Solar Futures: The View from 1979

The history of solar energy is full of predictions that were not realized and appear in retrospect to have been too optimistic.  This is not a retroactive critique, but perhaps it's a reminder to make forecasts with modesty.

In 1979, the U.S. Department of Energy studied the future prevalence of passive solar houses and light commercial buildings.  They expected that in the year 2000, 41% of new buildings would be passive solar.  That assumed no incentives.  With tax credits, the projection rose to 48%.  (source)

Also in 1979, a report from the Harvard Business School concluded:

"Solar energy, the use of thermal (heating and cooling) applications, fuels from biomass, and solar electric methods, could produce one-fifth to one-fourth of America's energy needs by the year 2000."

Source: Energy Future Report, Robert Stobaugh and Daniel Yergin, eds., (New York: Random House), 1979.  As summarized by William A. Mogel (source; pdf)

Previously on the blog:
Solar Futures: The View from 1978
Solar Futures: The View from 1973
Solar Futures: The View from 1952

Best of 2016

In 2016, I did not get the opportunity to travel for pleasure much.  Still, I had many memorable architectural experiences to recall.

1. Bullitt Center tour

Without a doubt, my 2016 highlight was a tour of the Bullitt Center in Seattle.  It has been the world's greenest building since it opened in 2013; this is a widely-shared consensus as far as I can tell, and I'm not aware of another building in its class.

I was lucky.  My tour was not ordinary one; it was led by Jim Hanford, the project architect for Miller Hull, and Denis Hayes, the client.  To many readers of this site, Hayes will need no introduction, as the Director of the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) in the 1970s, author of Rays of Hope: The Transition to a Post-Petroleum World, and much more.  He is mentioned (too briefly) in The Solar House.  I was attending the American Society of Environmental History (ASEH) Annual Conference, and a small group (almost no other architects) signed up for this tour.  I felt like it was just for me!  Hanford and Hayes spent hours with us.

2. Mark Turner talk

There were several excellent talks at the USGBC-Wyoming conference in October in Teton Village, but Mark Turner stuck a deep chord with me in describing the work of his firm Greenspur --- "a different kind of a design build firm."  Turner is a Wyoming native, so his talk had a very heartfelt 'homecoming' character.  He also comes from an educational background in the humanities, and he spent more time talking about Wallace Stegner than about BTUs.  This was quite a refreshing departure from the usual fare at a green building conference, I must say.  

3. Aspen Art Museum talk

My unit at the University of Wyoming --- the Department of Civil & Architectural Engineering --- invites distinguished guests to campus from time to time.  In 2016, the highlight was structural engineer Greg Kingsley of KL&A, structural designer of the Aspen Art Museum (architect: Shigeru Ban).  Kingsley spoke for an hour about the design process for the timber roof of the museum, and the ~70 students in attendance were absolutely enthralled.  It was an amazing back-and-forth process of creative inquiry between architect and engineer, resulting in a fascinating structure, and Kingsley's presentation of all of this was spot on.

Additionally, I was pleased to host two other outstanding guest lectures at UW in 2016:

  • Corrinne Kerr, AIA, Associate Partner at ZGF Architects in Portland.  She's also an alumna of UW Architectural Engineering.
  • Shelly Miller, Ph.D., Professor at Colorado-Boulder and expert in Indoor Air Quality.

4. Vertical Harvest

With my research group BERG, I visited an impressive structure in Jackson, Wyoming, called Vertical Harvest.  It's a 3-story facility attached to the south end of a parking structure.  Greenhouses are a very interesting subject for several reasons.  The future of agriculture is indoors.  Greenhouses don't operate like buildings.  So we are doing a lot of research!

5. Solar House scholarship
Since you visit this site for Solar House news: Daniel Barber's book A House in the Sun was released in November.  It examines many of the same buildings and issues as I did in The Solar House, but from a different and well-appreciated theoretical perspective.  Anyone who enjoyed The Solar House should also find this to be a worthy read.

