Solar Form in the 70s

Last week at the Architectural Engineering Institute (AEI) conference I presented a paper called “The Solar Architecture Taxonomy: A Historical Analysis.” My co-author Jon Gardzelewski and I analyzed 180 solar buildings from the 1970s to see how architects used solar panels when they became commercially-available for the first time. There is very little design theory addressing solar panels. We presume this might have value for designers who wish to use PV in the future.

We found the most common design strategy was to create ‘solar form’—to shape (or distort) the building form so that panels face the south sky. 72% of the 180 buildings in our survey had solar form. In our reading, this design strategy is derived from early-modernist theory (“form follows function”).

We further distinguished between “strong form” and “weak form.” Here’s what we wrote:

…we propose to define strong form as follows: the major form clearly expresses the collection of solar energy, plus the minor forms and other design elements directly support the same theme.  We suggest weak form for buildings that have a major gesture which expresses the collection of solar energy, but other forms and elements which communicate other priorities or influences.”

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To distinguish between strong form and weak form does not necessarily imply a value judgment.  Some examples of strong form are strongly eccentric; they look dated in retrospect.  Some examples of weak form certainly represent sophisticated design thinking, as they reflect the influence of Postmodern architectural theory in the 1970s, where the expression of “complexity and contradiction” (Venturi, 1966) became a positive goal for architectural design. 

Other examples of weak form—typically housesare compromised by an apparent desire to ‘fit in’ to a traditional vocabulary, or to simply not appear eccentric. The magazine Popular Science found “researchers … were trying to make their projects look as much like other houses on the block as possible” (Luckett, 1974).

Previously on the blog:
A note on the solar architecture of the 1970s

In the News: The Dover Sun House

Image from Boston Globe article linked below.

Image from Boston Globe article linked below.

The Dover Sun House (Dover, Mass., 1949) was an important experiment in solar house history, and in The Solar House I tell its story in depth. Because it was created by engineer Maria Telkes, architect Eleanor Raymond, and client Amelia Peabody, it was noteworthy also for being “exclusively a feminine project.”

Andrew Nemethy, who lived in the house as a child, wrote a piece for the Boston Globe this week about the house’s significance and his memories of it. He writes:

“The Sun House had its quirks, not least the daily chore of raising or lowering the shades that covered the seven picture windows. The shades kept warmth from radiating out on cloudy days and (along with a system of louvers) prevented the sun from overheating us.”

As I documented in The Solar House, Telkes’ design for the Dover Sun House used flat-plate air heaters and an experimental method of heat storage with salts. She called it “the Model T of the sun-heated houses.” It operated properly for two winters but then failed, and the technology of salt storage never became prevalent for solar heating*. Nemethy says:

“I recall my mother telling me that we bundled up indoors when the solar heating system began to fail, but my childhood memories are mostly of an odd-looking house in a rural setting 3 miles from my closest friend, not of a scientific landmark.”

Nemethy discusses Telkes’ difficult personality in more length than I did. And he confirms a fact of which I was not certain: The Dover Sun House was demolished in about 2010.

*Note: Today salts are sometimes used in Thermal Energy Storage systems, often cooling systems which produce ice at night (when electricity is cheaper) for air conditioning in the daytime.

Previously on the blog:
Unearthed: Dover Sun House comic

Harold Orr Honored

Just a quick note to mention that Harold Orr was inducted as a member of the Order of Canada last week—a very high honor. Orr, a mechanical engineer, was a key figure in energy-efficient housing in the 1970s, and a member of the team* that built the seminal Saskatchewan Conservation House (1977). In The Solar House I describe the Saskatchewan project as a pivotal historical development when superinsulation and airtightness became more important strategies than passive solar heating and thermal mass. The Saskatchewan Conservation Home is now recognized as an important forerunner of the Passivhaus movement.

In recent years Orr has continued to emphasize the importance of airtight construction for energy efficiency. Did Harold Orr invent the blower door? He says so, here (pdf). I believe it’s more accurate to say that he improved upon fan depressurization methods first developed in Sweden by Arne Elmroth, Ake Blomsterberg and Johnny Kronvall.

Harold Orr’s name is always accompanied by ‘pioneer’, and that is well-deserved! He also received the Pioneer Award at the International Passive House Conference in 2015. By extension, the Order of Canada award offers some welcome recognition for the green building community and its history.

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*The team included:
Project Manager: David Eyre
Ir. E. Hendrik Grolle, Grolle Architect and Engineer
From Saskatchewan Research Council: Dave Jennings, Bernard McArthy, Deryl Thompson
From National Research Council: Harold Orr
From Dept. of Mechanical Engineering, Univ. of Saskatchewan: Robert W. Besant, Robert S. Dumont, Greg Schoneau, Dick Van Ee

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Much more about the Saskatchewan Conservation Home on the Resources page.
Previously on the blog: The Saskatchewan Conservation House: Aesthetic Questions

Solarpunk heritage: The Dimetrodon

If you’re into Solarpunk today, you ought to be interested in the Solarpunks of the 1960s and 70s. They didn’t call themselves Solarpunks, but they believed in many of the things that characterize the movement today as I interpret it—optimism, DIY technology, experimental culture, and a communitarian spirit.

