Let the Sun Shine In
I actively embrace passive solar
April 8, 1982
As I recounted in this piece from 1980, Illinois was laggard is adapting its land use and building regulations to accommodate passive solar houses, whose utility in a time of rising energy costs I believed to be obvious. A couple of years later, I decided to put my money where my mouth was and build such a house in Springfield.
Do I need to say that solar never caught on in Springfield?
See also this piece.
Stories about other people’s houses are nearly as boring as stories about their kids, or their divorces, or, worst of all, their kids’ divorces. This one promises to be no better, and those readers who wish to may leave to spade over their worm farms or whatever it is they do.
For a week or so now I have been part-owner of a new house. It departs from the norm for new houses in several ways, most of them intentional. It is a conventionally unconventional house in a fashionably unfashionable part of town—Springfield’s near east side where it is convenient to bus lines, and close enough to downtown that from our porch I can see the setting sun glinting off the deficits at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center. It was built using various financial incentives offered by the city as part of its neighborhood redevelopment program; indeed, we are so heavily subsidized by energy tax credits and homesteading grants and mortgage interest deductions that the bank insisted that Donald Regan’s name be added to the deed as part owner.
Its chief attractions are its energy-saving features. Its wall are as thick as a regional school superintendent, and there are so many vents in the attic that on hot summer days the updrafts through our soffits should be brisk enough to suck passing preschoolers right off their Big Wheels. The house’s chef d’oeuvre, however, is its solar-assisted heating system: a south-facing solarium and thermal-storage system expected to supply up to half the house’s spaee heat in an average year.
The solar system won’t keep us warm in January and February, at least not by itself. It will keep us solvent the rest of the year, and therein lies its attraction. It is neither unique nor experimental; indeed, we were attracted to it precisely because it incorporates only design elements which have by now been thoroughly tested by real people living in real houses. Yet people react to my descriptions of the house with the same kind of incredulity with which Jerry Falwell might react to a description of the First Amendment. As Larry Stains, editor of the Rodale Press’ fine New Shelter magazine, phrases it in his current issue, “The remaining challenges facing solar homes are simply. . . . the challenges facing all homes: Is the design livable? Is it affordable? Will the builder do a good job, and follow the plan?"
During construction, many people dropped by to gawk and chat, seeking answers to some of those questions for themselves. Some seemed almost disappointed to learn that solar—passive solar anyway—is so simple. One or two seemed puzzled to find that people who would install solar do not have pointed ears and eat bark for lunch. Others were impressed by the mechanical simplicity and the general epistemological elegance of a system which has no moving parts and which runs off a central heat source 93 million miles away.
One guy walked up to the solarium glass and tapped it with his finger as if to verify that it was real. (Fortunately most of our visitors were not so skeptical, otherwise I could easily spend on Windex what I save on gas.) A rare few did not believe that a glass box could heat even a smallish house. But conversation revealed that theirs was not an informed skepticism, but sprang instead from a refusal to take seriously anything with which they were not familiar by upbringing—rather like Diamond Jim Thompson’s attitude toward household budgeting.
Overall, I was pleased to hear people asking the same kinds of questions I had about the system. Not whether a solar system can save money, for example, but how much; not whether it will work, but how well it will work. What happened with automobiles in this country in the years just after the OPEC embargo is now happening with houses. Americans are finally beginning, to look at their houses as energy-consuming machines, just like their cars. (A Springfield dealer of insulated windows, House of Windows, asks in one ad, “You wouldn’t buy a gas guzzler. Why live in one?’’)
Nevertheless, solar remains something that is more talked about than done. There were 1,935 new single-family houses built in Spring- field in the seven years since OPEC, and one could probably fit all of them which consciously incorporated solar designs onto a single city block. Municipal zoning and building codes remain silent on such issues as solar access and siting (although both are being addressed as part of plan revisions now underway in Springfield).
As New Shelter's Stains notes, most new houses are built in subdivisions, and developers seek to build cheap houses in “tried-and-true designs that customers like.” Which means that if you want a tight solar house you have to find somebody to build one for you.
The housing market is both intensely speculative and intensely cautious. Houses cost a lot of money to build and buy. The housing stock turns over much more slowly than the national auto fleet, and because of the cost of houses, people are much less willing to experiment with new models. (I only half-believe this, actually. Until the recent slump, most of the people I know traded in their houses more often than they traded in their cars.) Money lenders are only as brave (or as intelligent) as the public whose collective whims establish housing values, which adds more weight against innovation. Plastic fake shutters will make a banker’s breast glow with the warmth of a dozen foreclosures. But ask him for money to build into your house even a modestly innovative energy system (say, a double-stud wall which is so efficient that you can use a Crock-Pot as a heating source) and he’ll exude coldness like an R-9 wall in January.
Solar has also suffered—as have Christianity and jogging—from the excesses of zealots. To the experts, passive systems such as the one on our new house are, well, boring. They crave excitement, and often achieve it at the expense of marketability. Last year Springfield’s City Water, Light and Power Department held a design competition for architects. CWLP asked them to demise a passive solar demonstration house, which the utility would build and monitor for performance. The winner was the firm of Ferry & Henderson, which submitted an impressive 1,605-square foot house which used greenhouses, thermal chimneys, “cool tubes,” and other elements to reduce annual heating costs to an estimated $40. But the house would have cost $82,000 (not counting the lot) or about $50 per square foot, compared to the $40 per square foot we spent on our much more modest house. At 19 percent interest, that extra construction cost can eat up a lot of energy savings, and last week the city decided to shelve the project, saying that increased costs had made the pay-back period unaffordably long.
Solar needn’t be so expensive. Our house is less elegantly conceived and less striking in appearance, and its energy consumption for heating per square foot will almost certainly be higher than Ferry & Henderson’s. But the ratio of efficiency cost to energy saved will be much more attractive. I hope someone can afford to build that house someday soon; in fact, I wouldn’t mind being able to build it myself. But before it can find its customers, energy conservation must be affordable. To a family strapped by bills, it doesn’t matter much whether they are overpaying the bank or the gas company.
In the meantime, there are some encouraging signs. The State Journal- Register reports a revived interest in solar retrofitting among Springfield homeowners—not enough, perhaps, to make [Earth Day founder and former Illinois lobbyist] Denis Hayes proud to have once lived in Springfield, but good news nonetheless. And plans are afoot to build a second solar house similar to mine up the street.
Until the revolution comes, meanwhile, I may be found in my solarium, where I look forward to lolling in a hammock on those cozy January mornings. Instead of worrying about how to pay the gas bill, I expect to worry about nothing more pressing than whether the winter sun will bleach out my caftan. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
See Home Page/Learn/
Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.
The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.
The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.
A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.
Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."
Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards, posters, and videos.
The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.
“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered."
The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like.
The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly.
An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
author of Abraham
Lincoln: A Life
One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.
Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018
A lively and engaging study . . . an enthralling narrative.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.
The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more. Of particular note are its Prairie State Books, quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.
The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to
The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.
Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order
by book title.
Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.