Brian Graff of Solar Forma Design: beautifying solar

Brian Graff of Solar Forma Design: beautifying solar

Understory Team
Understory Team

Solar panels and solar farms are a great way to implement renewable energy, but they take up valuable land and can be an eyesore (depending on the beholder). Solar Forma Design turns solar panels into art by creating aesthetically pleasing solar installations. Using biomimicry principles, the company brings beauty and aesthetics to solar energy, creating welcoming environments while reducing carbon footprints all at the same time.

In this episode, Brian Graff, the CEO of Solar Forma Design, discusses the hidden value within Solar Forma Design products. Brian explains the importance of creating a sense of place and broadcasting a statement of sustainability, in addition to the typical ROI calculations of solar installations. Tune in to learn more about the art, heart, and data behind Solar Forma Design’s products.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (host of The Understory Podcast): Welcome to The Understory Podcast. Understory is a global community of innovators and entrepreneurs who are trying to make our world more sustainable. Today we're very excited to welcome Brian Graff, who is the CEO and Co-Founder of Solar Forma Design, to our episode. Brian, welcome to The Understory Podcast!

Before we talk about Solar Forma Design, tell us about your background and how this all started.

Brain Graff (CEO and Co-Founder of Solar Forma Design): I'd be delighted. Thank you for having me, JJ.

They say your career only makes sense when you look back on it. I've been a marketer throughout my career, working in a variety of industries, including consumer packaged goods, technology, healthcare, and a variety of different things. I served for two years as the CEO of a solar energy engineering company as a consulting assignment. I was really intrigued by the market receptivity to these new technologies and the performance of the technologies. I also looked at it and thought, we're putting these in places where people are having to leave something behind, they're compromising something. They're breaking up a roofline, they're taking up a piece of ground to put these in, they're having to put fencing around them to keep people out. I wouldn't say that they are an eyesore, but they certainly didn't enhance the aesthetics of a given setting or complement the architecture of a building. It was always nagging me that there might be a better way.

That's what led me to a conversation with Greg Johnson, who is my partner and co-founder. He is an extraordinarily talented artisan and metal fabricator and a Craftsman in a variety of ways. We stuck our heads together and paired our respective strengths and came up with this idea for a company.

JJ: That's really cool! I’ve gone to your website, and it’s not something that people think about. When people think about solar, they think about what you would see on buildings. You are pushing the boundary to challenge people to think about how to create something that's beautiful, functional, and good for our environment.

Before we talk about the product, let's talk more about what you are trying to achieve. What's the mission and purpose of Solar Forma Design, and how do you convey that to potential customers or partners who are interested in your innovation?

Brian: Early on we developed this hypothesis around the apparent opportunity where we bring beauty and aesthetics into the solar energy space. We are able to integrate it into people's lives, and through that we can encourage adoption and uptake of this technology into a lot of places. The resulting mission that was spawned by this was to promote a carbon free future through solar energy technologies that complement both the built and natural landscapes.

The purpose within that mission, purpose, value triad was to design and build solar solutions that capture people's attention, grab their imagination, and in so doing increase the perception and adoption of renewable energy technologies. The value of it is a little bit complicated, particularly when you compare it to conventional solar products. Our products are inspired, they carry a high-level design, they're elegant and they create a sustainability statement that brings attention and an element of interest to public and private spaces. Our products are intended to create a place in which people want to live, work, play and learn and foster the adoption and uptake of renewable energy technologies with the idea of reducing our carbon footprint.

JJ: As you have gone on this journey, what were some of the challenges or surprising things that you found talking to customers, in terms of adoption? Is it understanding how to blend the natural and built environment with renewable energy? Is it the cost? Is existing infrastructure too hard to manipulate to build something that you envision which I think makes a lot of sense.

Brian: It's all those things you mentioned and more. One of the things that you run up against any time you offer solar power is energy managers, facilities managers, people who are in charge of overseeing the capital expenditures required to put these things in are trained to look at ROI. What does this do to offset my electricity costs? What is the calculated payback in terms of months or years that might be associated with a project of this type? How does that compare against other renewable energy options that might be out there?  It's something that we cannot sidestep. It's something that we absolutely need to chin up to as proponents of our products and our technology, but it also needs to be a broader value of the plane.

When you look at a piece of artwork or a fountain, or at any of the other things that are out there that enhance a public space or enhance the public setting, you have to sometimes ask yourself “Well what was the return on investment on that?” It made the place more attractive, it increased the usability, it made people want to spend time there and as a result there has to be some value assigned to it, but it can't be calculated in terms of kilowatt hours, return on investment against the standard means.

We have to subsequently structure our conversations around that, and it's actually what led to the development of the three tenets of our company which is art, heart and data. Art means that we lead with design, and we try to apply the eye of an artist to everything that we produce. We want our products to be like a great piece of art, we want people to be inspired by them, we want people to look at them, we want to challenge their idea of convention and hopefully capture their imagination and take them to a different place. The heart aspect of it is the heart of an environmentalist. We want to make sure that we're being true to the sustainability commitment that we have as a company and that other people are increasingly sharing and starting to incorporate into their own personal values. And the data standpoint is indeed that return on investment. What does this thing deliver in terms of offsetting conventional power generation usage? It also needs to take into account some of the things that are nowadays being measured by corporations and public entities, it's ESG: environmentalism, sociological investments, and governance investments. Those are the kinds of things that also need to be put into the equation that calculates whether this is a worthwhile investment for the people who buy our products.

