‘My aim is to get people to think differently about solar,’ said solar designer Marjan van Aubel during her talk at What Design Can Do Live in Amsterdam in 2018. That day van Aubel was on hand to present her ground-breaking project, Power Plant: the world’s first self-powering greenhouse. It was this project that made her one of the thirteen winners of the first What Design Can Do Climate Action Challenge.

Since then, van Aubel has continued to push the frontiers of solar design, collaborating with engineers, scientists and other energy pioneers to create smarter and more beautiful iterations of solar technology. Sometimes, this means creating new objects or materials that can harvest and harness sunlight, like a sleek table or a glittering window pane that charges your appliances. More often, it means finding ways to rethink our relationship with our current energy system, and promoting a more circular, integrated vision of solar democracy.

Most recently, van Aubel created the ‘Solar Roof’ which will top the Dutch Pavilion at the next World Expo in Dubai. With so much buzz around the project, we sent the designer a few burning questions about what to expect from her latest creation, and where she sees solar design going in the next 20 years.


1. First of all: How are you? What are you working on currently?

I am good! Experiencing a lot of solar energy now during these hot summer days 🙂
We get solar energy in abundance and I believe it will become the cheapest way to generate energy in the future. However, we still perceive it purely as a technology. To add design into it is very important and will contribute so that solar energy becomes more integrated and accepted into our daily environments. Now I am working on making solar mobile, flexible and transparent. At the moment we are working a new light that you hang in front of the window; during the day it harvests light which can then be used in the evening.

2. Can you tell us a little bit more about the ‘Solar Roof’? How did the idea come about?

The Solar Roof is part of the ‘Dutch Biotope’ – the Dutch pavilion for the World Expo 2020. I was asked by V8 Architects to contribute towards a circular climate system where energy, water and food solutions are connected. The pavilion is designed by the consortium: V8 Architects, Kossmann.dejong, ExpoMobilia en Witteveen+Bos, in assignment of The Dutch Ministry of Foreign affairs.

The stained glass solar roof we designed will give you the feeling as if you are standing in a gigantic modern church, with its beautiful light reflections in different shades of colour. The graphic design makes use of a coloured Moiré effect, and the way that the lines and patterns interfere with each other will create beautiful light reflections in the pavilion.

Renders ©V8 Architects.

3. One of your earlier works, Power Plant, won our Climate Action Challenge back in 2017. How HAS YOUR WORK evolved since then?

The scale and size has changed. Because of Power Plant, I gained knowledge about the combination of solar and plants, which is one of the key elements in the pavilion. So literally, Solar Roof is the evolution of Power Plant.

4. Where do you hope solar design will be in 20 years?

I hope that every surface or object will harvest its own energy. That we will say that a building or object is broken when it doesn’t generate its own energy.

Power Plant.

5. Soon, WE will launch a new edition of our global Challenge programme, this time addressing the issue of waste. What role does circularity play in your work?

The panels for the Dutch Pavilion are not only modular but also circular and made of organic materials, something that is unique when talking about solar panels. The coloured panels are made of PET and are lightweight, which makes them easily transportable. Additionally, we know that the roof will get a second life after the Expo 2020 Dubai, therefore we designed and developed it in such a way that it is easily taken apart and can be re-used/assembled again.

6. Lastly, do you have any advice for designers in approaching this Challenge?

It is super important to think about design through the principle of circularity. It also makes it more exciting to design! The challenge, however, is to not only focus on design but on the whole ecosystem and infrastructure — which is a big task!


Marjan van Aubel’s Solar Roof will be exhibited at the Expo 2020 Dubai, which will now take place in October 2021. To learn more about her projects, visit this website, or watch her talk on solar energy at What Design Can Do 2018. For information about our upcoming Challenge, visit whatdesigncando.com/our-challenges.