The Solar House: 2013 Year in Review

As the sun sets on 2013, I thought it would be fun to review some of the solar house-related news that caught my eye this year.  This a bit broader than solar house history, to include topics from the green building movement and the solar industry, because I figure anyone who visits will be interested.

A Big Year for PV

It was a "record-shattering year" for the U.S. solar industry.  A system was installed every 4 minutes, including a small array on the White House.

The Top 4 Trends in Residential Solar, according to GreenTech Media, were:
1. Third-party ownership
2. Reducing soft costs
3. Participation by Utilities
4. Vertical integration and consolidation

And at the utility-scale, the 280MW Solana solar farm in Arizona came online in October.  It's the first U.S. solar plant with thermal energy storage.  Also, solar beat coal in new electrical generation capacity during first nine months of 2013.

Lost: The George Löf house

George Löf house, 1956-2013. Photo © Anthony Denzer.

George Löf house, 1956-2013. Photo © Anthony Denzer.

Denver's George Löf house was one of the most important remaining monuments in solar house history, built in 1956 and continuously operating since.  It included flat-plate collectors (air heaters) on the roof and gravel storage tubes.  Sometime in early 2013 it was demolished.  I discovered this and reported it in June.  The news was reprinted by ASES at their website (link) and in Solar Today (link p.53), and then published again in modified form by (link).

Trending in 2013

Gender Issues: In both the architecture world and the solar industry, issues of gender came to the fore in 2013.  In architecture, the Denise Scott Brown/Pritzker Prize controversy started a great deal of dialogue, but didn't bring Brown a prize.  Then, long-since-deceased Julia Morgan did get a prize, causing more controversy (and I jumped into the discussion here). 

In the solar industry, one blogger discussed Why solar needs more women.  A first-ever survey confirmed "women are crucial to the solar market."  And Women in Solar Energy wrote An Open Letter to industry groups asking them to "stop the booth babe culture" and "support a culture of professionalism" at conferences and expos.

The importance of resilience to architecture and civil engineering came into the mainstream of the discourse this past year.  The Rocky Mountain Institute included resilience in their 5 ways buildings have reached a 'GREEN' tipping point.  The Rockefeller Foundation published a nice summary of resilience in September.  And in 7 Home Performance Trends to Watch in 2014, Mike Rogers defines resilience as "passive survivability."  And resilience is a major point in the AIA's new report Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan mentioned below.

The Big Event: Solar Decathlon

About 64,000 people visited the 2013 Solar Decathlon in Irvine, California.  Team Austria won.  All of the houses produced more energy than they consumed.  Great work, students!

For a Rizzoli newsletter, I wrote: If you're curious about the future of solar architecture, head to the Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, this October and visit the 2013 Solar Decathlon.  Twenty new experimental solar houses built by students will rapidly materialize for public tours and within weeks they will be demounted and sent home.  It will be quite a spectacle. In The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design, I discuss the Solar Decathlon's legacy in the context of the longer history of architectural experimentation with solar heating which dates back to the 1930s.... In the book I discuss many reasons to watch the event with a critical eye, but what will surely shine through will be the enthusiasm of the students and their fascinating solutions for an age-old theme: the solar house.

Team Austria house. Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Team Austria house. Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

I also liked Guy Horton's take at ArchDaily: Why the Solar Decathlon Should Enter the Real World.

Every time I write about the Solar Decathlon, I must mention that there is even better work being done in local communities by student groups in programs such as: the University of Virginia's ecoMOD program, which won Architect Magazine’s 2013 Research and Development Award; the University of Kansas' Studio 804 (I am an alumni), which had one of the best new buildings of 2013; and Design Build Bluff, a consortium led by the University of Utah.  These programs are all 'descendants' of the Rural Studio (founded by Samuel Mockbee).

New Books

First, I might modestly mention the one to the right.  (The best third-party summary so far is by John Hill at Houzz.)  Thanks to everyone who bought the book, reviewed it, or blogged about it.  And please continue spreading the word!

I continue to enjoy John Perlin's Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy as I work my way through it.  I wrote a quick reaction and offered some context for the German-modern section here, and hope to write further about the book soon.  You'll find some articles by Perlin are here and here.

And The Greenest Home: Superinsulated and Passive House Design by Julie Torres Moskovitz is an excellent compendium of recent examples.  It opened my eyes to plenty of firms I didn't know about before, and that caused me to reflect on the breadth of creativity (and competence) in the green building movement.  It's also a beautifully-designed book.