JJ: Before we talk about the designs that you have, which I think are innovative and functional, how do you approach solar design - whether it be designing the buildings or infrastructure? How do you convey that approach to people to give them inspiration and help them to shift their mindset? Existing solar design, which is flat panels on buildings, is very different compared to something that you're proposing, which I think is really powerful.

Brian: One of the things that we do is we design our solar products to create a place, rather than take up space, which is what a lot of conventional solar products do. When a ground based solar array goes down somewhere, it's great. It's certainly preferable to a smokestack. But the first thing you must do next is you have to keep the public from interacting with it. You put a chain link fence around it, or you put it in the back of a yard, so nobody can get to it and disrupt the technology that's there.

We look towards biomimicry and what's called biophilic designs or principal influences to guide the development of our product solutions. Our products are designed to functionally support essentially three roles. First, they need to provide meaningful energy generation that integrates into people's everyday lives. Second, we're trying to create an icon that captures people's attention and creates a natural gathering place for them. The third element is to provide a capstone that might showcase larger, perhaps less visible sustainability and carbon reduction efforts that an organization or an entity might be doing. Some examples of this might be LED lighting retrofits, upgraded HVAC management systems or conventional solar or utility source renewable energy purchase agreements that are reflective of an organization's commitment to sustainability. It just might not be that visible, so one of the things that we leverage quite a bit is what we call conspicuous viability or conspicuous virtue, and that is, there's a lot of entities that are really doing the right thing towards lowering their carbon footprint and trying to commit to a sustainable and green existence, but they're just not getting credit for it. Our products can serve towards getting that message across as well as adding to their carbon reduction efforts.

One of the things that we do is we integrate these products into the evolving workspace ecosystems that are out there. They're changing the way we live, work, and interact in urban environments, corporate and healthcare campuses, colleges and universities, schools, and they're supported, and they're evidenced by a number of other organizations such as WELL Building and Fitwell standards that are helping to guide that process and create metrics for these companies and these owners to follow.

JJ: I think that's a great segue to talk about some of the designs that you're proposing. Can you tell us more about what conduit seating is? Tell us about the solar tree and solar seating as well.

Brian: Our flagship product is the E-CACIA solar tree, and that's modeled after the Acacia tree of the African Savanna. It's a uniquely adapted tree to that particular environment. It has a broad canopy with lots of little leaves that are really efficient at capturing a great deal of sunlight and funneling it down to the main function of the plant. It has a very small footprint underneath, but a large per boreal base around it. It serves as kind of a congregating point for a lot of species on the African plains, but it also just does a magnificent job of capturing sunlight and performing photosynthesis that makes trees grow.

We took that design, and we incorporated it into a tree structure that we call the E-CACIA solar tree. What that allows us to do is essentially create a very small footprint, the footing is only about 36 inches in diameter, but we can create a 440 square foot canopy overhead. It does an equally amazing job of capturing sunlight, incorporating it into the area’s powered needs, whether it be grid-tied or through a standalone storage system and provide for a lot of human centric functionality such as lighting at night or device charging. We can generally house a Wi-Fi hotspot. There's a whole manner of things that the power can be shunted to do, and they also create an aesthetic quality to a setting that is unequaled.

JJ: I can think of a lot of places that could use something like this, both functional and providing something beautiful, delightful and as a congregation area for people. For customers who want to implement this, what are the steps they need to work with you to build this?

Brian: The conversation usually starts with a landscape architect that represents the company’s or the customer’s interests. We do work with customers directly as well. Typically, there must be a vision established for a new development or a site enhancement that is being planned. We've become very adept at developing rendering models. We can use augmented reality programs to take detailed pictures of the site, and then initially put relatively simplistic renderings of our trees or whatever other structures they might be looking for to put in place. We create that diorama or visual and then make sure that it's in line with what they want and what they're trying to achieve. We then move that onto a much more detailed rendering, once we start narrowing that down, and then once we've gained agreement on what the elements of the project are going to be, we develop a purchase order and we set about building the products.

It generally takes us about 90 days to build the trees or our carports or whatever the other elements might be. The trees go up in a single day. They arrive pretty much pre-assembled, it's just a matter of assembling about a dozen pieces and hoisting them into place and clicking in the connections. Once the site has been prepared and we've got all the machinery there that we need to do, a tree can be erected in a single day.

JJ: That's so cool. How do you work with building management? Do you work with the building management or the property management to help them understand how to use energy harnessed from these solar trees and the value that they can bring about to the properties or the new development?

Brian: A lot of it depends on what their goals are for the energy that's generated by the trees. There's a lot of people that are just taking it and running it into the grid, and it becomes an offset to what they draw from the grid. People are also using it because it’s obviously renewable, as it comes from the sun. There are also people that are using it just to improve their resilience. In our part of the country, in the upper Midwest we're not plagued so much by power outage issues, but in other parts of the country there's a higher degree of susceptibility to those things. Our trees, particularly when they're paired with advanced storage technologies, can help to protect an entity from untimely power outages. The other goal is cost containment to control the costs of energy usage and avoid being charged for peak rates and things like that. If they store energy that is generated during low input periods, they can then draw on that during high demand periods and avoid the cost implications that accompany those.

JJ: Brian, thank you so much for those perspectives. How do potential partners or customers learn more about your products and about your company?

Brian We're on Facebook and LinkedIn, all you must do is look for Solar Forma Design and it'll take you right there. We also have a website,

JJ: Brian, thank you so much for sharing what you're building at Solar Forma Design. It’s incredibly cool. We look forward to seeing more of them in many cities in the U.S. and perhaps abroad.

Brian: We hope so too!

JJ: Brian Graff, CEO and Co-Founder of Solar Forma Design. Thank you very much for joining us today.

Brian: Thank you, JJ.

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