Skip navigation
Proposal image

Variations on the Velarium by Michael D Newton

Share via:


Apply ancient Roman invention (the velarium) imbedded w/thin-film solar cells above urban hot spots to disrupt heat island effect.



This project was inspired by an ancient Roman architectural innovation used in the Coliseum.  Spectators were protected from the sun by the velarium (V), a vast canvas awning suspended above the Coliseum.  I adapted the idea in a design to keep individual buildings cooler in the summer, and then further modified my original design for broad use in urban areas to counter the “heat island effect.” My design also calls for the modern version of the V to be imbedded with thin-film solar cells so it achieves a double benefit by disrupting the heat island effect while simultaneously generating electricity. V is supported by a simpler version of a parasol-type structure, and suspended by balloons (B). Deployment: entire V device is contained in a pod composed of deflated B, folded V, and helium tank.  To deploy, a connection to local grid/and/or battery is established.  As balloon inflates and rises, V is pulled upward and unfolds. Structure: V unfolds like a Japanese parasol using similar folding and flex techniques. Bamboo or other ultra-light wood is used to support V.  Feasibility: all components of concept are proven technology: balloons, sailboat sails (or similar highly-reflective material), and thin film solar cells all work well separately. For example, the US Army uses flexible solar cells on the canvas walls of medical tents to generate renewable energy. My concept combines these different elements.  V is "tethered" either to bollards on the ground or on top of select buildings. Quantification: baseline data on city heat index over time is required, as is the heat index of specific sites needed for comparison purposes. Cost and amount of electricity used per site prior to deployment of V is required.  After V deployment, constant measurements of temperature, expense, % difference in heat index are required. Interviews of residents regarding comfort level, etc. before/after deployment should be conducted.  PLEASE SEE RELATED SKETCHES TO BE INCLUDED WITH PROPOSAL.

Category of the action


Who will take these actions?

Government: provide WEATHER BALLOONS (for durability) to use in prototype tests.  Balloons will be double-walled to increase helium volume and lift.

Business: solar industry to provide funds to construct prototype for testing.

City: hold informational sessions for public; request input, comment, volunteer neighborhood for prototype tests. Determine appropriate height of V.  Height should be well-above structures shaded.  Baseball field example: height of V should be above lights on field. In a different configuration I have designed, can be suspended near or over many different size buildings, even small skyscrapers.  City would also inform public re. rainwater dispersion.  V is not deployed over parks, etc. Curvature of design & regularly-spaced holes in direct rain flow to rain gardens.  V is designed for quick deployment and take-down.  V would be taken down during high winds, thunderstorms, cloudy weather.  City would also educate residents about intended benefits: lower electricity costs in summer, shaded streets/walks, greater opportunity for socializing in the shade as opposed to direct sun. V is taken down at close of hot weather season.

Schools at all levels (K-12, Middle, High School, College, University) provide input on design (shape, color, calculations for velarium area, amount of shade produced, amount of electricity produced, etc.)

Faith Communities: Hold inter-faith dialogue on humanity's responsible place in the natural world and form yet another Interfaith Power & Light group to "green" houses of worship and educate their respective communities.

Media: create documentary of Velarium project start to finish for educational, informational purposes.

 MIT: provide lab space, staff, equipment, to help in design and construction of first prototype.

What are other key benefits?

Project Objectives include the following:

1)    Reduce the “heat island effect” in urban areas;

2)    Reduce electricity use for cooling purposes during warm seasons;

3)    Increase the amount of quality shade to encourage people to gather outside and thus reduce social isolation;

4)    Sharply increase the visibility of the “green economy” at work and provide an ongoing, inspirational, and practical demonstration of easily-harnessed viable solar power;

5)    Engage all those who would potentially benefit in the design, construction, implementation, and maintenance of the project and provide a source of jobs for the construction and maintenance of the project.

6)    Generate electricity on-site, creating literal mobile power plants in urban areas;

7)    Develop revenue streams from the sale of generated electricity;

8)    Implementation of concept would provide for IMMEDIATE results, whereas planting trees, refitting buildings, etc., all take significant time for results to accumulate.

What are the proposal’s costs?

Project implementation would require the following: 1) one or more individuals who could transform rough sketches into blueprints; 2) an appropriately skilled design team to evaluate proposal and recommend modifications; 3) one or more individuals who could transfer blueprints to CAD software program for further development and evaluation; 4) funds and lab space for creation of scale model prototypes; 5) support from city government and related city departments; 6) education of community about proposal, intended benefits, call for volunteers (neighborhoods, single buildings, etc.); 7) funds for documentary film to be made of the project.  8) Materials.  Rough cost estimate not including documentary film: $95,000.

Resistance to project might come from city residents objecting to partially shaded portions of the city.  Education here is essential.  The V is not a 100% covering, but has "ports" or small openings in it to allow for direct sunlight.  The intent is not to block ALL sunlight, but the major part of it. Please see related sketches to be enclosed.

Time line

During the short term (5-15 years), the concept should be field tested in multiple cities, with multiple climates and temperatures (Boston, Phoenix, Chicago, Kansas City, Houston, Charleston, Atlanta, Detroit).  A linked database should gather all pertinent information on wind, rain, lessons learned, and other weather events and their effect on the velarium (the velarium project is designed to deploy and then "fold down" in a very short time period.  Details of this are available).  Media should be invited to document all aspects of the project; a "running documentary" should be implemented to keep the public informed of progress, problems encountered and solved, and questions/requests to the community.  The database should be "open" (very much like this brilliant MIT climate site is!) so as to allow for ongoing comment and suggestions from the larger community.  During the next phase,15-50 years, the project should be given an international dimension.  Other desert areas of the world (Sahara, Kalahari, Australian Outback, Gobi Desert, areas in Iraq and Afghanistan, should be invited to participate in the experimentation, implemention, and evaulation of the project.  During the project's final phase, 50-100 years, the by-now proven project should then be either licensed or given freely to countries around the world for their own adoption and application.

Related proposals

I did not see any other proposals that were directly related.  Several apply the use of solar power, some use reflective paint, etc.  I stand ready to be corrected, but this project seems quite different from other proposals I read.


More than 2000 years ago, the Velarium comfortably shaded Roman citizens in the Coliseum.  The current version is merely updated to include thin-film solar technology, and instead of a "ring rope" support system confined to a single area, the modern version of the Velarium uses balloons for support.  My design provides for quick deployment of the Velarium, as well as its rapid "grounding" in case of high wind, thunderstorms, etc. Moreover, the modern version of the Velarium is highly mobile, can be moved efficiently from one city block to another, depending on greatest need or targeted objective (reducing energy use in a single apartment building or city block, for example).


Then & Now, Stefania & Dominic Perring, p.76

The Economist, Technology Quarterly, March 7, 2009, p. 7