Sarah Hall is a stained glass artist on a mission. Her task? To save power and birds at the same time. Her solution? Creating coloured, transparent solar panels that will not only help power the buildings they cover but also prevent birds from crashing into them. Such a product could make a big difference, especially for the birds. A 2013 Environment Canada study found that collisions with houses and buildings result in about 25 million bird deaths a year.
How did you begin working with glass?
My father had been the chair of a committee for a place of worship, and we toured all sorts of church buildings when I was nine. I decided that the interesting thing in those buildings were the windows, because they had colour and light and were full of movement. So I decided then that I would make windows.
How did you first hear about the problem of birds hitting buildings?
I was speaking with some architects about bringing an entire painted solar facade to a building, and they said that would really solve some of the problems with bird strikes. Then I started reading about bird strikes and was absolutely staggered by the numbers — about 10 million birds a year in Toronto alone.
What are the challenges with creating this glass?
One of the problems with bringing regular solar cells into large facades is that they’re not transparent. But new work is being done with semi-transparent and coloured cells that are being made with nanotechnology. I thought that if I used that new type of glass and brought some art to it, something that would make it interesting, then we’d have a facade that birds won’t fly into, that people can see out of and that will generate electricity for the building. When people think solar, they think of something on the roof that doesn’t have any design aesthetic. But it can be the walls of a building, and it can be beautiful.
You were awarded an Ontario Arts Council grant for an 18-month research project. What do you hope to achieve in that time?
I’m going to make a working prototype with a lab in England, Oxford Photovoltaics. They’ll be pushed a little bit to do this at the size I want, but they’re already making the glass at a smaller scale and combining it with some of my artwork. I also want to connect with people and get them excited about the idea. If we can have a building that helps take care of the environment and is friendlier to our fellow creatures, we’re going to have a better place.