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The apartment building of the future is here, and it looks like a giant battery | Inga Saffron

Is this energy-efficient approach to green design a gimmick or meaningful architecture?

Three sides of Front Flats, the new apartment building by Onion Flats at Front and Norris in Kensington, are encased in indigo-colored solar panels.
Three sides of Front Flats, the new apartment building by Onion Flats at Front and Norris in Kensington, are encased in indigo-colored solar panels.Read moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

If you crossed a D-volt battery and the Death Star, you might get something that looks like Front Flats, the latest apartment project from the architect-developers known as Onion Flats. That’s meant as a compliment, by the way. Jammed against the Market-Frankford El on the Kensington-Fishtown border, the four-story building doesn’t just resemble a power plant, it functions as one, too.

Apart from the ground floor and a few narrow openings for windows, every inch of the exterior is encased in a sarcophagus of indigo-colored solar panels. The panels are designed to produce enough electricity to feed all of Front Flats’ 28 apartments, and still have plenty of juice left over to send a sizable amount back to Peco’s grid.

It’s an impressive accomplishment, but there is no doubt that the dark, brooding screen can be a jarring sight, even in a neighborhood where the construction boom has made for some strange material bedfellows — stucco and vinyl siding, anyone? So, you have to ask: Are Front Flats’ wraparound solar panels just a gimmick? Or, do they represent a meaningful advance in sustainable design? And, if it’s the latter, does that make it good architecture?

Tim McDonald, who is both the building’s architect and Onion Flats’ front man, told me that his 13-year-old son has already pronounced the panel-clad apartments “ugly.” I’m sure he won’t be the only one to render that judgment. But architecture isn’t binary, either beautiful or ugly, and the issues raised by this building are too important to dismiss it at first sight.

As all but a few head-in-the-sand politicians will acknowledge, climate change is fast bearing down on our planet, threatening to submerge Manhattan and Miami below sea level, and turn Pennsylvania’s apple orchards into orange groves. It’s only March, but climatologists are already predicting that 2020 will be among the 10 hottest years on record. One of the prime culprits for that sorry situation, as McDonald observes, is the construction industry, which is responsible for roughly 40% of all greenhouse gases.

“Why aren’t architects taking on climate change like their lives depended on it?” McDonald demanded as he showed me around the just-completed project, built on a vacant lot at Front and Norris, a minute’s walk from the Berks El station.

It’s true that we’re still erecting plenty of energy-guzzlers, including the all-glass skyscrapers that are sprouting all over Philadelphia and other big cities. But it isn’t quite fair to accuse architects, or even developers, of ignoring the climate issue. In the two decades since the U.S. Green Building Council established its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system, designers have made big strides in reducing the amount of energy their buildings need to operate.

Many architects, including McDonald, have gone well beyond the LEED standards, to create so-called Net Zero buildings, which consume no fossil fuels at all. As prices for solar panels have fallen, rootop arrays have also become common; you can even see them on the city’s old rowhouses. But few Philadelphia designs have flaunted their sustainability bona fides in quite the same way that Front Flats does. And because it wears its virtue on its sleeve, the burden of justifying the unusual design is greater.

McDonald says Onion Flats made the decision to wrap the building’s facade in solar panels because the roof alone wouldn’t have provided enough space to power all 28 apartments. The more surface area you have for collecting the sun’s rays, the more electricity you can generate. According to the computer models Onion Flats prepared for the design, the Front Flats design will churn out 20% more power than the building consumes.

The panels, which are “bifacial” because they can absorb light from both sides, don’t just generate power, McDonald adds, they also act as shades, deflecting the sun’s heat and further reducing energy consumption. The dark veil, he jokes, also means that residents don’t need curtains.

You might expect the massive screen to turn the apartments into caves, but they’re surprisingly bright. McDonald left horizontal openings between the tiers of panels, so that every window has a partially unobstructed view. Those openings, incidentally, are virtually the same dimension as the ribbon windows you find on ‘60s-era buildings.

McDonald is a tech geek who can rattle off energy metrics. But he is also attuned to old-fashioned architectural craft. In contrast to the building’s take-no-prisoners exterior, the interiors are full of small, thoughtful details that soften the experience. All the apartments have real oak floors, as opposed to the veneered or fake kind. I can’t remember the last time I visited a new apartment building where the staircases were made from solid wood.

Those details make it possible to imagine living in one of the eight, 300-square-foot micro-units, which are so small, they come with their own folding, Murphy beds. The interior garden, with its custom-designed, galvanized railing, and the solar-panel-shaded roof deck are also lovely spaces.

Front Flats isn’t quite as thoughtful in the way it relates to its surroundings. McDonald’s giant battery pack butts up against two elegant, neoclassical banks from the early 20th century. (Both are owned by Onion Flats and are waiting for a tenant to underwrite their much-needed renovations.) But in its lack of contextualism, Front Flats is no different from the dozens of other projects springing up nearby. None, unfortunately, are kind to their neighbors.

McDonald did make one important concession to appearance. Solar panels are normally angled to follow the path of the sun. That would have made the building even more jarring, so the panels are hung parallel to the walls, like any other cladding. The trade-off means they produce less energy.

Onion Flats had originally hoped that Front Flats would secure a certification from the Passive House Institute, but it narrowly missed the target numbers, according to McDonald. He says Front Flats could have easily qualified for LEED’s highest rating, Platinum. The project goes to such lengths to reduce its carbon footprint that it was built without an elevator and has no connection to the city’s gas lines.

Designing rigorously green buildings isn’t something Onion Flats only just discovered. The firm has been a leading voice in Philadelphia for sustainability for two decades. It was the first in the city to include electric car chargers (Thin Flats), the first to meet Passive House standards (The Battery and three Logan houses), and among the first to attempt off-site modular construction (Stable Flats).

McDonald managed to design those environmentally conscious projects with more conventional — and more elegant — facades. So why change the approach at Front Flats?

McDonald clearly sees his battery pack as an in-your-face provocation. If we really want to save the planet, its design suggests, then we have to be willing to question conventional ideas of beauty and comfort.

This building, in this location, is fine as a call-to-action, even if it is hard to imagine Front Flats serving as a model for future green buildings. One thing is sure, though. It’s easier to get used to solar panels on the facade of a building, than flooding and brush fires sweeping the earth.