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Designing for butterflies and people

27 January 2022

5 min. to read

The Butterfly Effect
The Butterfly Effect is a design concept that resonates with both humans and insects by combining sustainable electricity generation with biodiversity improvement.

The starting point was Our Energy, Our Landscape, a design challenge in the Netherlands which invited ideas combining sustainable energy generation, spatial quality and nature improvement on a stretch of motorway close to Eindhoven (or at a similar location elsewhere in the country).

Reinier Bosch, one of the founders of Studio Solarix, Cecilia Gross, architect partner at VenhoevenCS architecture + urbanism and biodiversity consultant Maike van Stiphout of DS landscape architects got together to tackle this challenge. “We can’t successfully innovate unless we tap into each other’s knowledge,” says Cecilia. “That’s why we chose to combine our expertise in products (solar panels), architecture and nature.”

A visionary approach

“We realised relatively quickly that we needed a visionary approach,” says Reinier. “You can’t yet generate sufficient power from asphalt. And if you integrate solar panels into acoustic barriers at the side of the road, you block drivers’ views and don’t actually produce that much electricity. On top of all that, you’re basically ignoring the surrounding landscape.”

There was an additional issue. The team realised that chosen stretch of motorway, close to Eindhoven, bisected the natural habitat of the Alcon blue butterfly, which tries to cross from one side to the other after it has mated. This only works during traffic jams, when the cars are stationary, because otherwise the air turbulence and noise is an impenetrable barrier.

© Britt Roelse

If we put pressure on nature, it pushes back

“We have to design for all creatures, and not just for humans,” says Maike. “We can’t ignore the fact that we are part of a much larger ecosystem. If we put pressure on nature, it will push back. We need harmony, and to find a balance between construction and biology.”

The central concept that emerged from a creative workshop involving all three parties was connection. Connecting both parts of the butterfly habitat. But also using the space above a road – which connects people, cities and regions – to generate electricity. And so the Butterfly Effect was born.

Making use of the space above a motorway

In short, this design concept involves spanning a net above the motorway, into which thousands of lightweight, virtually transparent organic photovoltaic cells (PVs) are integrated. The net should also offer enough protection for butterflies and other insects to fly above it. Check out this article and movie for more details on the concept itself.

The organic PVs which will be used for the Butterfly Effect are already in production. “They may be less efficient than traditional solar panels, but could conceivably produce enough electricity for a small (nearby) village” says Reinier. “Don’t forget, the space above a motorway is large.”

A global ripple effect

The concept is designed with the future in mind. Conceivably, next-generation organic photovoltaic cells could simply replace the ones used in the current proposal. In this way, it can still be relevant 10 or 20 years from now. And this way of sustainably strengthening local ecosystems can theoretically be applied all over the world, a ripple effect described by the Butterfly Effect phenomenon that the project is named after.

The next step is a pilot project, which is scheduled for 2022. “It will be great to test if butterflies are happy enough to fly across it!” says Reinier. “And also to see the reaction of drivers, who will look up at this mottled combination of light and shade that is actually generating electricity.”

Design thinking

“The Butterfly Effect is a good example of design thinking,” he continues. “If you only consider economic returns and maximum efficiency, you don’t address the landscape aspect. A field full of conventional solar panels has more or less zero biodiversity. And it takes up space that can be used for something else. Through our collaboration, we brought technology, sustainability, nature and architecture together to, we believe, really make an impact.”