Solar Architecture

We need to learn the lessons of the past in order to have a future

First the good news: Our ancestors were BRILLIANT!

Before carbon became our main source of energy to heat and cool buildings humans had become adept at harvesting what energy they could from the sun. 

The earliest known examples of human-made shelters date back over 14,000 years. These were excavated in the 1960’s in the mammoth-bone huts at Mezhirich just South of Kyiv, in modern day Ukraine.

The huts, when excavated, were found to have their openings facing the same direction – South, towards the sun. It has been speculated that this orientation was not accidental, and that the openings may have been left open during sunny days and closed over with skins at night, trapping a small amount of solar warmth inside. In a world where the only heat came from fire or the sun all sources of heat must have been highly valued. So, it appears that our ancestors – 14,000 years ago – used the sun to help heat their ‘homes’.

The use of mammoth bones to construct the huts at Mezhirich appears to have given us a rare and totally unexpected glimpse into our once close relationship with the sun. We have been given this perspective because the bone huts survived because of what they were made of, whereas many more structures made of more perishable materials like skin and wood will have rotted away and disappeared, literally, into the mists of time.

The excavated bone huts at Mezhirich may have represented a widespread practice in the prehistoric world of settlement patterns and structures aimed at harvesting what they could of the sun’s warmth.

Bone huts at Mezhirich - artist’s reconstructions

As human civilisation developed, whole communities were built to harvest the sun’s heat, culminating in the city plans and buildings of the Greeks and Romans. The city of Priene, now an abandoned ruin, is a good example of the ancient world’s grasp of the power and potential of passive solar energy. Every building in the city of Priene received direct sunshine, as the city was sited on a slope ensuring that all of the buildings in the city’s deep plan had some solar exposure. The same cannot be said for modern cities – the cities of the epoch of carbon extraction.

Above: Priene, Greece (400BC) 37 Degrees North. The entire city faces due South and is on a slope so that all buildings receive direct sunshine.

Our use of carbon began simply enough with the burning of wood for cooking and heating. It then proceeded with the discovery and use of coal, oil, gas and electricity to heat and cool buildings, and supply power for mechanisation. Carbon fuelled the explosion in human development that was the industrial revolution. But our problem with the carbon cycle – the one which has brought global warming to a catastrophic level within 300 years of the beginning of the industrial revolution – began with the self-same explosion in population and excavation and use of carbon fuels from the 17th Century onward.

The dominance of carbon fuels in our lives and our reliance upon it for every single aspect of our lives has grown to such an extent that (just taking buildings as an example) if we were to withdraw carbon inputs from modern buildings they would quickly become uninhabitable. This can be proven with a simple experiment we can all do. If we switch off our electricity and boiler/heater how long  does our house remain habitable for? It is true to say that most dwellings today don’t face the sun like those huts at Mezhirich, or the city of Priene, because we live in carbon junky buildings. Buildings that rely totally on carbon to function at all. In fact, we live in a whole world full of carbon junky buildings.

With the benefits of carbon comes a price. Climate change, and with it the end of human civilisation as we know it. That isn’t an opinion, that is a scientifically proven fact that is coming true as you read this.

The Earth’s atmosphere is heating up rapidly  (at a rate 10,000 times faster than similar changes in earth’s history, according to NASA). As a consequence, our climate is changing more rapidly than at any point in earth’s history, with catastrophic consequences that are already manifest in unprecedented and record-breaking heatwaves, wildfires, flooding and more extreme weather.

Britain recorded a temperature of over 40C in the summer of 2022 for the first time in its recorded weather history. And since then – in July 2023 came the hottest two days, and hottest month ever recorded in the weather record. Unfortunately the recent record-breaking temperatures are just the beginning. What occurred in 2022 and in 2023 is just a presage of what awaits us and our children. Heatwaves of 50 deg C are likely to be regular occurrences as soon as the 2030’s. And it will not stop there. It will just continue to get hotter, and the weather more and more insane – leading to crop failure all around the Earth’s circumference.

