August 06 2014

Book Review: “The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design”

Anthony Denzer’s 250+ page book The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design, published by Rizzoli, is a study of the evolution of solar design from the 1930′s onward. Dispelling the notion that solar design is a thing of the latter half of the 20th century, in eleven chapters, this detailed historical survey features the earliest passive solar designs by American architects like Fred Keck and Frank Lloyd Wright, tracing Keck’s influence as the “father of solar design” and how other architects, and later, engineers began to explore passive solar solutions for energy conservation.

Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design

The book includes illustrative sketches, original drawings, section details, and magazine clippings that highlight the way solar design was portrayed in the design media, as well as basic sun diagrams and photographs of built projects and significant people.

The chapters and the history they present are structured around two questions that designers grappled with in the course of the evolution of their understanding of a solar building:

1. “How should a solar house perform?”

2. “How should a solar house look?”

The author, who is a professor of architectural engineering, but also has a background in architectural history and journalism, defines the solar house as it was first referred to in 1940: as “providing solar heat for the purposes of saving energy.”

Fred Keck, Sloan House, 1940 - Solar House, Pioneering Sustainable Design

Apart from articulating in detail the essential design features of numerous built projects, starting from Keck’s Sloan House of 1940 and Wright’s “Hemicycle” of 1943, this text also delves into how influential public policy and perceptions about global energy influenced how much support there was for solar design at different times. Positing a disciplinary contradiction in approach between architects and engineers in the 1940s, it follows the integration of their respective principles in the 1950s to greater success in future projects.

Beginning with the early designs of the 1930s, which used site-specific technologies like solar collectors, building orientation, glazing methods and placement, shading geometries, uplifted rooflines, eaves, louvers, and natural ventilation for cooling, it goes on to trace the introduction of more complex technologies like heat pumps, precise on-site temperature measurements, thermal mass energy collectors, Trombe walls, trickle sun heat collectors, SkyTherm (movable insulation and roof pond technology), and finally photovoltaic panels in the 1990s.

Apart from attempts made in the United States from the 1930s onward to minimize energy loss in passive designs for homes, whether through competitions like the “Living with the Sun” competition of 1957 (to stimulate public interest and show that solar design was applicable at the domestic scale), conferences like the “Space Heating with Solar Energy Symposium” of 1950 (which the author likens to CIAM or the Congress for the New Urbanism in importance), private funding – at a time that federal funding was lacking for this kind of research – as well as continuous and persistent institutional attempts (notably by researchers affiliated with MIT), the book also discusses noteworthy international contributions to passive design: the Passivhaus movement, originating in Germany in the 1990s, the Saskatchewan Conservation House of 1977 in Canada (the most visited solar house, which launched the superinsulation R2000 government incentive in Canada, still in practice today), Japan’s Yanagimachi House, the first to use radiant ceilings for heating at night, and France’s Trombe wall design, which was first adapted in the United States in the design of the Kelbaugh House of 1973.

While the author does not provide a clear-cut answer to the two framing questions for his research, he does not set out to do that. Instead, he clearly tells the story of how solar design was adapted in various settings and by various institutions and private stakeholders over time through the efforts of individual designers and researchers like Fred Keck, Arthur Brown, George Loff, Maria Telkes, Harry Thomason, Peter van Dresser, Harold Hay, Wolfgang Feist and others. Skillfully interweaving their design innovations with the ferment of the times, he points out how Telkes‘s Dover Sun House of 1948 became the most published solar house in history, how the 1952 Paley Commission report heralded the scarcity of fossil fuels and the arrival of a solar future, how a solar counterculture developed in the 1960s alongside the political counterculture of that time, and how following the energy crisis of the 1970s, the federal government established SERI, Solar Energy Research Institute, in 1977 and began providing tax incentives for solar design. Denzer does however conclude that the Solar Decathlon, founded in 2002 as a federal program to promote solar design at the university level, places too much emphasis on the use of PV panels.

What are the best incentives to spur solar design and make it a standard in architectural design?

The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design is a Rizzoli publication. The Grid is giving away four FREE copies of the book. Make sure to go to the Rafflecopter Giveaway so you can win your free copy of The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design.

Credits: Images and data linked to sources.

Bora Mici

Bora Mici has a background in design and online writing. Most recently, she has worked as an online contributor for DC Mud,, and, covering urban planning and visual and performing arts in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, as well as topics related to the environment and human rights; editing and translating news articles from around the world. She has also participated in design projects of various scopes, including modular housing, design guidelines, and campus and community planning. Her interests include sustainable projects in the public interest.

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This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 6th, 2014 at 9:23 am and is filed under Architecture, Book Review, Bora Mici, Energy, Engineering, Environmental Design, Technology. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


2 Responses to “Book Review: “The Solar House: Pioneering Sustainable Design””

  1. Rhonda Says:

    Fascinating important topic.

  2. Rhonda Says:

    A fascinating easily understandable look at solar housing,.highly recommend.

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