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. ●