Solar Energy is an Ancient Idea

This article on Houzz caught my attention. The first sentence is: According to author and educator Anthony Denzer, a solar house – one that deliberately uses the energy of the sun for heating spaces – is often thought of as a product of the 1970s. The article then goes on to talk about houses from the 1930s and later that utilized the sun for heating. This is the topic of Denzer’s new book.

Ancient Energy

Solar energy is not new! Living in the southwest, I have seen the ancient cliff dwellings of the region’s indigenous people. They carved communal living areas deep into the south face of rock cliffs to capture winter sun for warmth. The rocks absorbed the heat, which radiated back out in the rooms as the temperatures dropped.

Sunset image by Sarah Jessup

Even though this is the southwest, it is not hot in every region. It’s not all like Phoenix! The climate at Mesa Verde in the southwestern corner of Colorado, for instance, is definitely one of bitter winters and hot summers. It was no accident the winter sun shone into their homes!

The other benefit of an exposed south facing wall was summer shade. As the sun moved north after the winter solstice, less and less of it hit the south-facing surface. The cliff became an overhang for shade, and the rays of the high mid-summer sun did not enter the living area, keeping it cool.

These are the principals of solar energy – capture and store it in cold weather, and shade it out in warm weather.

Ancient Design in Modern Times

Mesa Verde was inhabited from approximately 600-1300 AD, but going back even farther, ancient Egyptians, Romans and Greeks utilized the sun and the earth for heating and cooling. The Greeks were experiencing fuel shortages, and built homes and cities to capture the sun’s energy. The Romans did the same, but added windows to keep the heat in more efficiently.

With our current energy and economic woes, solar is catching on in green building, but it’s not a new concept. If designers and architects looked to the past for answers, they would naturally turn to more earth-inspired designs. Not only using the sun, but taking advantage of the heating and cooling properties of rock and earth. We don’t need a lot of high-tech equipment and engineering to be saving energy. The sun is free!


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