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Passive Solar


40 Years of Progress in Passive Solar? Outdated thinking is holding back design innovation

A recent article by Tom Zeller Jr. in the New York Times' Energy and Environment section recalled a flood of memories that led to my thinking about dMass.  In the article, Zeller described the experiences of Barbara and Steven Landau as they built a passive solar house in Norwich, Vermont.  Several insurance companies refused to insure the Landau's house because it didn't have a furnace.  The house didn't need a furnace.  Passive solar refers to harnessing ambient solar energy to heat (and even cool) buildings without the aid of mechanical devices like pumps and motors.  It can be an excellent example of dMass thinking, though not always.  The Landaus' experience with insurance shows how many major businesses and government institutions miss, and even obstruct, the real nature of progress.    I remember in the 1970's when many people wanted to build Buckminster Fuller geodesic domes as houses.  The domes weren't very attractive, but they perfectly illustrate my point.  A dome uses a fraction of the materials that a traditional house uses to enclose a given volume of space.  In fact, performance actually increases with size:  the larger the dome, the less material per volume.  More importantly, the dome structure is much stronger than a traditional house (it has a much better compression load limit than a cubic house) and it's earthquake and hurricane proof to boot.  It has structural integrity; it doesn't derive its strength from a foundation anchored in the earth like a regular house.  It just rattles on its foundation in an earthquake and is aerodynamic in a hurricane.  Adding a second floor doesn't require reinforcement of the first floor, so no support posts and beams are required.  A second floor can hang from the structure - the compression actually strengthens the structure.  It is extremely efficient to heat and cool because of the natural convection currents that circulate in a spherical structure.  Yet, in community after community, building inspectors demanded that there be 2 X 4 vertical studs added 18 inches apart.  This is because building codes are often based on 200-year-old knowledge of structures and the ways to achieve adequate compression loads. This kind of thinking hinders innovation that could stimulate the housing industry, lower costs, reduce the need for long-term mortgages (which were at the heart of the present financial crisis), and get more people into better housing.  

Years ago, I participated in an environmental planning process for the U.S. Park Service.  It was the first U.S. government agency attempting to improve its environmental performance.  One session was devoted to the potential use of solar energy in Park Service buildings.  A representative from a Fortune 500 company gave a presentation showing how his company was working on solar energy applications.  He shared a picture of a massive solar thermal system with "advanced mechanical design" for pumping hot water to the company cafeteria.  He explained how that system worked, but said it would probably never be cost effective (the company also happened to make and sell large boilers that would be displaced by solar systems).  

The next presentation was by Bruce Anderson, a young man who many people now refer to as the father of passive solar energy.  Anderson showed pictures of houses he designed for the harsh winter climate of Vermont.  The houses did not have furnaces.  Forty years ago, young architects were designing houses like the Landaus'.  The New York Times article points out that there are now thousands of passive solar houses in European countries, where energy supplies are lower and prices are higher than in the U.S.  But in countless U.S. communities, houses without boilers are not legal.  

Today, new technologies emerging from the nanoscience revolution are enormously expanding opportunities for dMass in housing.  The effect will first be felt in components that look like the ones we are familiar with.  Windows that clean themselves with rainwater (eliminating the need for chemical cleaners).  Windows with transparent films that actually generate electricity for the house.  Paints that provide thermal and sound insulation, as well as produce electricity.  These are just a examples of how dMass is occurring in the housing marketplace.  But ancient building codes, outdated tax systems, and the insurance and construction industries impede more comprehensive, holistic approaches that could dramatically improve housing by reducing resource mass required, environmental impacts, costs and financing, and the speed of production.  The business opportunities for new enterprises in housing are limitless.  The U.S. has traditionally been the leader for fostering new opportunities like this.  But I believe that present thinking and institutions have to change if we are to preserve this leadership.  What do you think?  In your business, have you encountered situations where old ways of thinking were barriers to developing new solutions?