Whit Smith's solar tool

Update: Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and Williams is available at Amazon here and through the Getty here. My contribution is called "No Coincidence: Whitney Smith and Japanese Influences at Midcentury."


This weekend is the closing of an excellent exhibit at the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at UC Santa Barbara: Outside In: The Architecture of Smith and Williams.  In 2012 I was invited by curators Jocelyn Gibbs and Christina Chiang to assist in conceiving the exhibit and to write an essay for the catalog.  They did an excellent job, and I was surprised at the breadth of Smith & Williams' work.

At the time I began to examine the Smith & Williams archive at UCSB, I had finished the Solar House manuscript and Rizzoli was designing the book.  I didn't imagine there would be any crossover between the two subjects.  Whit Smith was not a 'solar architect' in the sense of exploring new methods of heating.

So imagine my surprise when I found this in his archive:

Whit Smith solar tool (1).jpg

A 'homemade' tool to determine solar angles!  Smith apparently took the graphic information, blueprinted it, affixed it to bristol board, then attached a cork handle to a small axle and pivot point, allowing the dial to spin freely.  (It's not clear to me why the spinning function would be useful.)   

Where did the he find the graphic information?  I recognized the chart (called a cotangent diagram) as having come from an article called "Orientation for Sunshine" in Architectural Forum in June 1938.  Then I found a mimeographed copy of that article in Smith's folders.

Whit Smith solar tool (2).jpg

Note that Smith began with the data for 40°N latitude, then penciled in the new coordinates for Pasadena (34°N).  The article included the detailed procedure for doing so.

The Forum article of 1938, uncredited but surely written by Henry N. Wright, was a major milestone in solar house history.  This information was virtually impossible for architects to find prior to then, and it remained difficult to find later.  For much more on Henry N. Wright's importance, see Chapter 5 of The Solar House.

Whit Smith did not use his tool to make solar-heated houses, but to achieve proper orientation and shading so that his houses would not overheat.  He also liked to allow morning sun into his kitchens.  This is clear evidence that the emerging science of solar heating had a wider impact on the profession at large at midcentury.