Rest in Peace
On a sad note, a pair of people passed away in 2016 who were both important to the world of architecture and to me personally:

  • Norman Millar, Dean of the School of Architecture at Woodbury University.  He hired me to teach at Woodbury from 2002-2005, and I really admired him.  He was a great leader for that institution.  Woodbury's obituary is here; there was nothing in the LA Times.  Frances Anderton called him "A Beautiful Soul," on the blog for her KCRW program DnA.  That's a perfect phrase.
  • Zaha Hadid (1950-2016).  I did not know her well, but she always welcomed Wyoming students to visit her Clerkenwell offices during our summer study abroad program.  The best remembrance was written by Deyan Sudjic in The Guardian.

Thanks for Visiting had 19,300 pageviews in 2016. That's about 53 per day.

Keck's Solar Park: New Videos

Jim Laukes is an independent scholar from Chicago, and a friend.  He's been making some videos at Solar Park, the neighborhood in Glenview, Illinois, where George Fred Keck designed several solar houses for real estate developer Howard Sloan.

In this clip, Laukes captures Chicago architects Nate Kipnis and Mark Miller in the back yard of the first "solar house"---the Sloan house of 1940.  At the beginning they are discussing the possibility of overheating.

More Solar Park videos by Jim Laukes here:

Nixon's Energy Policy

Richard Nixon was President of the United States during the Energy Crisis of 1973, when the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) instituted an embargo and stopped exporting oil to the US.

He responded by initiating "Project Independence," which aimed for the US to meet its own energy needs "without depending on any foreign energy sources" by 1980. 

Federal investments in energy R&D "more than doubled in real terms in the short interval between 1973-1976" (link; pdf).  During the Nixon administration, nearly all of that investment went to fossil fuel and nuclear energy.  Of the $2.45 billion spent on energy R&D in 1974, $32 million (2.5%) went to solar, geothermal and energy conservation programs.  This small proportion increased later, under President Carter.  Nevertheless, the 1970s boom in solar energy development and solar houses (which I explain in Chapter 11 of The Solar House) began without much federal help.

It is also important to remember that Nixon told Americans, in November 1973:
"it will be essential for all of us to live and work in lower temperatures. We must ask everyone to lower the thermostat in your home by at least 6 degrees..." (link
President Carter often gets lampooned for asking the same thing in 1977 (and Lloyd Alter correctly defends him.)

Did Project Independence work?  Here's a graph which gives the answer:

Put another way: "By the time Jimmy Carter took over as president in 1977, oil imports had increased by 370 percent from Nixon’s first year in office." (link)

President Nixon also signed the Emergency Petroleum Allocation Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-159).

See also: Alice Buck, "A History of the Energy Research and Development Administration" (1982). Link to pdf

A few thoughts on the Architecture of Energy-Efficiency

For an architect, energy-efficiency and aesthetics are sometimes portrayed as contradictory values.  I don't believe that, at all.  But William McDonough and Michael Braungart apparently do:

"Efficiency isn’t much fun.  In a world dominated by efficiency, each development would serve only narrow and practical purposes.  Beauty, creativity, fantasy, enjoyment, inspiration, and poetry would fall by the wayside, creating an unappealing world indeed."*

Why do people believe energy-efficient architecture must be ugly?  The solar architecture of the 1970s may play a role.  I call this the "Age of Aquarius hangover."  The superinsulated architecture of the 1980s also contributes.

But McDonough's attitude has a more distinguished historic pedigree, I think.  Consider Louis Kahn's quotation:

"Architecture has little to do with solving problems.  Problems are run-of-the-mill.  To be able to solve a problem is almost a drudgery of architecture.  You realize when you are in the realm of architecture that you are touching the basic feelings of man."

And Kahn's most important influence, Le Corbusier:

"Works of utility become obsolete every day; their usefulness dies, new utility takes its place.  What remains of human enterprise is not what serves, but what creates emotion."

I believe that designers should be informed by scientific optimization, but not enslaved by it.  (My earlier blog entry, Is your window "thermally desirable"? touched on this subject.)  In my view, architects always make aesthetic judgments within constraints and contingencies; building energy use is a big one.  A good architect embraces constraints and contingencies, and uses them as the basis for expression.

Or, as my eloquent friend Dean Hawkes wrote: "sustainable design in architecture must be as much a cultural enterprise as it is the mechanical observance of a technical principle."

Please discuss in the comments!

*Hat tip to Peder Anker, who included this quotation in his article "The Closed World of Ecological Architecture."  It comes from Cradle to Cradle, 2002.