Innovations Under the Sun

I am really, truly glad that there are new minds getting into the solar and energy efficiency world.  When I got into this Colorado-Mesa-Verde-National-Park-cliff-dwellingbusiness back in 1977, everything was new . . . to me at least.  There were numerous luminaries out there who became my heroes.  The fundamentals of the second law of thermodynamics were true then and are true now, but technology has changed rapidly since I used the heat from the transmitters in a local radio station to heat the basement offices or when I glazed the cinder block south wall of a newspaper to act as a massive, passive solar collector.  When the oil embargo hit the country and we waited in line to buy gasoline, the fear was that we were going to be cut off from fuel for heating our homes and a massive amount of innovation took place.  We called the homes Passive Solar Homes, but the adjective, solar, was dropped when the house as a system concept took hold.  The thing is that there was a vast amount of innovation being done, and that technology is out there and available and we shouldn’t go about reinventing the wheel unless you want to make the same mistakes again.

There is a fantastic book on “The practice of the Art of Ventilating Buildings” written in 1891 that you can read on-line: Since this was written prior to the use of electricity in homes, William Buchan’s solutions are all passive.

More recently is the work of Bill Shurcliff.  Dr. Shurcliff was born in 1909 and worked on the atomic bomb.  He died in 2006 with 19 patents to his name.  In the later part of his life he turned his attention to solar energy and energy efficiency and would attend monthly luncheons at MIT.  As a prolific writer, he produced a number of amazing books on the subject many of which are available on Amazon:

Solar Heated Buildings of North America – 120 Outstanding Examples, 1978

New Inventions in Low-Cost Solar Heating – 100 Daring Schemes Tried and Untried, 1979

Air to Air Heat Exchangers for Houses, (personally published in 1981)

Thermal Shutters and Shades, 1981

Super Insulated Houses and Double Envelope Houses, 1981

Ned Nisson also wrote a book on super insulated houses: The Super Insulated Home Book.  Ned was the editor of Energy Design Update.  There are a bunch of other books on super insulated houses that should be reviewed.  Certainly insulation technology has changed since 1985.  We thought that urea-formaldehyde was the greatest thing going.

The Solar Home Book by Bruce Anderson the editor at Solar Age magazine was my Bible.  My copy is barely holding together, and I still use it.  The Passive Solar Energy Book by Ed Mazria (who was rumored to have played for the Knicks) concentrates on the solar aspects of the design of homes.  Check out Ed’s 2030 Challenge:

And there is an amazing book called The Solar Energy Handbook written by Henry Clyde Landa, Mariann Cox Landa, Juliet Marie Landa, and Douglas Cox Landa.  I have a hand typed copy of this that has information in it that I can’t find anywhere else.



Steve Baer of Zomeworks invented some amazing things.  His Beadwall product used polystyrene beads to fill up the cavity between two panes of glass in evening, and a vacuum extracted them in the morning.  (I still have a Beadwall tank in my garage that I never had the courage to install.)

There were Waterwalls and Earth Tubes and inflating window shades and Thermol 81 and Ecosea houses and Amory Lovins’ solar briefcase.  Some of these technologies did not survive because they were not good, but many good technologies were lost because the companies were under-funded or run by enthusiasts and not business people.  It would be great if we could develop a building science resource library so that the technologies could be tapped into and the many mistakes that were made would not be repeated.  There has always been a struggle between the passion for improving the environment and developing, producing, and selling products.  Passivhaus seems to have been able to transcend the struggle.


Please visit our website for some innovative products:


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