed back to the grid if desired. As a further bonus, the SolaBlock product adds a level of physical insulation to buildings, increasing its climate control efficiency.
Applying the Technology
SolaBlock SMU combines both durability and capability, and so the product can be located and utilized in various construction ways and places. The blocks are offered in standard 8” x 16” and 8” x 8” sizes, allowing easy integration into many architectural designs. The masonry component can also be custom-colored to a customer’s specification. With many states increasing solar energy mandates in schools and supporting buildings, SolaBlock can readily meet the need. Remote structures can be constructed with (and powered by) SolaBlock, thereby eliminating the need for fossil power sources or expensive transmission systems. Parking structures, highway dividers, retaining walls, and countless other structures and applications could readily perform double-duty as energy generators if designed with a SolaBlock façade.
If proof is sought in the numbers, then the SolaBlock SMU truly delivers. Depending on the physical setting, up to 7 Watts peak of energy production can be generated by each square foot of the SolaBlock solar wall system. This translates to a 20-foot by 30-foot wall section producing a 4 kWh solar system, which is enough energy to accommodate most residential buildings’ electrical load.
When united, ingenuity and technological capabilities have always fueled innovation and improvement. With seemingly limitless applications, SolaBlock promises bold, new opportunities for the construction industry that will yield profound environmental, economic, and societal benefits for decades to come.
If interested in additional information about SolaBlock, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.