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  • Writer's picturemaxvasher

In Praise of Passive Solar

We've been having an unusually cold autumn this year in New Mexico. Why? Because, just prior to the onset of the cold, my boiler that runs the radiant floor heat in our house failed. Judging by the amount of time it's taking to schedule technical support, I suspect that several boilers in the greater Southwest area went out recently, thereby bringing about this year's cold spell. So it's not just my fault that it's cold, it's the fault of the cumulative set of boilers in the area that decided to fail this fall. But this post does not seek to discuss Murphy's Law and issues that flirt with Jungian ruminations about the collective unconscious.

So why then is this post exhibiting pictures of my main living space and the overhang just outside of it rather than my boiler or mechanical space? 'Cause we don't need no stinking boiler! That's right. We have had no mechanical heat on as of yet this year and we have been just fine without it despite nighttime temperatures in the teens. Oh sure, the house has been a bit cool just before sunrise, but no cooler than any other house I've been in throughout my life. (Ever wake up in an apartment in London in winter even with the heat on?!?) Within an hour of the sun rising and filling our main living spaces with sunlight we are up to the same temperature that our thermostat is set to except that no mechanical system was needed to get there. Now, I am no troglodyte or fool, so of course we need our boiler because if the sun hadn't been shining a majority of this time then the passive solar elements that I've designed into our house would have been little to no service. So thank the stars that we live in New Mexico, Land of Enchantment and abundant sunshine even in the winter.

Passive solar design is inherent to my interpretation of Organic Architecture. The use of passive solar design to heat living quarters is not only an ancient practice employed by indigenous cultures the world over but an absolute necessity in today's modern homes if we truly wish to reduce unnecessary energy consumption and seek to gain a greater appreciation of our natural world by way of the dwellings we inhabit. Imagine that; living in spaces that actually respond, breath, and function with their surrounding microclimates rather than merely boxing you off from the elements and solely providing mechanically conditioned air. Don't misunderstand me. I very much appreciate technology, mechanically conditioned air, and the resources (gas, nuclear, solar, etc.) that power our modern modus vivendi. However, I do not support the unneccessarily excessive use of these resources required to power dumb architecture that isn't designed to work within the given environment where it lives. We need to use both the ancient, proven practices of conditioning our living spaces as well as our cunning technology and ability to harvest energy. A modern primitive architecture, if you will. In order to truly foster a greater appreciation, preservation, and honoring of our immediate surroundings and the overall planet's natural environment we need to insist that our living spaces are designed in a way that enables them with the opportunity to function with the climate on the other side of our walls. Especially when the boiler breaks.

There is a lot going on in the two pictures attached to this blog post. I will take this opportunity to explain exactly how passive design is working to serve the main living space you see here. Let's start with the exterior photo. The dominant feature seen just outside the main living space is obviously the large overhang. As you may or may not know, the sun is much lower in the southern sky during the winter than it is during the summer. Here in New Mexico we are at about 35° North latitude on the earth. In this regional latitude at noon in the winter the sun only reaches above the southern horizon at an angle of about 31°, very low. Conversely, in the summer at noon, the sun is above the southern horizon at a much greater angle of about 78°, quite high. That's an astonishing 57° seasonal angle change and this change in angle is the reason that it's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. The overhang you see in the picture is calculated to be at the exact length necessary to work with the sun's seasonal angle change. In short, the southern face of our studio/home is shaded in the summer and abundantly sun drenched in the winter. The picture you see here was taken about 4 weeks before the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the point at which the sun is at it lowest yearly point in the sky. Notice how far up the exterior wall the sun is at this point of the year. Then imagine this same view in the summer and the wall being completely shaded, then you will have an idea of how much the sun actually changes its angle in the sky between summer and winter.

Now let's examine the interior photo. Notice how far the sun is penetrating into the room at this point of the winter season and remember that there is no such direct sunlight in the summer because of the overhang described above. Now picture yourself in this space on a cold winter day and imagine the sense of pleasure and warmth you'd experience within one of those sunbeams (a practice not lost on our cats - cats have an incredible capacity to appreciate the qualities of passive solar design). Besides filling the room with direct sunlight in the winter, the heat provided by the sunlight is being stored, yes, literally stored in the mass of the concrete slab floor. Because of the heat gained by the direct light, the boiler for the radiant heat system within the floor only needs to operate at night rather than all day. Further, the heat from the sun is also stored in the mass of the fireplace walls on the right and the mass of the black concrete columns on the left. The black concrete columns are of particular interest in regards to thermal mass heat storage. Besides being a slick looking structural element (especially in conjunction with the lusciousness and textural variety of the adjacent brown velvet curtains), the columns (along with the floor and fireplace walls) store the heat they gather throughout the day and re-radiate it back into the house at night. The black color allows maximum absorption of the heat from the direct sunlight they receive and serve the same purpose as a Trombe Wall ( ). The velvet curtains serve as part of the passive solar design, as well as my penchant for mixing the luxurious with the industrial in terms of materiality and human experience. After sunset in the winter, the curtains are drawn and create an insulating barrier in the airspace between the columns and their adjacent windows, thereby preserving the heat within the columns for interior temperature conditioning and keeping them from absorbing too much coolth (yes that's a word) from the windows at night.

As you can now imagine, the qualities of light and heat exchange in this space throughout the seasons are quite drastic indeed. Earlier in this essay, I referred to the greater appreciation for the environment that can be achieved through proper architectural design. This space, as with all spaces that I design, is a perfect example of how that greater appreciation of the environment can be achieved. When one lives in a space that directly responds to natural processes, one can't help but feel connected to those processes despite being 'inside'. For us, living in this space gives us a direct recognition of the seasonal progressions of the year in the same way that the plants and animals living outside the space have. In a very real sense, this space, because of it's design, has consciousness and feels like a living member of our family. Seasonal change is something that is directly and viscerally celebrated on a day to day basis in our home. Too many of the structures we inhabit do not do this to our collective determent in numerous ways. Too often we only know it's fall because pumpkin spice lattes are available or because we have to put a jacket on to go outside. We have the ability to raise our consciousness about resource management and environmental awareness by designing living spaces that care about such things. Too many of our efforts to create smarter, more environmentally conscientious architecture are focussed on consumer products rather than design and idea driven practices. This renders the bulk of our efforts to essentially "greenwashed" merits that have little effect on our direct interaction and therefore appreciation of the natural world around us. Through good, smart design we have the ability to create both a higher appreciation of our world as well as a more responsible use of it's resources.


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