In 2012, the West Tennessee Solar Farm officially began generating power. The 5-megawatt facility, developed by the University of Tennessee Research Foundation, is located at mile marker 44 on Interstate 40, about 30 miles east of Memphis. The 21,434 solar panels were arranged around an open meadow intended from the outset as the site for a future visitor center that would educate the public about solar energy in Tennessee. In January 2018, the new $3.4 million I-40 Solar Farm Information & Welcome Center was completed. It is accessible 24-7 to local visitors, tourists and the millions of motorists who drive by the solar farm annually.
The State-run visitor center houses four interrelated functions: a Tennessee Welcome Center with reception, tourism displays, restrooms and staff spaces; an Information Center featuring an interactive renewable-energy exhibit; an attached Vending structure; and an open-air, covered Picnic Terrace.
The radial site plan—including the main building, a storage building with service yard, picnic pavilions and pads, and access walkways—responds to the solar farm’s linear geometry. A west-bound access drive was installed in 2014 while eastbound access via a highway overpass is slated as a future project.
Informed by the futuristic look of the solar farm itself, the architecture is sleek and sculptural—even stealthy—when viewed from the 70-mile-an-hour Interstate highway. The large entry canopy can shelter an entire school group on a field trip while the glass-enclosed information space—the focus of the Center—offers an almost 360-degree vista of the surrounding solar panels. Oriented towards I-40, the colorful LED-lit energy exhibit becomes a prominent design element visible from the highway. Angled walls, a subtle gesture directed toward the adjacent Interstate, and cantilevered roof overhangs shade the glass walls.
The project exceeds the Tennessee Sustainable Design Guidelines for Land Management, Water Efficiency, Energy Efficiency, Material Use and Indoor Environmental Quality. The facility, offering an educational component for the West Tennessee Solar Farm, is a working example of sustainable and energy-driven design.
Solar panels are absent from the Berridge Manufacturing Co. metal roof that tops the newly built Center. Electricity from the surrounding ground-mounted solar panels, fed through the local utility district grid, powers the facility, so indirectly, the building is indeed powered by the sun.
For the project’s metal roof and walls, the design team chose Berridge’s versatile Tee-Panel profile. Approximately 14,000 sq. ft. of the unpainted 24-gauge Galvalume-coated steel panels were used as roofing on the main building, while another 3,350 sq. ft. cover the walls. Just over 3,000 sq. ft. of paneling was incorporated on the storage building and picnic pavilions. The metal panels and trim were installed by Ralph Jones Sheet Metal, Inc. of Memphis, TN.
According to Louis R. Pounders, FAIA, of ANF Architects, durability, low maintenance, appearance and value were all qualities considered when choosing a metal panel for the project. He said the most prudent approach to finding the right product for the job is to begin looking early. “Informed by the architectural requirements, I would consider the application, panel selection, finish and detailing in the early project phases to insure overall design consistency,” he said.
Allen Searcy Builder Contractor Inc. of Union City, TN was the project’s general contractor.