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January 15, 2009

Before the word "solar" evoked images of flat PV panels stuck on rooftops, many architects already had a mind to use the sun to maximum advantage in their designs. I recently discovered a fantastic old book, published in 1947 by Simon and Schuster and long since out of print, entitled Your Solar House. The large, illustration-heavy volume features forty-nine homes by as many architects, one in each state, plus the District of Columbia (Alaska and Hawai'i had not yet been admitted to the Union).


Many of the architects will be familiar names for Dwell readers, including Louis Kahn and Pietro Belluschi. It's no accident that the modernist style features enormous, often wall-size windows—the mid-century stylistic break from tradition was also a leap towards more efficient design, opening the home interiors to invite free assistance from the sun.

A "solar house," by mid-century standards, was not about advanced technology or space-age materials, it was about precise site orientation and the size and placement of windows. Of course, solar orientation is an ancient technique that predates modernist architecture, but the successful execution of a sealed, insulated double-pane glass was quite new and transformed the possibilities for designing large windows. Your Solar House was actually produced by the Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company, a Toledo, Ohio, company that had become a go-to source of information on solar homes after their double-glazed product, Thermopane, proved to be the magic bullet for passive climate control and indoor daylight.

In 1942, they explain in their introduction, "many dwellers in solar houses were blasted temporarily from the placid privacy of their normal existence" after hearing the story of a Chicago home that, on a January day in 1942, maintained an indoor temperature of 72 degrees all day while outside the mercury read 17 below zero. "Automatic controls set at 72 shut off the furnace at 8:30am and did not turn it on again until 8:30pm! For the major part of the day the sun, streaming through the windows which made up virtually the entire south wall, had taken over the job of heating the house."

This revelation spread across news media like wildfire and inspired numerous homeowners to seek out expert advice on making their own homes more solar-responsive. Though not equipped to answer every question flooding in from around the nation, in 1943, Libbey-Owens-Ford decided to launch a program to commission well-regarded architects of the time to design solar demonstration homes in each state as a way to model solutions for different climates and geographic conditions. A nominating panel was appointed to select the architects, and the only stipulation was that their costs were not to exceed $15,000 ("by prewar standards").

Divided up by geographic region, Your Solar House includes drawings and floor plans for each project, as well as short text descriptions that explain the architect's intention with his design (the selected contributors were all men but one, Ruth Reynolds Freeman, who designed the Vermont home). The images here are excerpts from perhaps the most prominent names, including John Lloyd Wright (the son of Frank), Louis Kahn and Oscar Stonorov (who jointly conceived a project), and Pietro Belluschi. It's an inspiring reminder as we go through the current renewable energy renaissance that it is indeed a renaissance—the sensible idea of letting the sun save you some cash has been around since the last time Americans were as cash-strapped as we are this year. While technologies have advanced beyond anything Libbey-Owens-Ford could have imagined in 1943, the approaches depicted in this book—which we'd now call "passive solar" in contrast to our "active" panels and tubes—remain as effective as ever.

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