Climate change is also having a catastrophic effect on the ecological systems and wildlife that support human life. The analogy of a brick or stone wall is increasingly being invoked to describe the ecological catastrophe that is attending climate change. One does not need to knock every brick or stone out of a wall for it to fall. One only needs to knock out a few bricks or blocks near the base – and the entire edifice to crash to the ground. How is my life tied to that of a bee? Well, that is well known. Without bees to pollinate crops humans would have little to eat. And so, how is my life tied to a bat, or a snow leopard? It may be that the bat or snow leopard are essential to the survival of bees. And so once they are gone, the bees go too. The wall of Nature is an analogy based upon the assumption that everything is connected, and we are finding that this is truer than we ever thought possible. So, what has this got to do with architecture, or Solarity? The graph of extinctions is virtually congruent with the graph for carbon emissions, average atmospheric temperature rises, and human population growth.

Sure, Solarity is concerned with low to zero carbon architecture. But as has been shown above, everything is connected. And so we should all be concerned with everything in what we do, not just carbon.

If humanity were to survive climate change What would the world look like? Or if humanity were to build a world that was truly sustainable – to all life including wildlife, what would that look like?

We would need to eliminate our reliance on carbon in order to try to mitigate these huge changes in Earth’s climate. And we would need to control our population – but that is another story entirely. If humans ever did decide to do something to mitigate one element at least of our burgeoning problems – carbon emissions – this is where solar passive architecture – the architecture that existed before the advent of fossil fuels – would have a role to play.

We know from our studies of the past that it is possible to build and indeed live virtually without carbon (as long as we don’t expect to fly around the world on holidays, drive gas-guzzler cars and eat cheap factory farmed food delivered in single-use plastic). We know that at least 20% of human carbon emissions are generated by our buildings. So it is clear that there is great opportunity to reduce or eliminate human-generated carbon emissions from our buildings.

Solarity’s approach is to learn and apply the lessons of the deep past – the past that existed before fossil fuels. And use them to the buildings we design now. We seek to re-learn and apply techniques lost in a world of fossil fuel reliance. Techniques that provided both heating and cooling naturally. We know that our ancestors built structures to face the sun to capture free solar energy before fossil fuels. That is our starting point.

We have in architecture today two tools that absolutely supercharge solar passive building. We have insulation to hold in heat, and glass to magnify the sun’s radiant heat and also hold it in a building. It is easy to contemplate a building heating itself on a sunny day. But we have also learned that there are pitfalls – that it is easy to overheat a building by using too much glass (as numerous overglazed solar passive structures testify). Many early glazed structures (even famous ones like Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House) overheated to an extent that made them uninhabitable for lengthy periods of time. If the goal of the exercise is to make a building comfortable, then designing the solar heating part (and using too much glass) and not thinking of the cooling part is a real failure.

Cooling

We have discovered that natural cooling in buildings also occurred before the advent of fossil fuels. The Islamic world has everything to teach us about this, and we have devoured this learning because it is fully half of the Ying-Yang of natural architecture. Natural heating from the sun, natural cooling without any fossil fuels. That is what Solarity aims at. There is clearly a balancing act to perform – the need to provide both heating and cooling naturally. Along with this is the absolute necessity to dispense with carbon within this new equation.

This is the equation that we set ourselves to find a solution to, using solar passive energy as a baseline energy source.

Solar Energy and its Connection with Democracy

Our world – the world that is collapsing due to human-induced climate change – is the world that oil, gas and electricity made for us.

This is, as you are doubtless fully aware, a world of huge imbalances of wealth created by the random geography of who has oil/gas and who does not. It is a world of resource wars both overt – such as those waged the world over for oil and gas possession – to the invisible forms of war – the geopolitics of oil and gas represented in forms of ‘othering’ like fascism, racism and ethnic prejudice towards the poorest who do not possess carbon wealth. It is also the world of gross pollution, greed and resource plunder we live in, as the oil and gas possessors teach their subjects to take and use Earth’s resources to create unshared personal wealth for themselves. 

