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The Modern Solar House: Architecture, Energy, and the Emergence of Environmentalism, 1938--1959

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Abstract

This dissertation describes the active discourse regarding solar house heating in American architectural, engineering, political, economic, and corporate contexts from the eve of World War II until the late 1950s. Interweaving these multiple narratives, the aim of the project is threefold: to document this vital discourse, to place it in the context of the history of architecture, and to trace through it the emergence of a techno-cultural environmentalism. Experimentation in the solar house relied on the principles of modern architecture for both energy efficiency and claims to cultural relevance. A passive "solar house principle" was developed in the late 30s in the suburban houses of George Fred Keck that involved open plans and flexible roof lines, and emphasized volumetric design. Spurred by wartime concern over energy resource depletion, architectural interest in solar heating also engaged an engineering discourse; in particular, an experimental program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology led to four solar houses and a codification of its technological parameters. Attention to the MIT projects at the UN and in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations placed the solar house as a central node in an emergent network exploring the problems and possibilities of a renewable resource economy. Further experimentation elaborated on connections between this architecturalengineering discourse and the technical assistance regimes of development assistance; here by MIT researcher Maria Telkes, who also collaborated, at different junctures, with the architects Eleanor Raymond and Aladar Olgyay. The solar house discourse was further developed as a cultural project in the 1958 competition to design a solar heated residence, "Living With the Sun," which coalesced the diverse formal tendencies of midcentury modernism to promote the solar house as an innovation in both lifestyle and policy. Though the examples described are not successful as either technological objects and cultural projects, the story of the modern solar house excavates a history of the present anxiety concerning the relationship between environmental and social conditions. Perhaps most cogently, the narrative reconfigures the role of architecture within such discussions, as a site for both technological innovation and for experimentation in the formation of an environmentalist culture.

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... However, a less-discussed history of Modernism serves as the basis for today's digital tools: the pioneering research into climatically responsive architecture at many leading western Architectural institutions throughout the 1950s. Work by Victor and Alday Olgayay at Princeton (Olgyay, 1963), MIT's Solar House Project (Barber, 2010) and the Architectural Association's research into hot and humid climates provided the basis for many computational analysis programs discussed through this article (Fry,1964). The title of this essay 'Design With Climate,' is a direct reference to Victor Olgyay's treatise to architects of the era (Olgyay, 1963), providing a set of tools by which buildings could be more directly tailored to particularities of their local climates. ...
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A Paradigm shift is in process: Blanket applications of active electro/mechanical technologies supporting Architecture are being replaced by the nuanced application of high-tech in the design process, revealing opportunities for high-performance 'low-tech' formal solutions in built structures. For too long the term Sustainable Design has been synonymous with green roofs and solar panels, yet the application of energy production/reduction technologies onto buildings does not constitute any sort of sustainable gesture if the building form itself is not designed to optimize its own natural performance in the first place. Digital tools therefore provide the potential for architects to reclaim such responsibilities abdicated to engineers over the past two centuries, and allow for radically integrated design processes to optimize building performance unavailable to the fragmented and bloated building industry, with its accrued standards over the past century. This paper positions digital design and analysis tools in a lineage of research and design since Modernism, focusing on how the recent proliferation of such tools is quickly changing how design teams create site specific, performance optimized architecture. This shift creates new opportunities for formal and structural complexity in response to, instead of at odds with energy performance, user comfort and sunlight. Ultimately, this shift presents an opportunity for designers to radically reinvent Architecture as a formal delivery mechanism for atmospheres, shaking Architecture of its reliance on mechanical systems. Performance optimization is the pinnacle criteria of contemporary Architecture. However, with this development, recent studies have uncovered a range of concomitant pitfalls where good design intentions have resulted in miscalculations and unexpected results in the built environment. Although contemporary digital tools offer vast possibilities for quickly analyzing every element of our physical world, the calculation engines behind such programs are complex, and tailored to specific functions not necessarily understood by novice users. Users who perform analysis without an understanding of the meaning and methods behind such calculations may simply create errors; as they say, garbage in, garbage out. To understand the potential opportunities as well as pit-falls of digitally driven climate-responsive architectural design, this paper describes the limitations of several simulation tools as well as built examples where the such limitations were revealed through the design and construction process.
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