No. 580 . 05 June 2013 

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The first Passivhaus project, in Darmstadt, Germany (1991), designed by Wolfgang Feist, marks a significant milestone in the evolution of the solar house from an exotic species, towards a new dwelling template suitable for mainstream adoption. Photo: Courtesy Passive House Institute

Evolving the Solar House

by Anthony Denzer

By the end of the 1970s, a significant discourse emerged about the solar house's aesthetic problems and potentials. In numerous cases, solar architecture was treated as a historically emergent type with a secure and inevitable future. One example from 1978:

The first steam powered vessels to cross the Atlantic looked like awkward sailing ships not steamships (just as the first automobiles looked like awkward carriages, not Model T's). They carried a full complement of sails because their reliability was well below 100%. It was not long before they achieved the reliability necessary to evolve their own form and their own structure, vastly different from the form of its progenitors.

Solar building is beginning to embark on this same sort of evolution — awkward, not able to do the job alone, working with adaptations of unsuitable existing forms. The turning point will be when we change our commitment from an add- on, booster mentality to a 100% solar sensibility. At that point evolution will be swift and irreversible. Solar devices, solar buildings and solar villages will rapidly develop appropriate forms and structures.

Such an evolution did not mature in the 1970s. In 1981, architecture critic Paul Goldberger concluded: "... architecture based on the requirements of solar energy, whether passive or active, is bringing us some very disappointing buildings... To be blunt about it, most solar houses are just plain ugly."

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Today the DoE's Solar Decathalon provides an important milieu for solar house innovation. The "Self-Reliance" house was created by a student team from Middlebury College for the 2011 competition.

When President Reagan was elected in 1980, it foreshadowed the end of an era for solar energy. He immediately slashed the budgets for solar energy by two-thirds. At SERI, Denis Hayes was fired and the staff was cut from 950 to 350. In 1985, Congress allowed the solar tax credits to lapse and companies like Solaron folded.

George Löf recalled: "When they removed the subsidies the market disappeared." Some of these companies and their technologies, Thomas Friedman has noted, "ended up being bought by Japanese and European firms — helping to propel those countries' renewable industries." Finally, the Reagan staff removed the solar panels from the White House roof in 1986, even though the system was performing well.   >>>


This article is excerpted from The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design by Anthony Denzer, copyright © 2013, with permission of the publisher, Rizzoli.

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