Solar Principles and Laramie's Hitchcock House

As I explain in The Solar House, the basic principles of solar architecture were broadcast and applied nationwide starting in the mid-1940s, after having been established in the late 30s and early 40s by architects, especially George Fred Keck.

Here's one striking example of those principles loosely applied: The "Hitchcock House" in Laramie, Wyoming, so-called for the architects Hitchcock & Hitchcock, and built in 1954.  Laramie is my hometown currently so I'm quite familiar with the structure and I just happened to catch it at a photogenic moment.

Of special note are the windows in the center-left on the ground level.  Here you find the classic arrangement of large panes of fixed insulated glass with a shading device above and ventilated louvers below.  This formula was pioneered by Fred Keck and Paul Schweikher in c. 1940 and explained in detail in the book.  In the picture above, at about 4:00PM in mid-August, you can see the shading working perfectly to prevent overheating.  The roof overhang is doing well for the upstairs windows too.  Clearly the architects understood solar geometry.  (I wouldn't be surprised if they used Libbey-Owens-Ford's Sun Angle Calculator.)

This is a perfect illustration of the ubiquity of the 1940s solar house.  Houses like this --- typical but unique --- can be found in cities and towns all over America after 1945.  The late date here of 1954 shows how trends may be adopted late, or persist longer, in the hinterlands.

Now you probably expect the left side of the image faces south.  Where Hitchcock & Hitchcock can be criticized (and why I said "loosely applied" above) is that we're looking at the southwest corner of the structure, and so the beautifully-composed solar wall is facing west --- not ideal orientation.  If they had been following the Keck playbook faithfully, the house would have been long and narrow, running east-west, with the large amounts of glass and shading on the long south face.  Indeed, it would be better if there were almost no glass on the west.  Here the architects compromised and applied a typical south-facing technique to the west.  There's also too much glass on the north.

This is a classic theme in architectural history: techniques are misapplied as a movement or style is popularized and diffuses.  As Goethe said, what is useful in one period becomes representational in the next.

Interior showing the ventilated louvers opened for cooling

Interior showing the ventilated louvers opened for cooling

Today the Hitchcock House is owned by the University of Wyoming.  It's been remodeled, with a significant addition, certified LEED Gold, and renamed the Bim Kendall House.  More info here.  Thankfully during the renovation all of the original "solar" features were preserved, especially the ventilating louvers, which still perform their original function perfectly, providing excellent natural ventilation with building security, while those windows don't need insect screens which would interfere with the view!

On ventilating louvers, see also: Keck's Sloan house II: a new look