ARCHITECT’s R+D Awards program celebrates innovation in architecture and design. Learn more and enter today. This piece is part of a series of articles that will examine the progress made by past award winners.

Solar panel technology continues to advance at a pace that makes pinpointing the state of the art a challenge. But Houston-based Metalab is prepared to support the evolving photovoltaic (PV) panel, literally. In 2012, the architecture, art, and product design studio wowed the judges of ARCHITECT’s sixth annual R+D Awards and graced the cover of ARCHITECT’s July 2012 issue with PV-Pod, an ergonomically shaped, plastic vessel on which to mount PV panels. Read more about PV-Pod’s win.

The jury was enamored by the pragmatism and utility of PV-Pod. The freestanding, 23-pound, 43.5-inch-by-41.5-inch vessel allows users to break away from the linear grid of conventional mounting racks and locate panels strategically—say, in alignment with structural columns—without penetrating the roofs to tie into the building's structure. For the ballast, PV-Pod simply uses water, which can be drained right onto the roof.

Metalab entered the PV-Pod in the Production category of the 2012 R+D Awards. The firm has since completed a proof-of-concept installation. Forty 40 PV-Pod units now support solar panels on the roof of the Houston Permitting Center, which houses the city’s Green Building Resource Center.

ARCHITECT checked in with Metalab principals Joe Meppelink and Andrew Vrana to see when other architects will be able to specify the vessel for their projects.

The road to commercializing a product is a tricky but not unfamiliar one to Metalab, which is also behind the LED fixture Ringo, Mobile Grid, and digital photo booth Smilebooth. For PV-Pod, the team has soundly cleared several of the expected hurdles, including the paperwork-heavy process of acquiring a patent.

“I would describe the patent process as getting a building permit times 10,” Meppelink says. “It’s not a knock—just an observation.” Together with their patent lawyer, the Metalab team waded through the “arcane legalese and highly technical language” to prove the originality of PV-Pod to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and “ended up with a reasonably well-established patent,” Meppelink says.

PV-Pod also qualified for USPTO’s (now-defunct) Green Technology Pilot Program, through which patent applications for sustainable technologies could cut in front of non-“green” products pending review by the USPTO. Meppelink conservatively estimates that this fast track saved Metalab about six months in the queue. The overall patent-application process took about two years.

With patent in hand, Metalab has begun shopping PV-Pod to large manufacturers and distributors of solar panels and solar panel mounting equipment—none of which they can disclose yet, although Meppelink says one is a “Fortune 100 company that we have a good relationship with on other projects.”

It is through these connections that Metalab has garnered success in commercializing products in the past. “We recognize our limitations as architects and product designers to bring something to market,” Meppelink says. “It takes an incredible amount of money and time, and … a relentless drive to get any product or any design to the market.”

See more images of the PV-Pod and learn more about their pricing options on ARCHITECT >>