Solar Decathlon 2017


I visited the Solar Decathlon in Denver this weekend, where 11 houses designed and built by students are on display.  Although I have been a bit critical of the Decathlon, both in The Solar House and here on the blog, I have the highest regard for the students' talents and efforts.

And this Decathlon is different, because Denver will be a bit cold this coming week during the period that the houses will be measured for energy use.  A few of the houses are clearly designed for passive solar gains. 

Here are some photos of the 12 houses.  More info can be found at the Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon website.

Smart Innovative Living Oasis (SILO) by Missouri S&T
team website

Missouri combo.jpg

Our H2Ouse by University of California, Davis
team website

Davis 01 combo.jpg

Resilient Adaptive Climate Technology (reACT) by University of Maryland
team website

Maryland combo.jpg

RISE house by University of California, Berkeley and University of Denver
team website

Berkeley combo.jpg

Selficient by HU University of Applied Science, Utrecht, Netherlands
team website

Netherlands combo b.jpg

NeighborHub by Swiss Team
team website

Swiss combo.jpg

Enable by Northwestern University
team website

Northwestern combo.jpg

CRETE house by Washington University, St. Louis
team website

Wash combo.jpg

surviv(AL) House by Team Alabama
team website

Alabama combo.jpg

Sinatra Living by University of Nevada, Las Vegas
team website

Vegas 01 combo.jpg

BEACH House by Team Daytona Beach
team website

Daytona combo.jpg

While I am glad the contest is being held in a cold-climate city, to reward passive solar heating, the chosen site in Denver --- undeveloped suburbia --- is a difficult one for showcasing the event.  I noticed students walking approximately 2 miles across vacant land to their lodgings at airport hotels.  This is a typical view when approaching the event.

Overview 02.jpg

(Edited to add: This area is planned to be a Net-Zero eco-district called Peña Station NEXT.)

In any case, I liked many of the houses very much and enjoyed talking to the students.  Good luck to all of them!

Tools: The Shading Protractor

In a 1954 report entitled Application of Climatic Data to House Design, brothers Victor and Aladar Olgyay introduced the Shading Protractor.  They showed it on the cover of the report, along with a reference to neoclassical French principles of composition, and the intelligent shading of the Brazilian Ministry of Education building by Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier:

In a 2014 article**, David Leatherbarrow and Richard Wesley interpreted the graphic design above for its cultural meaning.  They wrote:

"That the Olgyays chose a Classical drawing of the profile of a human face and positioned it so that it appears to be gazing at the sun screen of a modern facade through the lens of a shading protractor represents a provocative proposition: building elements designed in precise reaction to environmental factors could become the ‘visibly evident’ elements of a new architectural style equivalent to the Classical."

Protractor-like tools had been used earlier to understand solar geometry and shading* but the Olgyays' developed "Shading Masks" --- a new method of graphic representation to understand solar gain and design proper shading.  In their 1957 book Solar Control and Shading Devices, they established the following procedure:

Step 1: To determine the times when shading is needed.
Step 2: To determine the position of the sun, when shading is needed.
Step 3: To determine the type and position of a shading device which will interfere between the sun and the point of observation during the overheated period.
Step 4: To design a shading device from the shading mask.

Olgyay shading masks 01.jpg

While the Shading Mask is a generative tool for design in the procedure above, it could also be used to analyze existing designs.  In the same book the Olgyays created Shading Masks for various case-study buildings in various locations.  Here are some samples which correspond to actual shading devices of different types:

Olgyay shading masks.jpg


As Leatherbarrow and Wesley noted, the Shading Protractor has been "long since replaced by computer simulation."

*See Tools: Whit Smith's solar tool and Tools: Libbey-Owens-Ford's Sun Angle Calculator
**David Leatherbarrow and Richard Wesley, "Performance and style in the work of Olgyay and Olgyay," arq: Architectural Research Quarterly (2014).

The Ehrenkrantz Solar Project

In The Solar House I mentioned that the Ehrenkrantz Group designed a solar house for Exxon in 1979.  Victor Lazzaro was the illustrator (see p.214).

There's more; this would be a great research project for a student.  It might make a great dissertation.  (I'll supervise!)

