By Lou Varricchio
MIDDLEBURY | Perhaps because it lacks abundant annual sunshine, Vermont has the image of a state that craves the sun. Since the start of the climate change debate, it has become a place eager to welcome the construction of practical, environmentally friendly, solar buildings and so-called solar farms.
Starting in the 1940s, alternative energy, including solar, wind, and geothermal sources, have been tried, with varying degrees of success, to heat and power some homes and commercial structures in the Green Mountain State.
Anticipating the 1970s solar-energy movement by nearly three decades, a quiet Vermont architect tackled the technical problems of designing the first, passive-solar residence suited for Vermont’s cloudy, often harsh winters.
The first step into Vermont’s world of solar house design was spearheaded by Ruth Reynolds Freeman (1913-1969), a talented architect, and associate of Freeman, French & Freeman Architects.
During the 1940s, Freeman, the state’s first full-time, professional woman architect, worked at her office located at 138 Church St. in Burlington. Her firm, which grew to become one of the state’s premier architectural firms, currently resides on Maple Street.
In 1946, Simon & Schuster book publishers and Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company, with the guidance of editor Maron J. Simon and Columbia University architectural expert Dr. Talbot Hamlin, challenged the best American architects from the then 48 states to design practical, affordable passive solar houses to be built specifically for the unique climates of their home states.
Freeman, honored by the publisher’s invitation, was asked to create the first post-World War II residence for Vermonters that would include the latest energy-efficient building materials employing natural solar energy as a “primary” winter heating source.
Simon & Schuster graphic designer Gobin Stair (1912-2008), a Dartmouth graduate, set about creating an unusual coffee-table tome that would inspire homebuilders to consider the future promise of using the sun’s thermonuclear “fusion” energy, located 93 million miles away, down to Earth for use in the home.
The book showcased 49 solar-house plans including the District of Columbia. Stair and others at the New York publishing firm anticipated a world of rising energy costs where natural sunlight might play an increasingly important role in heating American homes.
Freeman submitted her speculative solar-house design to Stair in 1946. It appeared the following year in the large-format book, titled “Your Solar House”. The book is now considered a classic by architectural historians.
“Vermont’s people are acutely aware of the extreme weather conditions in their state,” Freeman wrote in her section of the book. “The stories of temperatures 35 to 45 below zero Fahrenheit are not fiction but a bitter fact which, although not common, the Vermonter nevertheless must face and overcome if he wishes to build a (solar) home that will assure him of comfort throughout the long, cold winter.”
Freeman picked a traditional appearing design for her solar house that “seeks to express the inherent qualities of simplicity and of blending with the countryside typical of a two-story Vermont farmhouse.” But her traditional design apparently used a variety of modern building materials, including Libbey-Owens-Ford’s Thermopane insulating flat glass and cement for thermal storage. All these “high-tech” materials at mid-century were designed to cut heating costs and create a more natural home environment.
Long before the availability of commercial solar photovoltaic technology, Freeman and her fellow Simon & Schuster architects creatively used mid-20th century building materials, such as modern thermal glass and cement, as a means to absorb or “reradiate” solar heat into their house interiors. Orienting the house’s glass-lined elevation to face the sun was a factor that many architects of the time (and even today) overlook to improve natural solar efficiency.
And long before some of Vermont’s former dairylands became sprawling sites for commercial solar arrays, Freeman imagined a future where the sun would be welcomed in every home. It was Freeman who, through her pioneering solar design work, anticipated U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe’s famous quote by more than half a century: “Solar energy is bound to be in our future. There’s a kind of inevitability about it.”