T W E N T Y   Y E A R S   A  F T E R

A CRITICAL REVIEW OF SOLAR ARCHITECTURE BETWEEN 1973-93

by
Thanos N. Stasinopoulos
architect PhD

 

This is a paper presented at the ISES conference 'Harmony with Nature' in Budapest, 1993.
It's still on the web since the contents of this text seem to remain a current issue.

The  terms 'solar', 'energy conscious', or 'bioclimatic' referring to design
are used in the text as synonymous to 'environment conscious' architecture

Greek version
Contents
Abstract | In the quest for solar power
| Insulated ears | Hot questions | An identity crisis | The 'piggy bank' architecture | Sticks & carrots | The post modernist way | The green roots | Conclusion

Times are changing -continuously...
Abstract

After two decades of research and investments since the Yom Kippur war of 1973, energy conscious design still remains a semi-fringe architectural technique, without having been transformed into a widely accepted architectural 'style'. Probably that is due to a poor promotion strategy, or a too solemn approach, or simply because it has been turned just into a technical toy of some experts. The major emphasis is basically put on its techno-economic dimension, usually with very little care for other architectural aspects. Consequently its appeal and spread has been limited, for it looks like a building science field (like acoustics or structural analysis) rather than 'true' architecture.  
       In sharp contrast, the Post Modernist fashion has conquered the architectural profession by storm during the same period, reversing many of the Modernist values. In its case there was no need for scientific 'proofs', for 'performance assessment' or 'efficiency' required by the regulations or the clients as it happens with solar buildings. It has clearly been a victory of Image against Reason, a 'celebration of decline', an expression of the new political trends, or even an indication of fear for the future.  
       The bioclimatic approach has remained in the cost-versus-performance perimeter; the benefits of using non polluting energy forms, the ecological spirit of balancing the artificial environment by natural forces, the joy of 'living with Nature', and the forgotten wisdom of having the climate as a prime building factor, have all been kept under dim light.   
       But does the essence of the energy conscious design really go beyond money saving? If it does, then it is necessary to display (or even devise, if it does not) a broader range of its merits in order to enhance its attractiveness. The skilful 'marketing' of trend setting archetypes and the projection of the associated politics and philosophy should be added to conferences and research projects as promotion gear for some sort of "Green Architecture".  
       Because it is high time to realize the limits of consumerism and the limitations of our planet -unless 'profit' is more important than survival.

 
In the quest for solar power
 

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the  "Energy crisis" birth, or the beginning of the current solar  research & development:It was the war of 1973 in the Sinai dessert that initiated a world wide concern, alarming officials and the public on the issue of natural resources. Thus a quasi-anarchist techno-socio-political cult, blossoming mainly in the western part of the US, passed from the era of "Flower Power" to the current age of international conferences, research programmes and official budgets. 
       Simos Yannas has described the transition from the improvising childhood to the scientific juvenility of energy conscious design: "Some years back we said that 'we could build better buildings, more efficient in energy use, and better related to the local climate'. And they said 'Prove it'; so we went back to the research board to establish proofs that we can do it". 
       Indeed, during the last twenty years, a lot of research and investment has been devoted to answering questions and to convince both the public and the building professionals of the benefits of energy efficiency or the virtues of solar buildings. The European Community in particular has funnelled a great deal of money to that 'cause' through various programmes and projects, in a systematic effort to promote energy efficient buildings, if not bioclimatic 'Architecture'. 

Insulated ears
 

The fruits of those programmes are numerous: Design & analysis tools, case studies, monitoring data, new regulations, various design options and similar sorts of information and guidelines, developed as means to stimulate public interest in solar buildings and to encourage designers to implement bioclimatic principles in their buildings.
       There is no doubt that we do know more on the subject now. But did the accumulated scientific knowledge actually have a satisfactory impact upon practising architects and the environment they design? Has the public embraced the promoted values? 
       Certainly one would expect that in a recession period like the present one, the benefits of solar architecture should automatically generate much fascination; unfortunately there is ground for some scepticism in that respect: 
The bioclimatic dimension of building design is still either widely ignored or implemented in a rather crude way. 
Design and analysis methods have been available for quite some time now, but the majority of architects does not use even the simplest ones. 
Climatic factors are usually put aside, and buildings (even though they seldom reflect the 'Modernist' ideals any longer) are still considered as "machines to live in", at least in environmental control terms: for it is still special equipment, instead of the building envelope and layout, that balances the indoors to ambient conditions. 
Very few architectural schools have introduced bioclimatic design in their curriculum and the interest on the issue among students (an indication of things to come in future drawing boards) is rather low. 
It is really odd to observe a growing interest in solar buildings among engineers but not among architects; in fact this is too obvious in the numerous 'solar architecture' conferences -which usually attract less architects than other technical professions.
       So it seems that the balance between buildings and climatic forces is not considered important by more architects today than two decades ago. Why? 