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The Dimetrodon is a prehistoric creature (Wikipedia). It also gave its name to a “bizarro” instance of solar-hippie-communal architecture built in Vermont in 1971.

Image credit:  Collective Quarterly

Image credit: Collective Quarterly

The Dimetrodon was built by Bill Maclay, Jim Sanford, and Dick Travers. It was a multi-family community using solar, wind and wood energy systems.” Maclay, still practicing today, says it was “a more environmentally sound pattern for growth” than the dominant pattern based on “suburban sprawl, strip development and the advent of the automobile.”

It was an ad-hoc design, which evolved during construction with the participation of other residents. Sanford, also still practicing as of 2015, told Seth Putnam: “There was no forethought whatsoever. The people who lived there had to subscribe to a common idea, or it wouldn’t have worked.”

Image credit:  Collective Quarterly

Image credit: Collective Quarterly

The Scout says: “Over four decades later these homes are still standing and functioning in Warren, Vermont and have become a model of sustainable living.”

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As a matter of historical perspective and interpretation, I do find the architectural style of the Dimetrodon raises some issues. When solar architecture became associated with eccentric forms, the aesthetics of hippie culture, and/or the appearance of a science experiment in the 1970s, it created a stigma which (I think) contributed to stalling the progress of sustainable architecture in the late 1980s and 1990s. I wrote a bit about this here.

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More: The Fleming Museum has a Flickr page including images of Dimetrodon and other design/build structures from Vermont from the 1964–77 period. Also more photos here.

Also on the blog: Solarpunk heritage: Peter van Dresser

Best of 2018

At the end of the year I customarily reflect upon my personal architectural experiences from the year past—places I visited and other experiences. I didn’t travel much, so my best of 2018 is pretty modest…

Studio Gang’s New Dorms

Architectural surprises are rare and wonderful. I was in Chicago, in Hyde Park, to walk by Fred Keck’s 3-unit cooperative (where he & Lucy lived with brother Bill & Stella and professor Louis Gottschalk), on the way to the Oriental Institute, when I stumbled on Studio Gang’s new dorms for the University of Chicago (called the Campus North Residential Commons). 3D parametric cladding. Beautiful form-making. It strikes me, somehow, as a descendant of the Bauhaus. I didn’t get inside, but the exterior experience was pretty thrilling.

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The Apple Store, Chicago

As I wrote about here, I not only admire the work of Foster + Partners for Apple but think it’s historic. So when I visited Chicago in September I set aside time to visit the Apple Store on the river at Michigan Avenue, just south of the Tribune Tower. What a site!

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Was I moved? Well, I was in a hurry, and it’s a store. But surely the best store I’ve visited in some time.

Critique1: Is the form of the roof meant to refer to the form of an Apple computer? I think yes, and that diminishes the design quality, to me.

Critique2: Yes there are falling-ice problems. This truly surprises me, because it's my impression that Foster's office is full of pragmatic-thinking technically-oriented people.

The IIT Library

I’d been to Mies van der Rohe’s IIT campus several times (and blogged here and here) but never before had I visited the library. It’s a completely different experience than Mies’ other buildings. The typical Mies building is set on a podium or plaza, but here you descend to the main entry, then you are immediately led up, through the floor, to the main space of the reading room. Note (again) the affinities between Foster & Mies in the supreme authority of the ceiling plane.

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The Year in Scholarship

Was it a weak year for architectural history? More likely, I didn’t read enough. Some favorites:

  • Cook's Camden: The Making of Modern Housing by Mark Swenarton
  • Prefab Housing and the Future of Building: Product to Process by Mathew Aitchison
  • Elementhus” by Scott Hedges
  • "Glass buildings..." by Alan Short
  • "Against Historic Preservation" by Deborah Berke in the Journal of Architectural Education

And the best news (from late 2017): An Engineer Imagines by Peter Rice is reprinted, and affordable. Thanks, Batsford!

Beyonce’s Louvre

A virtual experience, but certainly architectural and tremendously powerful—Beyonce’s takeover of the Louvre. I bet I’ve watched it a hundred times.

The Last Word

When in Omaha, visit Herbe Sainte and order the Last Word (a Chartreuse-based cocktail).

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Thanks for Visiting
solarhousehistory.com had 16,100 pageviews in 2018.  That's about 45 per day.
The most popular blog topics were:
Le Corbusier and the Sun (2,520 pageviews)
The Roman Baths and Solar Heating (630)
Zeilenbau orientation and Heliotropic housing (570)
Solarpunk (330)
Nixon's Energy Policy (320)
Solar Orientation and Historic Buildings (290)
Speculative Redesign: Unité d'Habitation (270)

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Best of 2017
Best of 2016
Best of 2015
The Solar House: 2013 Year in Review