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Red River College in Winnipeg is the first property to benefit from Swiss solar-glass research.DIAMOND SCHMITT ARCHITECTS AND NUMBER TEN ARCHITECTURAL GROUP/Handout

The scales on the wings of the Morpho butterfly inspired a Swiss company to develop a glass covering for solar panels, and Winnipeg’s Red River College – currently undergoing expansive redevelopment – will be the first in North America to benefit from the research.

Like the butterfly’s bright scales, which shift colour in flight, the Kromatix-branded coloured glass panels will conduct and conserve energy as their hue changes with the light. Red River College is building a new facility, across from the main campus, which will incorporate the glass technology.

Kromatix was created seven years ago by Swissinso S.A. in partnership with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne to address aesthetic and technical problems with photovoltaic solar panels.

“No architect or building owner would accept ugly black solar panels … on the surface of their building,” says Rafic Hanbali, chief executive officer of Swissinso.

Colouring the solar panels with paint would only decrease their efficiency, he explains, and there were durability concerns, such as colour fading.

“Kromatix solved both issues by using an atomic [physical, as opposed to pigment] design deposited inside the solar glass to create a structural colour.”

A bronze-gold colour was selected for the Red River College project to complement the red masonry of Winnipeg’s historic Exchange District, where its new Innovation Centre will be located. The Centre is slated to open next fall.

The wall of photovoltaic panels will save the college an estimated 18 per cent in annual energy consumption.

The building will be a 100,000-square-foot expansion to the existing downtown campus.

Michael Leckman, of Diamond Schmitt Architects, who together with Number Ten Architectural Group took on the $95-million project, appreciates the dual purpose of the glass.

“The glass-covered photo-voltaic wall panels will not only create electrical energy, but keep out the weather,” he says.

With this new construction, the college is striving to be LEED Gold-certified, says Maria Mendes the college’s senior project manager.

“The project aims to foster sustainable growth by limiting the college’s footprint with a near net-zero energy building,” says Ms. Mendes.

The gold hues of the panels are fascinating, she adds. “They will change depending on what angle you’re looking at – in all shades of gold.”

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