Date of Degree
PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Barbara B. Mooney
The promise of solar architecture seduces the American imagination at regular intervals. Enthusiasm for solar just as regularly fades, leaving the next seemingly inevitable generation to grope in the darkness, knowing someone must have thought of, and perhaps even solved, these issues before, but having little actual evidence to go on. My dissertation is an attempt to recover some of that history by looking at one specific moment--the years immediately preceding and following World War II--to examine the experimentation and excitement surrounding the solar home in America and consider the reasons for its demise. While energy efficiency and renewable energies are the current trend, memory about the development of solar technologies tends to extend only to the oil crisis-induced projects of the 1970s. Earlier experiments have faded almost completely from the history. When they are included, it is part of an interrupted narrative where, in the 1940s and early 50s, numerous and varied sources claimed solar architecture was the inevitable wave of the future, but as fuel prices fell in the mid-1950s, the American public rejected solar housing until the 1970s. Restoring this history not only helps to complicate our understanding of mid-century building, but also illuminates the process by which a solid idea with seemingly great momentum can fade and be forgotten, perhaps offering a cautionary corollary to the present surge in interest about solar design.
The most common claim about the history of solar architecture is that cost killed the beast--solar was and is always just too expensive. The limitations of this argument stem from the very simplicity that makes it attractive. The question is never whether something costs too much; it is whether that thing is worth its cost. Even though Americans continually return to it, the rhetoric surrounding solar never becomes persuasive enough to convince the American public solar is "worth it." This kind of realization does not jettison economic arguments, but seeks to make them more nuanced and culturally situated. The single-minded cost argument does not fully take up the issue that consumption does not happen in a monetary vacuum. History tells us Americans decided solar architecture was not worth the cost, but the continual reemergence of solar technologies belies this easy conclusion.
Ultimately, a number of factors contributed to the failure of solar homes in this era, including 1) ineffective marketing, 2) the association of solar homes with Modernist design which was notoriously unpopular in domestic applications, 3) the changes in residential building patterns during the era to those that favored generic design over the intensely site-specific solar homes, 4) the difficultly some scientists and engineers had in navigating the gulf between academic communities and the public realm, and 5) the rise of a seemingly promising photovoltaic cell which moved public attention away from options that were at the time more technologically feasible and economically viable and cast solar homes as a futuristic technology for which there was no need to rush to buy as it would be better later. My dissertation expands the understanding of Americans' relationship to solar technologies in this period and beyond. Restoring this history helps complicate our understanding of mid-century building and sustainability. It also illuminates the process by which technologies with great momentum can fade and be forgotten, offering an instructive corollary to the present interest in solar design, and a model that can be adapted to the consideration of any number of failed technologies.
Copyright 2013 Sara Denise Shreve