Solar Express to Coney Island

23 Aug, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

Kiss + Cathcart helps revive historic playland with photovoltaic technology

The lights of a Ferris wheel glow behind the solar panels that light the Coney Island Terminal.

In its heyday, Coney Island was the preferred destination for New York's day-trippers. City dwellers escaped to the beach to find relief from soaring inland temperatures. Families took their little ones to marvel at the gigantic Ferris wheel and the carousel. Over time, however, economic realities changed. The neighborhood became associated with menacing youths, street gangs and criminal elements.

But in May 2005, the newly remodeled Coney Island Terminal sprang up at the corner of Stillwell and Surf Avenue. Four subway lines — N, Q, F and D — now roll in and out of it daily, carrying passengers who haven't given up on Coney Island. For some, the terminal itself has become the destination.

Whereas commuters disembarking here may be trying to escape the heat, the terminal always welcomes solar energy. The three connecting sheds that serve as its roof — 76,000 square feet of steel and glass — are outfitted with semitransparent photovoltaic panels. They produce 250,000 kilowatt hours per year in renewable energy. That's approximately 10%-20% of the energy used by the entire station, according to Greg Kiss's estimate.

"Somehow the actual scale is always a surprise," admits Kiss, a founding principal of architectural firm Kiss + Cathcart, one of the companies responsible for the design and construction of the station. He's no stranger to the terminal's dimensions; nevertheless, "when you're working for so long, and your head is buried in a project, you forget," he says. Eventually he came face-to-face with the finished work — no longer a 3D model within the confines of a monitor but a functioning public building bustling with commuters. He was duly impressed with the real scale of the project.

Can You Rely on the Sun?
The biggest obstacle for the project, Kiss recalls, was "convincing the clients that it made sense to do a large-scale public-sector project with such an innovative technology." You can count on the sun to come up every morning, but can you depend on the solar panels to work year-round, every day? More importantly, can the construction and maintenance crews do what they need to without shutting down train service?

"They were reconstructing the whole station from the ground up," says Kiss. "Because it's such a busy public transit station, they couldn't shut it down completely. They used complicated phasing procedures so service wouldn't be interrupted. And they were rightfully concerned that this never-before-used technology might slow construction down."

With its CAD roots stretching back to some of the earliest Macintosh drawing programs ("MacDraw" is one that Kiss recalls), Kiss + Cathcart has been using Nemetschek North America's VectorWorks, a 3D CAD program that runs on both Macintosh and Windows operating systems, for the Coney Island Terminal.

"We modeled everything in 3D," says Kiss, "using as much detail as we could for interference checking. We made sure that [the solar panels and the support structure] not only fit together, but that there was enough room for the construction crew to install them and work on them when needed. We designed it so that all maintenance could be done from above; we had made room for rolling service gentries that could replace sections of roof from above. When the time came for installation, the solar-panel roof went in so fast that the supporting steel structure had a hard time keeping up." According to Kiss, credit partly goes to VectorWorks' 3D features, which allow him and his colleagues to show the crew the exact sequence in which the solar panels must be installed or removed.

The 76,000-square-foot roof of the terminal is blanketed with photovoltaic panels that produce energy while allowing natural light into the station.

Predicting the Dance of Shadows
"We wanted to see how sunlight coming through the transparent roof would look," Kiss explains. "We wanted to make sure we had enough natural light that we wouldn't have to turn on the lights during daylight hours — that would have certainly gone against our sustainability goals."

The design made use of semitransparent photovoltaic panels as well as transparent ones. Natural light streaming through the roof also passes the steel beams supporting the roof, creating active patterns on the ground.

To study the effect of the sun, Kiss + Cathcart initially used VectorWorks' rendering tools, "to give it qualitative verification," as Kiss puts it. For more in-depth analysis, Kiss + Cathcart exported the geometry of the structure to a partner's proprietary lighting-design software. Based on their discoveries, the design team refined the size and shape of the solar panels used and the manner in which they were connected for maximum natural illumination.

To verify the output of the solar panels, Kiss + Cathcart used PV F-Chart, a program for photovoltaic energy calculation. The firm also used Ecotect, specialized software for thermal, daylight and acoustic analyses, among others.

"In the past, we used to routinely create animations and renderings in Strata 3D, but VectorWorks has mostly caught up with it," says Kiss. "VectorWorks' rendering jobs are now as good as most other 3D software's. The only drawback is, as with most rendering engines/technology, it may take a little longer to render. For some higher-end animation features, like object animation, we go to other software, but increasingly we do our presentation work as well as production work in Vectorworks."

Renewed Hope
Taking the subway to the Coney Island Terminal, Kiss has overheard other riders commenting on the roof's distinctive supporting structure. "They would say, 'Hey, it looks like roller coaster tracks,'" he recalls. "In our design, we were trying to mediate between the terminal's civic function and the historic amusement park community it was meant to serve." After overhearing the passengers' comments, Kiss has no doubt that the public understands the design.

The terminal provides renewable energy and, at the same time, renewed hope for the Coney Island neighborhood. It is reportedly the largest installation of its kind in the world, and the first of its kind in New York City. As a link between the Big Apple and Coney Island, the terminal is expected to play a vital role in revitalizing the community.

For its work on the terminal and two other projects, Kiss + Cathcart won awards and honorary mentions in a green design competition hosted by the United States EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and New York City DEP (Department of Environmental Protection).

And for those who don't find the subway ride to the island adventurous enough, just across the street from the station is the Cyclone, one of the oldest wooden roller coasters in the world.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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