Maxwell Fry's Sun House

As I discuss in the book, the label "Solar House" was first used in 1940, by the Chicago Tribune, in a presentation of Fred Keck's Sloan house.  And the Sloan house was the first project (to my knowledge) where an architect calculated solar heat gain and compared it to the structure's heat losses in an effort to quantify energy savings.  Therefore the term "Solar House" is inextricably entwined with the science of solar heating and building energy use.

However, as I mention in the book's introduction and have expanded upon in this blog, there were a number of earlier architects interested in sun-responsive architecture but not solar heating per se.  Maxwell Fry's “Sun House” (London, 1935) is a remarkable example.

 from Wikimedia Commons

from Wikimedia Commons

Fry did not specifically discuss the motivation for making a "Sun House," or the goals of the project.* Most likely, he was following the general influence of Le Corbusier in using the sun for aesthetic benefits.  (More on Le Corbusier soon.) 

There is no evidence that the Sun house was meant to use solar heat for energy savings.  Again I am taking pains to distinguish between sun-responsive architecture (including heliotherapeutic architecture) and solar-heated architecture.  In this sense, the Sun House is not a Solar House. 

The Royal Institute of British Architects published solar geometry diagrams in 1933 (first published in America in 1931), and the Sun House was planned "according to the RIBA diagrams," according to Daniel Barber.**  Fry did not use those diagrams to create shading for the windows in summer, and it is reasonable to assume the house overheated on occasion.  Since Fry practiced with Walter Gropius from 1934-36, it is clear that the Sun House was also related to Bauhaus studies in solar geometry exhibited at CIAM III in 1930.  (Whether Gropius contributed directly to the Sun House is not clear.)  In 1936, Fry and Gropius designed an ‘open air school’ for children with tuberculosis at Papworth, in Cambridge.  The project, with plenty of south-facing glass, was never built, but similar themes appeared in Gropius & Fry’s Impington Village College (Cambridge, 1939).

Nearly a decade later, in the book Fine Building of 1944, Fry wrote, for the first time, about solar heating:

Sunlight, not necessarily sunshine, is a form of heating that costs nothing.  If dwellings are planned so that the living quarters face the sun, which in England travels across the sky from east to west in a high curve in the summer and a low one in the winter, sunlight entering through generous-sized windows will heat throughout most days of the year, and the large windows will, on balance let in more heat than they let out.

By this date, the solar house movement was well-established in the United States, and the last phrase in particular betrays that Fry followed Keck's work in Chicago.  Still, Fry's late endorsement of solar heating should not be retroactively applied to the Sun house or his other work of the 30s.  There are no significant examples of solar-heated architecture in Great Britain before the mid-1950s.

In his later work, Fry focused on shading and natural cooling.  He collaborated with Le Corbusier on Chandigarh from 1950 to 1955, and with Jane Drew wrote Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone (1956). 

 *The Architect's Journal, August 13, 1936.

**Daniel Barber, “Tomorrow’s House: Solar Energy and the Suburban Territorial Project, 1938-1947,” 2011 ACSA Proceedings