New Green Buildings

The Bullitt Center by The Miller Hull Partnership from

The Bullitt Center by The Miller Hull Partnership

I'm especially impressed with the Bullitt Center (website), which opened in April.  This building, it seems to me, could be a game-changer in terms of creating a new aesthetic which is expressive of the features that save and produce energy.  It also signifies a new interest in timber construction which seems to have been a theme of 2013.  A minor grievance from the link: it's disingenuous to say you're saving energy by using remote servers rather than local ones.  That's like eating in restaurants and then bragging about saving money on groceries.

The AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) released its 2013 Top Ten.  The San Francisco PUC building is pretty fantastic.

A Worthy Cause

There's a Kickstarter campaign to digitize the Solar and Renewable Energy Archives of the American Solar Energy Society.  This includes more than 50 years of Solar Conference proceedings and magazines and newsletters.  I think it would open a lot of eyes to know how vigorous the solar house movement was in the mid-50s, as you could see by browsing The Sun at Work, for example.

New Reports

The AIA released the Sustainability Leadership Opportunity Scan in October.  It's serious and significant.  It identifies "Four Priority Issues Where Architects Can Lead": energy; materials; design & health; and resilience.

The Urban Green Council's report, Seduced by the View, says "All-glass facades are a long-term problem."  (My book gives some historical perspective on this issue.)

In Historic Preservation, the Preservation Green Lab issued a major new report, Learning from Los Angeles, which analyzed demolition and development trends.

Overdue Recognition

Bateson Building, by Sim van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe (Sacramento, 1975-78) from

Bateson Building, by Sim van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe (Sacramento, 1975-78)

In July, at the AIA California Council, Etienne Louw wrote a terrific piece about "seminal works in our midst," Sacramento’s Bateson Building and Lincoln Plaza.  These are pioneering green buildings of the 1970s.  In my estimation, The Bateson Building, by Sim van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe, will surely earn a place in the history books of the future.  (Tip o' the cap to Dell Upton for being ahead of the curve in this regard.)  I was less familiar with Lincoln Plaza, but now am very happy to know more about it.

New Professionalism

A major theme in the history and current practice of Green Building is the idea of 'integrated practice', or teamwork.  Simply put, in order to make better buildings, architects and engineers need to collaborate differently.  (Again, my book gives some historical perspective on this issue.)

The journal Building Research & Information  published a special issue on "New Professionalism" (available free).  In it, Bill Bordass & Adrian Leaman propose 10 Elements of a New Professionalism:
1. Be a steward of the community, its resources and the planet. Take a broad view.
2. Do the right thing, beyond your obligation to whoever pays your fee.
3. Develop trusting relationships, with open and honest collaboration.
4. Bridge between design, project implementation and use. Concentrate on the outcomes.
5. Do not walk away. Provide follow-through and aftercare.
6. Evaluate and reflect upon the performance in use of your work. Feed back the findings.
7. Learn from your actions and admit your mistakes. Share your understanding openly.
8. Bring together practice, industry, education, research and policy-making.
9. Challenge assumptions and standards. Be honest about what you do not know.
10. Understand contexts and constraints. Create lasting value. Keep options open for the future.


As usual, Martin Holladay wins the internet this year with his super-informative blog Musings of an Energy Nerd.
My favorite entries:
Passivhaus Buildings Don’t Heat Themselves
All About Thermal Mass
How Much Fresh Air Does Your Home Need?
And one of a historical nature: Can Solar Power Solve the Coal Problem?

WWWeird trend

Historical figures tweeting in first person.

New Tools

Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) shared their in-house Environmental Analysis Tool™, free to all.  It may be the best tool available for calculating embodied carbon.

BuildingGreen's Top-10 Products for 2013 included WUFI software, a tool which models moisture and heat flows in wall assemblies.

Ladybug, a plugin for Grasshopper, does environmental analysis.  It's free.

NREL released a new version of PVWatts.  It allows consumers to estimate the energy production and costs of PV systems.  IMBY will be sunsetted.

NREL's JEDI, which stands for Jobs and Economic Development Impact and estimates the economic impacts of Renewable Energy projects, was discussed at SOLAR 2013.


...another example showing why history matters.  LEED v.4 came on-line in 2013.  The most common version, LEED-NC (for New Construction), doesn't include any new rewards for either passive or active solar as far as I can tell.  But the previous version was already pretty effective at rewarding energy use reduction and green power.  LEED-ND (for Neighborhood Development), however, includes a worthy new provision.  A Solar Orientation credit can be earned for orienting buildings with their long axis east-west, or enabling that in the master plan.  This is best, of course, for passive solar heating, shading, and daylighting control.  As a historian I must note that America's first professional architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, suggested this very same practice---that city blocks should be shallow and wide, extended east-west, for houses to face south---in 1784!