Hot questions
 

Certainly the existence of design tools and data, like those currently available or under development, is quite convenient, as they can be used by designers as a 'vehicle' towards solar buildings. 
       But what is the 'fuel' of that vehicle?  Why use those tools?  Is their availability, or the reduced electricity bills, enough motivation? Which is the driving force behind solar architecture anyway?  How is it advocated? And -some deeper questions- why advocate it after all? 
       Why have the promotion efforts not been proven more effective yet? Is it because of mistaken tactics or a wrong strategy Is it a false objective perhaps? 
       Finally, what is really the nature and the scope of the 'solar cause' today?  Is it closer to architecture or engineering? Does it go beyond energy?  Which course should be taken in order to attract more attention to it? 
       The answers look neither simple nor obvious; in fact they could become issues for a prolonged debate, or even research topics.  Nevertheless the present paper attempts to voice some related questions that usually stay in the dark. 

An identity crisis
 

An essential debate should address the nature of bioclimatic design: 
Is it just a building technology field, e.g. like acoustics, prefabrication or earthquake proofing, capable only of enhancing other architectural styles? 
Or it can be an architectural school by itself, with its own principles, vocabulary and messages, interacting with the concurrent social impetus?
       In the first case it is obvious that the solar field is an experts' zone of a rather scientific character. In that respect it can find its way into the public mind and the built environment only through channels like regulations, directives, statistics or feasibility studies, all of which refer to quantitative items. That is precisely the currently adopted approach, the very one that leads to scepticism on its effectiveness. 
       On the other hand, the architectural face of solar design has not acquired a distinctive (and certainly not a tempting) character yet. Most constructed examples consist of neutral buildings with some energy related features attached on them. In overall architectural terms they can hardly be assessed as exciting, thus shaping the public perception that the form which follows the environmental function is not usually attractive. 

