Sun Structures

Sun Structures

Howard Sloan House, 1940.
Courtesy MIT Press

The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design
By Anthony Denzer
Rizzoli, $55

Solar House. How do those two words spark your imagination? Do you picture an idealist hippie’s 1970s dome retrofitted with a solar collector and cobbled together with clunky, handmade pipes and pumps? Or maybe a later version with sleek, refined black-and-silver solar arrays with perfectly manufactured parts and pieces? These two popular images of domestic solar applications are at the root of Anthony Denzer’s glossy, amply illustrated The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design. Denzer wants you to expand your preconceptions, to broaden your knowledge of what exactly a solar house is and how it came to be a part of the American domestic landscape.

Denzer, an architectural engineering professor at the University of Wyoming, is also the author of Gregory Ain: The Modern Home as Social Commentary, in which he discusses the socialist ideas underpinning Ain’s architecture. But Denzer’s latest effort, The Solar House, represents a major shift in historical writing. No longer are architectural historians confined to reviewing the big names or buildings of a previously established canon. Denzer is part of an emerging movement looking to more broadly and deeply describe a profound and interwoven material history of architecture, a history with main and secondary architects, as well as off-the-map buildings. And never is this history more important than when looking at the environmental issues in architecture.

MIT Solar House, 1939.

So just what is a solar house? From the beginning, Denzer defines his research to encompass a “building that uses solar energy for space heating that is deliberate and creative.” This definition excludes the earlier notions of solar as a system of maintaining health. The Solar House’s view of solar as only energy-related begins to weave together engineering and design problems in the domestic space. The book works as both a glossy illustrated anthology and as a rich historical narrative. At the same time, it covers both the motivational ethics of solar homes and the pragmatic engineering necessary to achieve innovation. For evidence, The Solar House follows a mostly chronological progression of solar design, starting with architect George Fred Keck’s House of Tomorrow (1933), Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solar Hemicycle (1943), and MIT’s Solar Housing Experiments (beginning in 1939), and follows through to the contemporary Solar Decathlon, a national competition encouraging students to design innovative solar houses. All of Denzer’s examples highlight the primary nature of solar design—from passive solar energy to solar storage—in the inception of the homes.

House of Tomorrow, Century of Progress Exhibition, Chicago, 1933.

Refreshingly, Denzer does not shy away from reporting engineering mistakes and setbacks along the way. Solar House is a refreshing and honest account, warts and all. Take, for example, the unique solar heat storage and cooling house Dover Sun House, a collaborative effort by engineer Maria Telkes and architect Eleanor Raymond in Dover, Massachusetts, in 1948. Viewed a success when it was built, and praised by such publications as Architectural Record and Newsweek, the Dover Sun House was retrofitted with a conventional furnace just five short years after it was completed. But as Denzer points out, failures are part of the research problem, and solar innovation is not a passing trend—it is part of a continuous narrative in engineering and design.

But the book is not always even in its treatment of solar history. If The Solar House has a fault, it’s that it too heavily places chronological weight in the mid-century period, with examples from the 1970s to the present appearing far less detailed and nuanced than those covered in earlier chapters.

Earth Day 2013 helped us all to recall the 1970 landmark celebration and reminded us of the significance of the environmental movement. The Solar House is not simply a gesture to those roots; it is a wake-up call to remind us that those roots go deeper and further back, past the visions of the 1960s.

Hopefully this book will be one of many future investigations that approach the problems of environmentally focused design with serious historical research, attention to innovation, and analysis of the profound impact that environmental history and architectural history both deserve.