Home Business King's College Chapel, 438 solar panels and an architectural dispute in Cambridge

King's College Chapel, 438 solar panels and an architectural dispute in Cambridge

by SuperiorInvest

Climbing the pitched roof of King's College Chapel with the agility of a university student, Toby Lucas, 56, pointed to the spot where his craftsmen had soldered solar panels to a newly installed extension of lead. It was the scariest part of the project, he said, because an errant spark could have ignited the 500-year-old beams supporting the roof of this English Gothic masterpiece.

“It's an iconic landmark in Cambridge, and it's an integral part of where I live,” said Mr. Lucas, whose company, Barnes Construction, carried out the restoration. “You don't want to be the person responsible for burning part of it.”

The chapel emerged from the project unscathed and now stands at the heart of the University of Cambridge, no longer just a glorious relic of the late medieval period but also a cutting-edge symbol of the future of green energy. Its 438 photovoltaic panels, along with solar panels on the roofs of two nearby buildings, will shade more than five percent of the university's electricity.

King's College Chapel is one of several iconic places of worship in England to have installed solar panels in recent years. Salisbury and Gloucester cathedrals have them, and this project may open the door to more: a neighboring Cambridge college, Trinity, is considering installing photovoltaic panels on the roof of its chapel, which dates back to the 16th century.

But this being a university town, and King's College Chapel being a work of architecture like no other, the debate over the installation of panels was long and lively: a heady mix of aesthetics, economics and politics. Even now, with scaffolding dismantled and panels beginning to absorb late winter sunlight, critics are eager to point out why the project was a mistake.

“You've got this extraordinary openwork parapet, which is a really bold feature,” said John Neale, pointing to the top of the chapel, where a crenellated wall runs along the north and south sides. “You can see through the parapet.”

“Now what you can see through the parapet, and indeed above it, depending on where you look from, is a reflective layer of solar panels,” said Neale, director of development advice at Historic England, an advocacy group. preservation. . “That would be radically at odds with the historic character of the building.”

In reality, solar panels are barely visible from ground level, although they are more noticeable from afar. But Neale noticed that they change color depending on the weather, as light plays with them. While the effect is muted during the often cloudy winter, it could become more striking in the summer, with clouds racing across a blue sky.

Mr Neale was at pains to say that, on principle, he is not opposed to modernizing old buildings with new features. He pointed to a nearby cafe in the nave of St Michael's Church as a worthy example of converting an old building to new uses. Historic England, he said, has supported panels in other churches.

But “in general, panels should not be placed on prominent roofs,” Neale said. Far from setting a precedent, “this is actually the outer limit and we believe that a line has been crossed that should not have been crossed.”

Other critics argued that the relatively small percentage of electricity generated did not justify the aesthetic cost. In a hint of culture war, some suggested that the solar panels were the kind of politically correct gesture typical of a progressive institution like King's College, whose graduates include economist John Maynard Keynes, the World War II codebreaker. Alan Turing and the novelist Zadie. Blacksmith.

“There are many ways to address fears about rising temperatures,” David Abulafia, professor emeritus of history at Cambridge, wrote in the right-wing magazine Spectator last year, as Cambridge City Council weighed whether to approve the project. The installation of solar panels, he added, was “just another example of virtue signaling.”

When asked how he viewed the panels now that they were in place, Professor Abulafia kept his sword sheathed. “It's happened now!” he said.

Leaders at King's College were aware of these criticisms when they considered installing panels, along with a new lead roof. The dean of King's College Chapel, the Revd Dr Stephen Cherry, said he was initially skeptical of the idea, which arose during a planning meeting several years ago.

“We needed to think very carefully about the visual impact and the amount of energy generation we would achieve,” he said. “I was very concerned that we would be tempted to make an empty symbolic gesture.”

One study concluded that photovoltaic panels would generate approximately 123,000 kilowatt-hours of energy per year. That's enough to reduce the university's carbon emissions by more than 23 tons each year or the equivalent of planting 1,090 trees. The university's nearby Wilkins Building and Old Garden Hostel have panels, but no other surface offers that kind of opportunity.

As for the visual impact, Dr. Cherry said it was mitigated by the fact that the panels practically covered the ceiling, which at least made it consistent. While the polished sheen of the panels was a change from the textured gray of lead, both were utilitarian rather than decorative elements, he argued.

“No one has said, 'Oh my God, that's an eyesore,'” Dr. Cherry said.

Among students, he said, the project has been popular, perhaps even giving the chapel a currency it hasn't had at King's College for years. With its magnificent fan vault, carved between 1512 and 1515 and the largest in the world, the chapel almost stands out from King's College, a tourist attraction that attracts visitors who barely stop to look at the manicured front courtyard or dining room.

“It's not so much about virtue signaling as it is about signaling a clear call for change,” Gillian Tett, chancellor of King's College and Financial Times columnist, told The Guardian in November. “Yes, it is a symbol, but symbols reinforce what is normal and we are trying to change what is considered normal.”

For construction supervisor Mr Lucas, who has restored several old buildings in Cambridge, it was an engineering challenge and a labor of love. To reduce the risk of fire, he used thermal imaging every night to make sure his workers didn't leave hot spots. When placing the structure, a barely perceptible sag in the center of the 85-metre-long roof had to be compensated for.

After months on the roof, Mr. Lucas became a student of its customs. He pointed out the pilgrims who perch on the four corner towers of the chapel to hunt. He watched as, over the centuries, visitors carved their initials into the stone wall along the spiral stairs leading to the roof. “Helen 2009,” reads a recent inscription.

Given that the chapel has been standing for half a millennium, the product of a 70-year building project under the rule of four kings: Henry VI, VII and VIII, plus Richard III, the furor over solar panels will end up being, at most, , a temporary distraction. .

“The new roof should last 100 years,” Lucas said. “The useful life of these panels is 25 to 30 years. “They can always take them off.”

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