In 1977 Ezra D. Ehrenkrantz and Associates had about a dozen projects for the Department of Defense Solar Residential Demonstration Project.  Almost nothing about these projects is published.  Apparently, houses were built in these locations:

Naval Complex, San Diego
Naval Base, Twenty-Nine Palms, California
U.S. Air Force Academy, Colorado
NAVSU Base, New London, Connecticut
Fort Campbell, Kentucky
Fort Polk, Louisiana
Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland
Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Grand Forks Air Force Base, North Dakota
NETC, Newport, Rhode Island
Naval Weapons Station, Charleston, South Carolina
Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas
Fort Belvoir, Virginia

I assembled this list from various sources, but most I culled from an appendix in Don Watson's Designing & Building a Solar House (1977).  Did this project consist of one design, built in all of these locations, or many unique designs?  Were they built?  Were they innovative, technically or aesthetically?

A bit of information, and some drawings, are found on this page by architect Jacob Alspector.

I also found this 1978 report which suggests that this project (or something similar) was funded in 1974 but was mismanaged.  It does not mention Ehrenkrantz and Associates.

A 1977 GSA Memo (p. 30 of the pdf here) says that Ehrenkrantz, Inc. had been retained "to investigate the feasibility of adding a solar system to the White House."  A 2017 obituary of Stephen Weinstein said that he had worked "for many years with Ehrenkrantz Associates" and that he had "designed the solar energy system for the White House," though these two points were not necessarily associated.

The Ehrenkrantz firm is not credited in the sources I've studied about President Carter's solar White House project, but this certainly merits more investigation.

Additionally, in 1978, the Ehrenkrantz Group completed a report for the U.S. Department of Energy entitled "Cost Benefit Analysis of Passive Solar Design Alternatives: New Office Building Temperate Climate."

In 1979, Stephen H. Dalton of the Ehrenkrantz Group gave a paper entitled "Dealing with the Government: An Examination of the Legislative Barriers and Incentives to Passive Solar Design" to the 4th National Passive Solar Conference.

And in 1979, the Ehrenkrantz Group completed a report for the Department of Energy entitled "Active Solar Energy System Design Practice Manual."

When Ezra Ehrenkrantz died in 2001, he merited a remembrance in the New York Times, but it did not mention solar architecture.

The 1975 PPG Solar Center

Here's a remarkable building from the history of solar architecture, about which very little is written: The PPG Solar Center (1975) in Harmarville, Pennsylvania.  I recently obtained this photo.

This is striking.  What a remarkable strength of form and appearance.  Is it fair to say, menacing?  At a glance, you might be inclined to think this is a photo of an architectural model, but looking carefully at the photo, you can see that it's a real building.

The building's concept may come as a surprise: it was intended to test the possibilities for solar skyscrapers.  Basic facts are given in the short Houston Chronicle article pasted to the reverse side of the photo:

SUN MAY 4 1975
Scientists are monitoring this model energy building at PPG Industries' Harmarville, Pa., research center as a prelude to construction of "solar skyscrapers." This one-and-a-half story structure, which has 27 solar collectors in its roof and walls, is a project of Aluminum Co. of America, Oliver Tyrone Corp., Phelps Dodge Brass Co., Standard Oil Co. of Ohio, Sun Oil and PPG. The project is to demonstrate that solar energy systems can help furnish heating, cooling, and hot water for office and commercial buildings. The projects next phase is construction of an actual sun-fueled office building.

Several other newspapers in the Northeast published the same photo and identical article.  An earlier Associated Press article had reported on the corporate partnership and plans for the structure; it was illustrated with an uncredited drawing of a solar skyscraper reminiscent of the Citicorp Center (New York, 1977, architect Hugh Stubbins).*

William Shurcliff included the PPG building in his Solar Heated Buildings: A Brief Survey (13th ed.); it was titled "Learning Model of Tall Office Bldg."  Shurcliff reported full technical details; the system used established technologies and products and proven methods.  It seems to have been a demonstration more than an experiment.

It does not seem this project was directly related to the Citicorp Center, which had a 45° sloped roof intended for solar collectors, a roof form which remains a characteristic feature of the New York skyline.  Citicorp's solar system, which was not built, would have produced hot water, to be used to dehumidify air and reduce cooling energy.  An MIT report on the Citicorp solar system mentions PPG as a manufacturer of flat-plate collectors but does not mention this prototype project.  And Shurcliff's account of the PPG project (also 1977) does not mention Citicorp, and describes the PPG project as a "pilot project for a later moderate-size bldg. and a still later 6-10-story office bldg."

Nowhere do I find the architect credited.  This is unfortunate, because, again, the photograph offers one of the most vigorous and original aesthetic statements in the history of solar architecture.

