A Solyndra Success

Friday December 02, 2011

Flanked by dated, silicon boom-era factories and office buildings on the I-880 in Fremont, CA, sits a gleaming, modern factory and stunning landscape that screams to be acknowledged even when clipping by at 75 mph. Although the serpentine gabion walls, the sinuous concrete fountain wall, or the animated masses of ornamental grasses could draw attention on their own right, the emblazoned company name forces the viewer to take pause: "SOLYNDRA".

solyndra landscape and gabion walls

Making national headlines and threatening to complicate President Obama's re-election campaign, Solyndra's bankruptcy filing and collapse has become a sore spot for some, and a rallying cause for others. As part of the government's response to the recession, the Obama administration awarded significant green-energy loan guarantees to the up-and-coming solar producer. Solyndra used these funds to build a new, state-of-the-art manufacturing facility that would accommodate an expected boost in demand. Unfortunately, the demand never arrived.

Shortly after building commissioning with a humming factory, the product began to back up in the warehouse. Silicon prices continued to drop and the end of Solyndra came even before the landscape surrounding the facility was able to fully mature.

With the company name hovering over the surrounding landscape, the irony of the situation is obvious: a hard-working, un-maintained landscape continues to succeed and inspire while a half-billion dollar loan couldn't sustain the business model.

The landscape, designed by the Guzzardo Partnership, Inc.*, takes enormous care to balance the site aesthetics while managing the site water in a responsible way.

Fronting the entire property along I-880 is a large bio-swale that slows, cleanses, and infiltrates storm water. The movement of the bioswale is gracefully reinforced in the dry season with masses of dynamic Juncus, Calamagrostis, and Muhlenbergia that continually bob and sway in the windy location.

gabion walls

bioswale and walkway

Long, continuous stretches of gabion walls, infilled with round river cobbles, take up a modest grade change between the facility and landscape in a way that works to visually ground the massive building.

Masses of like plant species work to accentuate the sinuous nature of the landscape. Key species include many natives such as Ceanothus, Leymus, Salvia, Carex, and other mediterranean plants such as Perovskia and Festuca.

Further reinforcing the bioswale is a modest water feature flowing out of a concrete wall that visually interrupts the bioswale. Three stainless steel outlets drop water into more river cobble and lend to the effect of movement and flow towards a low-detention spot on the site. Large boulders mimic the concrete wall's interruption with their own bioswale crossings and divide the space into discrete sections.

entry fountain

entry fountain close up stainless steel pipes

grass and boulder

Leading into the parking lot and entry of the building, a pedestrian begins to understand that something about the facility is off a bit "off" as they encounter the first of a series of wonderful examples of unintended consequences when landscapes are not maintained: Trailing Myoporum reaches over a sidewalk and suggests how large it really wants to grow. A poured, concrete wall serves the same purpose of the gabion walls and is artfully planted with a row of Deer grass atop and purple lantana below offering wonderful color and textural contrast through the seasons.

overgrown walkway

deer grass gingko trees concrete walls

The transition from the parking lot to building has been accentuated and highlighted with a continuous swale that forces the user to cross over raised, grated walkways, and acknowledge the importance, path, and role of water in the landscape.

modern bridge over bioswale

grass and bioswale

Sparing little expense to provide a campus-like feel for the employees and visitors, stone site walls further curtain the parking from sitting areas and interior courtyards. Linear slate stone is deftly contrasted with delicate vertical plantings of deer grass and undulating Ginkgo trees.

deer grass stone wall contrast

Further site investigation reveals additional examples of how the removal of users and maintenance personnel provide opportunities for plants to reach their genetic destiny and fill out without being pruned or otherwise manicured. Lantana and grasses begin to swallow site furnishings and groups of plantings are allowed to enter their seasonal rest periods without being hacked back to hide their browns and yellows.

modern bench

russian sage and juncus bioswale

The eeriness of experiencing such a landscape without anybody around is palpable. With chairs available but empty, parking lot vacant, and factory silent, the building sits idly by as the landscape continues to grow and evolve. Without a doubt, this site will offer the next tenant a world-class facility and surrounding landscape to grow, and hopefully sustain, a new business model. 

It can be argued, admittedly quite convincingly, that this facility and landscape was bankrolled by the already indebted American taxpayer and was a poor investment.  However, by looking for the “green” lining, it is clear this project will act as a lasting model for future industrial developments to reference when looking for ways to integrate sustainable techniques into the landscape.

empty patio solyndra

*Guzzardo Partnership, Inc. declined to elaborate on the details of the project with Landscape Resource when contacted.