By Thomas Bailey Jr. in the Memphis Commercial Appeal
Monday, March 17, 2014
Asked to design a West Tennessee welcome center surrounded by thousands of
solar panels, Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects looked to the future for inspiration.
“One thought I had from the beginning is that the building should embrace the
technology of the solar farm itself,” said project designer Louis Pounders.
The West Tennessee Solar Farm sits along I-40 in Haywood County, less than 40
miles northeast of Memphis. The mass of solar panels looks high-tech, said
Pounders, the same architect who designed Tunica River Park, Lichterman Nature
Center and Henning’s Alex Haley Museum and Interpretive Center.
“You’ve got all these exposed steel racks, 20,000 solar panels,” Pounders said. “They
are dark, dark colors. Arranged in rows and angled in the same direction toward the
sun. It’s a fairly futuristic looking site when you’re out there. So from the first time I saw
it I had always envisioned this building recognizing that vernacular.”
The State Building Commission this month approved the early design for the I-40
Solar Farm Information & Welcome Center.
It’s a $4 million project funded by a $3.2 million in federal highway funds and
$800,000 in state highway money.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation is spending another $6.6 million. New
interstate exits, entrances and access roads are being built for the welcome center.
If all goes smoothly, the building could open by April 2015, Pounders said.
Bill Ferguson of Askew Nixon Ferguson is the partner-in-charge and Brian Martinelli is
project manager for the firm.
According to State Building Commission minutes, the 9,000-square-foot building will
include picnic facilities, interpretive components, storage buildings, walkways, a
vending area, wastewater treatment.
The solar farm, large enough to power 1,000-plus homes, is part of the state’s 4,000-
acre megasite for prospective industry.
The welcome center will pull double-duty: Promote state tourism and educate the
public about solar power as a renewable energy.The building will be nearly twice as large as normal because it will house a round,
interactive exhibit about the University of Tennessee’s West Tennessee Solar Farm.
The mini-museum, “SPECTRUM: The West Tennessee Solar Farm Exhibit,” has been
housed in the Knoxville Center mall more than a year waiting for its permanent home
to be built.
An initiative of the University of Tennessee, the exhibit’s goal is to create awareness
of renewable energy and promote students’ interest in science and technology.
The Knoxville News-Sentinel described the exhibit as a “circular lighted tunnel
centered around an ‘illumination station’ that holds a small-scale sun and a city using
the star as a source of renewable energy.’’
The building will be perched on a knoll. “It will be very visible from the interstate,”
Pounders said. “That circular exhibit, which is really colorful — it’s got all these LED
lights and it’s lit up in different colors — will be visible from the interstate.”
Metal panels will cover much of the building’s exterior. Their color will nearly match the
racks supporting all the solar panels.
“It will even have exposed steel columns,” Pounders said. “They are galvanized steel;
exactly the same material that’s framing all the (solar) racks.”
The center’s shape will be “fairly” abstract, with some angled walls.
“I thought that ought to be the look of a building sitting in the middle of a solar array,”