The 'piggy bank' architecture
  The Spartan look of solar designs not only reflects their utilitarian approach, but it is also directly linked to the preoccupation with "savings", the major focus in the energy conscious arena. 
       Indeed, words like savings, reduction, kilowatts and dollars reverberate in conferences like this one. Other notions like style, quality of living  or imagination are usually absent. This fact, coupled with the majority of the discussion topics, could lead an outsider to the interpretation of solar design as just a method to reduce energy demand, to decrease electricity bills, in other words to save money
       Following that, a natural conclusion could be that the energy conscious design is a purely technical gimmick, addressed mainly to people that cannot afford the luxury of wasting energy. Thus the "man on the street" should regard it as directed mainly to the masses rather than the privileged few, very much like 'mass housing' or 'mass transport'. At the other end of the social spectrum, since rich (and trend setting) people can afford e.g. their petrol hungry Maserati along with their energy hungry post-mortem villa, why should they bother about solar rays -apart for their tanning capacity? 
       The class distinction between 'haves' and 'have-nots' in the context of solar architecture is a direct result of the obsession with "savings", the major issue in the solar debate. The term itself implies a financial restraint which, no matter how pragmatic and inevitable, does not go along with the aspiration to live like the shining social 'models' of today. Spending is widely considered as a social status index in our consumer society, while saving is a faint virtue deriving more of necessity than choice The prevailing 'ideology' in our years is to become rich no matter how -or at least to look like being rich. 
       So the promotion of solar architecture as just 'a cheaper way of building' has obviously a limited appeal and few chances to become a main-stream architectural approach under the current circumstances. 
Sticks & carrots
  Undoubtedly energy conservation and all the related issues are too important to be disregarded, especially in our highly technological era. Solar buildings have a strong case in that respect, since only they offer the potential to reduce energy demand in the building sector. 
       But is that all there is in solar architecture, just energy savings? Perhaps one could accept that aspect as an adequate incentive for developing countries without local energy resources; but for societies where buildings are something more than shelters for a substantial portion of the population, the efficient energy use is not the key factor for building appreciation. People who buy clothes not just to keep them warm but also to project an image are not the best clients for un-inspiring buildings, no matter how energy efficient they may be. 
       Apparently some extra pennies saved in energy use do not count as a sufficient 'carrot' to many architects; on the other hand, in our era of rather cheap oil, the 'stick' is not painful enough. And how one should expect the public to care more than the building professionals? 
       It is worth noting here a too common contradiction in building budgets appraisal: The client is inclined to pay more for the non functional stylish elements than for the environment friendly features, for which a detailed 'proof' has to be established. Perhaps that is because these features remain usually invisible or not fashionable; still it is a clear indication that just 'savings' is not of paramount concern in the current building market. 
The post modernist way
  In sharp contrast to the limited acceptance of bioclimatic design by architects and public, the post modern wave and its variations have stormed the current architectural thinking and practice during the same two decades
       In that case, no research programmes had to be funded, no numerous conferences were held to their merit, no 'proofs' had to be found;  no cheaper buildings were produced, let alone more efficient. Yet that new fashion managed to conquer many designers' hearts and minds, along with clients and building sites. 
       Obviously there was a reason other than savings or efficiency for the rapid spread of post modernism: It rather has been a child of past mistakes, of boredom, and -above all- of skilful marketing by some interested parties.  Glossy publications housed the 'new' ideas, big architectural stars put their weight behind them, and the contemporary political and social trends found some representation in the new type of facades. Architecture has made a sudden U-turn to the past, embracing the Disneyland values
       The solar concept has ignored most marketing rules so far, confined within the Building Physics and Technology perimeter. 
It remains buried under experimental output, technical reports and engineering details, occasionally even scorned as a folly of the '60s and '70s, something like the mini-skirt or the hippies. Thus, in an era globally dominated by visual messages, the failure of solar thinking and design output to create and promote an attractive architectural language and archetypes might explain its rather limited acceptance in spite of the efforts and investment so far. 
       Perhaps one might argue that "solar architecture has not the potential of becoming a self sustained style, able to compete with other architectural trends, as its natural role can only be an auxiliary one". But all the ingredients of a coherent design system seem to be here already: Ideas, materials, construction techniques and above all a presumably genuine social necessity waiting to be expressed. So what is still missing? 
- A competent 'chef' to put it all together? 
- Some gifted designers to create a vocabulary and archetypes
- Some bright theoreticians to manifest the rationale of the new approach? 
- Appropriate market forces to endorse it? 
- Or a clever promotion strategy to boost it? 
The green roots
  Whatever the answers might be, one may wonder how sensible it is to view bioclimatic design as 'an architecture for bad seasons' only. Certainly it is best fit for the future energy crises, but how about the imaginary day when energy will be abundant, say from water fusion?
Will that type of design be obsoletethen?
Will human comfort and well being ever become independent of the environmental forces?
And what about all the non financial values embodied in its origins, before becoming a patronized "architecture of austerity": 
             the ecological concern, 
             the ideas of decentralization and autonomy
             the principles of self sufficiency
             the global awareness of limited resources
             the joy of natural living
       Why are these aspects rare conference topics or promotion gear? Are they meteoric issues, of lesser importance, not apt to calculations and monitoring, or perhaps too 'hot' and well beyond the institutional calibre? 
       Of course there are those who already have emphasized the ecological aspects of environmental design, or those who accept bioclimatic architecture as the way of living in harmony with Nature. But the arguments of those "Cassandras" who warn us about diminishing natural resources, about climatic changes due to human activity, or about the dangers of challenging Nature, are covered by the brain-washing theme "Spend, spend, spend!" that echoes in the desert of alternative social proposals
       Perhaps it would be convenient to deal with bioclimatic design as just another fashion style, much like in the debate on "Post Modernism" versus "Neo neo-classicism" versus "High Tech" etc. Topics like e.g. a Roman villa in Florida may be stimulating to some, but the oil embargo or the Gulf war are still nearby, and even more so is Sarajevo, with its power lines cut. And if one looks to the near future with caution, such nightmares will rather keep hanging around, if not become an everyday reality. 
       Other environmental threats of global scale (like the Amazon deforestation, the ozone depletion, the high birth rates in developing countries, or the growing urban pollution) do not leave much ground for irresponsible appeasement by the professionals who shape our environment. 
       Such a framework underlines the urgent importance of promoting -in both local and global level- the bioclimatic ideas fully blown into a "Green architecture" and emphasizing its validity beyond ephemeral 'savings'. Because ultimately it may not be a matter of "cheaper" or even "better" living, but of plain survival
Conclusion
In our era, where individualism emerges triumphant as much as short sighted, bioclimatic design can -and should- be the architectural expression of a wiser social and environmental responsibility. 
       As our planet cannot sustain the Western standards of consumption for all its inhabitants, the "live and let them die" current world order does not promise a bright future. 
       Therefore those who strive to find how to achieve energy efficiency have an additional obligation to advocate why we should be doing that, in a persuasive manner. A sensible way to accomplish that is, firstly, by revealing, developing, refining and promoting all the inherent attributes of environmental thinking; and secondly (since "business" goes better with "pleasure") by rendering its architectural face into an elegant package.
       As long as the architectural community is fed with just the technical aspects of solar buildings -as it usually happens nowadays- not very satisfactory results should be expected. 
It appears that those people who already 'orbit around the sun', and especially those who get paid for the advance of bioclimatic architecture, should try to remember their own motives for having been attracted to that field in the first place: 
- Was it just to lower the electricity bills
- Was it just to play with a novelty
- Was it for the fun of calculations
- Or it was for another kind of concerns and visions
And then please come forward and promote those motives, which carry more persuasive energy than several 'new highly efficient collectors', or some 'super duper CAD software'.

Unless the solar community is to remain an 'enlightened ghetto'...

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