*printed in the New York Times, August 31, 1974.

Mies vs. Stirling in London

Last month I visited the exhibition Mies van der Rohe and James Stirling: Circling the Square, at RIBA's Architecture Gallery.  It was meant to illustrate the contrasts between two schemes for Mansion House Square, one of London's most prominent sites (see below).  It also raised some much bigger questions.

Mies' design, developed between 1963-69, offered London a glass tower and a large empty gridded public space---typical Mies but quite unusual for London.  It was not built.  Stirling's project, called Number One Poultry and designed between 1985-93 on a more modest footprint, was built and stands as an exemplar of Postmodern architecture (right below).  The RIBA exhibit featured a large model of Mies' design (left below), dozens of sketches and drawings from Stirling, and many period documents about the political machinations that unfolded.

Left: RIBA exhibit.  Right: Number One Poultry.  Photos by Anthony Denzer

Left: RIBA exhibit.  Right: Number One Poultry.  Photos by Anthony Denzer

Part of the importance of the RIBA exhibit is that Mies' design is not well known.  As Jack Self wrote in The Guardian:

"every architect over 40 in Britain has a strong opinion about the work. And yet these views are often held with almost no knowledge of what was actually designed as very little information about the work has existed in the public realm, until now."

A major strength of Mies' design, which has gone unnoticed I think, was its attention to the nearby church of St. Stephen Walbrook, a masterpiece by Sir Christopher Wren.  In the model photo below, you can see the Wren church at the bottom-left.  It would have been given a prominence which today it unfortunately does not enjoy.

Mies van der Rohe's design for Mansion House Square.  Image from The Guardian.

Mies van der Rohe's design for Mansion House Square.  Image from The Guardian.

Why was Mies van der Rohe's project rejected?  Firstly, the politics of public space.  Self's Guardian article cited above also includes some excellent historical context about the "tumultuous" political atmosphere in London in the Thatcher era.  Mies' monumental public space would certainly harbor political protests.  This could not be tolerated, Self concludes, so the Mies project was killed.

Secondly, Prince Charles inserted himself in the process.  In 1984, 15 years after Mies' death, Mansion House Square was still under consideration.  Then the Prince of Wales gave a famous speech (which the RIBA curators displayed), including his view of the Mansion House plan:

"It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined and St Paul's dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London."*

Was Prince Charles later satisfied with the Postmodern replacement?  No.  In his book A Vision for Britain (1989) he said Stirling's design "looks rather like an old 1930s wireless."  And, in reference to the platforms pictured above, he asked: "Is somebody proposing to dive from this tower?"

Instead of a monumental plaza, Stirling's building has a rooftop restaurant/bar, and an observation deck with plastic grass (see below).  On a warm June Friday evening, I went there to see the site from above and reflect on what I'd learned at the exhibit.  The rooftop was packed with young professionals enjoying not only their beverages but also, clearly, the building and its spaces, as well as the transformation of London in the background.  I realized that RIBA mounted this exhibit just in time, for a new historical moment when Postmodern isn't a dirty word the way it certainly was a few years ago. 

Rooftop terrace at Number One Poultry.  Photo: Anthony Denzer.

Rooftop terrace at Number One Poultry.  Photo: Anthony Denzer.

I expect the RIBA exhibit will raise the profile of Number One Poultry and open the door to a new appreciation for Stirling.  But it also revealed the political conservatism that underwrote Stirling's project, and that's something you can't tell just by looking at it or by enjoying a cocktail on the roof.

And finally, was London deprived of a great building and a great public space?  Naturally, the RIBA exhibit implicitly raised that question but made no explicit attempt to answer it.  In my view, a moment of some relief from the congestion and visual chaos, as Mies projects provide, would be welcome in the Bank district.  (This is partly why Wren's city church interiors are so pleasurable.)  Moreover, as a record of architectural history, London has few great high-modernist buildings from the 1950s-60s.  So I am inclined to say yes, it was a missed opportunity when Mies' plan was finally rejected.

*Full text of speech here.  This was the famous "monstrous carbuncle" speech.  In black tie, Prince Charles memorably disparaged a high-tech design by Peter Ahrends for the extension of the National Gallery:

"What is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend." (video link)

In a witty nod to Prince Charles' remark, a British magazine now awards the Carbuncle Cup annually to "the ugliest building in the United Kingdom completed in the last 12 months."