Roots of the Modern Solar House
Why mid-20th century architecture is still relevant today
By RICHARD CRUME
The advent of the modern solar house was not a spontaneous event. It was the product of decades of thought and experimentation by inspired individuals determined to break the mold, to find a better way to build a house and live in it. Whether driven by concern about energy consumption and the environment, or simply by the fun of tinkering with the latest technologies, the solar housing pioneers were an independent breed determined to take on the status quo and change the American housing paradigm.
An important influence on modern American architecture — the Case Study House Program from the mid-20th Century — provides context for the modern solar house and may help point the way toward the house of the future. The Case Study houses were not designed to harness the sun’s energy, and they were not particularly energy efficient. Yet, there are intriguing parallels between the Case Study houses and the innovative solar housing designs of today.
Rethinking Residential Housing
The modern solar house is more than a collection of big windows and an assemblage of technologies that capture sunlight and convert it to useful heat or electricity. Those of us who have designed and built solar houses know that they represent a lifestyle, a form of self-expression and a personal commitment to the ideals of energy efficiency and conservation. Many of today’s solar house dwellers are inspired by environmentalism and sustainability, and many are individualists with an old-fashioned “can do” approach to developing and testing the latest ideas and contraptions.
Proponents of the Case Study House Program were individualists too, pushing modern architecture of the time to its limits. John Entenza, editor of the magazine Arts & Architecture, initiated the Case Study experiment just after the end of World War II. Entenza was inspired by modern architectural ideas and believed that the postwar building boom presented an extraordinary opportunity to rethink residential housing. To encourage experimental and innovative design, he invited well-known architects of the day to design a series of innovative house plans, with the ultimate goal of creating comfortable living conditions in contemporary living units.
From 1945 through 1962, 36 Case Study homes were designed (including two apartments), and many were actually built. These homes were intended to be low-cost prototypes for the coming housing frenzy, and they represented a new postwar focus on the small, single-family house. Using industrial-grade and recycled materials along with the latest building techniques, the Case Study architects were free to experiment with both construction methods and interior design. Many of the homes incorporated compact and flexible floor plans, and most included extensive glass panels and windows, outdoor patios, low-maintenance gardens and good ventilation. A key objective was to create an informal, California-style living experience, where indoor and outdoor spaces merged.
Case Study innovations included steel-frame construction, indoor gardens, glass walls facing outdoor gardens, lightweight and easily movable furnishings and radiant floor heating. (The concept of incorporating hot water or steam piping into a concrete slab actually originated with Frank Lloyd Wright a decade earlier.) Some houses were intentionally positioned to maximize exposure to the sun. One design included a partially glazed roof with louvers below to control sunlight entering the room. Case Study houses employed modular construction and standardized parts, as they were conceived as models for mass production of the American suburban dream house.
An important feature of a number of Case Study houses was their emphasis on passive cooling for comfort and energy conservation. This was accomplished by orienting the houses to the prevailing breezes, emphasizing landscape shading, and providing wide roof overhangs and window awnings or blinds to prevent overheating. Additionally, pools of water (sometimes swimming pools) were incorporated into the landscaping, which helped to cool the air. Many homes had shaded courtyards.
“Because most opinion, both profound and light-headed, in terms of postwar housing is nothing but speculation in the form of talk and reams of paper, it occurs to us that it might be a good idea to get down to cases and at least make a beginning in the gathering of that mass of material that must eventually result in what we know as ‘house — post war’.”
— Excerpt from the Case Study House Program announcement, Arts & Architecture, January 1945.
Ultimately, the Case Study Program fizzled out without having an obvious impact on the coming developer tract housing boom. But the entrepreneurial spirit of the Case Study architects has lived on through the decades and can been seen in the modern solar house, marked by innovation and experimentation with the latest materials and technologies.
Living Comfortably — Then and Now
What is the significance of the Case Study House experiment today?
The program demonstrated that people can live comfortably in smaller, innovative homes and find economical ways to build them. Additionally, the program showed how indoor/outdoor transition spaces, open floor plans and lightweight furnishings can add a sense of spaciousness to a small space, and how glass and steel can be important architectural elements. And through modular construction, standardized parts and the use of industrial and recycled materials, the Case Study designs anticipated a future time when large-scale production of small, efficient homes may be called for.
“These houses have their own unique importance but, perhaps, the richest results have been the broadening influence on the many other houses over these years that took their form and, in some way, their courage from them.” — JOHN ENTENZA
The Case Study Program is just one of many influences on American architecture and the modern solar house. Yet, many features of the Case Study houses can be found in the contemporary styling of many of today’s architect-designed solar houses — large windows for daylighting, passive cooling, flexible floor plans and multipurpose rooms, radiant floor heating, industrial and recycled materials, southern orientation, large overhanging roofs to shade the sun, and the latest appliances and technologies. As with the Case Study houses, many solar homes today incorporate architectural features that work together to enhance the transition from indoor to outdoor living spaces and to help occupants connect with the natural environment.
Amid the steel and glass of postwar America, the Case Study architects had an appreciation for the natural environment.
Their homes were designed to capture the view through large windows and to encourage indoor/ outdoor living with patios and gardens (for example, one house even had a space outside the master bedroom dedicated to sunbathing).
Perhaps this awareness of how sunlight and the natural surroundings can create a comfortable home life is the Case Study’s greatest contribution to modern American architecture and to today’s solar house.
Richard Crume works as an environmental engineer and teaches university classes on air pollution, climate change and renewable energy. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C.