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
Thanos N. Stasinopoulos
This is a paper presented at
the ISES conference 'Harmony with Nature' in Budapest, 1993.
The terms 'solar',
referring to design
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 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
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.
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.
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.
An identity crisis
An essential debate should address the nature
of bioclimatic design:
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
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.
|In our era, where individualism emerges
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'...