The carbon world is one where the greediest and most polluting are rewarded – we all know that. And the Earth’s wealth – everything from space, food, opportunity, healthcare, decent housing, clean air and water, education – is hoarded and not shared. A world of corruption, the pursuit of money and growth at any cost. A world of colonisation, exploitation, slavery, and theft. Those that had industrial capacity exploited those that didn’t – stole their natural resources, and brutalised, tortured and enslaved them. An English ship with cannons and men with guns arrives at a West African shore – or another ship arrives at a South American shore with Conquistadors. The cannon, swords and guns they all have were made in furnaces fed by coal. From Nigeria and Ghana to Kuwait and Iraq. From The Japanese conquest of Malaysia and the Philippines in WW2 – to gain oil. From recent Russian blackmail using gas supply to intimidate whole countries. To Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in WW2 and its drive south to the oilfields. The brutality that carbon has brought is so deep it seeps into our every pore. Carbon generates war. This is the deeply toxic world that coal, oil, and gas has made for us.

Contrast this to the world that solar energy builds. 

Solar energy is available to all – you don’t have to be rich to receive its benefits. It is so plentiful there is no pressure to hoard, take or fight for it. So, there will never be solar passive energy wars as solar energy is so plentiful. This is the reason oil companies do not invest in solar energy. It cannot be hoarded and sold for profit

Fossil Fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil, Shell, Total and British Petroleum (BP) have invested heavily in disinformation campaigns and fabricated conspiracy theories about both solar energy and climate change. Why? Because their profits would be reduced if we availed ourselves of solar energy in lieu of their fossil fuels.

Likewise, if we take the action needed to preserve a liveable earth for our children (and millions of other species) – by eliminating our use of fossil fuels altogether their profits would disappear. They will not acknowledge the damage they have done to our home and have instead sought to sew doubt about climate change and to slow or stop action to avert it. As part of this they have subverted and sabotaged investment, information and knowledge of the various forms of renewable energy for decades.

This is probably why you don’t know about solar passive.

Here are some of the aspects of solar passive energy you probably aren’t aware of:

  • It is FREE.
  • It is ton-toxic and non-polluting.
  • It is silent.
  • It is odourless.
  • It is simple – it doesn’t require a manual or a university degree to understand – ancient humans used it.
  • It is free of government or mega-corporation interference, corruption, and taxes.
  • It does not belong to the few, but to all. So it cannot be hoarded and sold for profit.
  • It does not promote or cause resource wars.
  • It is available to all regardless of wealth, sex, ethnicity or religion.

Solar passive energy is the most democratic form of energy – available from the Arctic/Antarctic to the Equator. From Singapore to Spitsbergen. From the Aboriginal people of Australia to the Innuit of Alaska. It is completely oblivious of skin colour or religious belief.

In the solar world there are two forms of energy – the passive heating and cooling that we have talked about above – as practiced in Mezhirich and Priene. We call this PASSIVE SOLAR ENERGY.

There is also ACTIVE SOLAR ENERGY – the use of photovoltaic cells to convert the sun’s radiation directly into electricity, or the use of the sun to heat water which is pumped through pipes. There is room for both of these forms of solar energy in the solar world – neither is exclusive, and both are complimentary. Solarity majors on passive solar energy, but we often combine this with active elements which can be integrated into our structures. If a building is optimised for solar passive, it is also automatically optimised for solar active.

On the small residence below by Solarity there are elements of both PASSIVE and ACTIVE solar energy integrated into the one design.

  • The building addresses the sun, and is spread out to maximise solar exposure. The main living spaces are open-planned to share solar heat.
  • There is a solar collecting wall of glass, and very high levels of insulation.
  • There is high thermal mass internally to help both passive heating and cooling. There are opening windows on both sies of the house and in the roof to promote natural cooling by ventilation.
  • There is solar shading to cut out the high sun of summer that overheats.
  • There are solar photovoltaic panels on the roof – Active solar.

Our journey to a sustainable existence begins with us acknowledging the damage that we, and fossil fuels have caused our Earth. And in stopping its use forthwith, replacing it with renewables and solar passive buildings and communities. The part of the renewables options that goes back the furthest – solar passive – would be the central part of any survival strategy in terms of new buildings.

Our survival as a species must also stem from the realisation that we exist within Nature and not above it.

PKJune 2023

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