Writing Sample by Liz Milner
Printed in the Utility Photovoltaic Group Record, Spring, 2000


A Solar Theater Rises From a Barn's Ashes

What began as a simple barn renovation has become the State of Virginia's largest solar power array and power system thanks to the vision of a Loudoun County community group.

The group, known as the Barns of Franklin Park, Inc., had planned to build Loudoun County's first theater in an abandoned dairy barn at a 240-acre county park. When the barn burned down, they seized the opportunity to design and build a unique, energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, solar showcase. The building, which will be completed this summer, will serve as a theater, astronomical observatory, solar energy learning center, and community center. The engineering departments of several Virginia Universities—including George Mason, University of Virginia, and Virginia Military Institute—will use the building to teach solar energy principles to students.

Architect Clint Goode and lighting designer/consultant Alden Hathaway designed a 100-percent renewable energy building. The Barns at Franklin Park will be powered by a 70-kilowatt photovoltaic array with a storage capacity of 200 kilowatt-hours. Old Mill Power Company, headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia, will install the array which is composed of 2,050 43-watt BP Solarex modules. In addition to giving the group a discount on the modules, UPVG member BP Solarex donated the engineering services to design the solar array and also will be donating some installation coordination. The two-foot by four-foot panels will be installed in a half moon shape on an earth embankment at the side of the building.

Volunteers from the community will assist with the installation, which will take place as soon as weather permits. The panels will be connected to a springhouse building that will house all the solar equipment. Old Mill Power will own and maintain the solar power system and will sell any power not needed by the theater to the county. The building itself will be the property of Loudoun County.

The barn was hand-raised by volunteers from the Timber Framers' Guild of North America. No trees were cut down for the bam construction; instead, hundred-year-old Douglas fir beams recovered from the St. Lawrence Seaway were used. The 9,000-square-foot building will house a 300-seat, public performing arts theater that will open this summer. The auditorium and 1,000-foot stage were designed to meet the special needs of an award-winning performing arts group.

The building will also have an astronomy observatory and lab and a solar energy learning center. With the help of a computer and a large screen projector, images from the observatory's telescope can be projected into the auditorium, giving the audience a chance to see the universe in action. Meanwhile, meters in the lobby will give visitors an opportunity to observe another sort of solar system at work.

The building will cost $2.7 million to complete. The Barns at Franklin Park, Inc., has already raised $2.1 million through in-kind donations, grants, and fundraising. Kathy Donovan, a founder and Volunteer Special Events Director, says that being named an EPA Showcase Project in 1999 opened a lot of doors for the group. She also credits the work of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staffer Eric Van Gestel, who brought her group together with manufacturers. With Van Gestel's help, they raised $750,000 in equipment donations by bringing their wish list to manufacturers one by one. The manufacturers saw the Barns as a showcase for their products and were eager to donate. The project also received a Virginia Alliance for Solar Electricity (VASE) Grant of $280,000.

For further information contact The Barns at Franklin Park, 540.338.7973.