Monday, October 28, 2013


For centuries, the drudgery of having to climb long flights of stairs ensured that buildings were seldom more than six or seven stories high. The least desired apartments in ancient Rome were those on the top floor--just the opposite of our modern preferences. This held true until the late nineteenth century, when elevators began to be incorporated in tall buildings. 

Elisha was here.
Yet the elevator isn’t  quite as modern an invention as you might think. The Roman architect Vitruvius reported that Archimedes built his first elevator around 236 B.C.  In 1743, Louis XV commissioned a personal lift to link his apartment in Versailles with that of his mistress.  Eighty years later, the painter Thomas Horner and the architect Decimus Burton collaborated on an “ascending room” that hoisted visitors to a 37-meter high platform from which they could view the London skyline.

Still, the general public remained understandably wary of such devices, since a single broken rope could send the hapless passeners plunging to their doom. This attitude began to change in 1853, when Elisha Graves Otis demonstrated his “safety elevator” featuring the first failsafe means of arresting the elevator’s fall should a support rope fail. Otis’s elevator went a long way toward easing public anxiety about riding on such contraptions, and in 1857 Otis installed the first public elevator in a five-story department store in New York, and in 1861 he patented an elevator powered by steam. Hydraulic and electric elevators eventually followed, finally obviating the need to climb endless flights of stairs in tall buildings.

Yet Otis’s product (which, in fairness, was greatly refined by a number of lesser-known inventors) would have remained a curiosity were it not for some concurrent trends that made taller buildings both more economicallydesirable and cheaper to build. By the last decades of the nineteenth century, the price of downtown land in rapidly expanding cities such as New York and Chicago began to skyrocket. This put pressure on developers to pack more building volume into the same amount of real estate, which meant only one thing: Build taller buildings. 

Yet the push to pile up more and more stories presented a problem of another sort. Large buildings of the late nineteenth century were still built of masonry and required thicker and thicker walls the taller they became. As an example, one of the last tall masonry buildings of the era, Chicago’s Monadnock Building, carried its seventeen stories on ground floor walls six feet thick. This kind of ponderous and expensive structure simply wouldn’t do if tall buildings were to become practical. Fortunately, a new building material--steel--solved this problem just in time. Steel was enormously strong in relation to its mass, meaning that even the tallest building could now be supported by a relatively wispy “skeleton frame” of girders rather than by hundreds of tons of stone or brick. 

By the late 1890s, the historic confluence of high real estate prices, the safety elevator, and the introduction of the steel skeleton frame set off a national boom in erecting tall buildings. The age of skyscraper building had begun.

Monday, October 14, 2013


Passive solar design is nothing new--vernacular builders have known its principles for millenia. From the Middle East to China, both rich and poor alike have traditionally used the sun’s free energy for comfort. 

Western architects, on the other hand, often seem to have considered themselves above designing with the sun in mind. American colonial houses, with their foursquare symmetrical facades, already hint at the New World’s general unconcern for solar orientation. Perhaps this is because many of our forebears from England, Holland, and other sun-challenged Northern European countries seldom found sunlight worth bothering about. 

Ironically, though, it was modernist architects, who claimed to put rational design above all else, who set a low point in concern for solar orientation. Aside from Frank Lloyd Wright and a handful of others who were uncommonly attuned to nature, modernist architects seemed barely to acknowledge that the sun existed except as a means of casting dramatic shadows. In their determination to discard all vestiges of the architectural past, it seems, the modernists also discarded traditional building wisdom gleaned over millenia. 

Hence, modernist icons such as Mies van der Rohe’s famed Farnsworth House featured exterior walls entirely of glass, pointedly flouting millenia of common sense for the sake of aesthetic purity. In such houses, the unfortunate owners roasted in summer, and in winter sent countless BTUs fruitlessly to their doom. This same sense of aloofness from nature produced modernist apartment buildings with whole facades of balconies facing north, all predictably dark and uninhabited except by stored bicycles.

As thousands of years of vernacular building are once again confirming to our newly-green generation of architects, nothing is more necessary to a home’s livability than careful solar orientation. For buildings designed from scratch, this demands an awareness of exactly where and when sun will enter during the course of the day, taking into account not only theoretical sun positions but also man-made barriers such as neighboring buildings. 

Some rooms, such as breakfast rooms (and for the hard-to-rouse, bedrooms) should receive sun during the morning hours, and therefore require an easterly exposure. Rooms that are used throughout the day, such as living rooms and kitchens, are best given southerly exposures. Rooms with afternoon usage, such as dining rooms, should ideally face west. Rooms that are only briefly occupied, such as bathrooms, laundry rooms, and garages should bring up the rear, receiving the least desirable northern exposures.

Beyond these basics, it’s important to acknowledge the seasonal changes in the sun’s altitude as well as the significant variations in where it rises and sets. Overlook these fine points, and you may find that a breakfast room that’s awash with light on a June morning will be sunless in the depths of December, just when you need old Sol the most.

This isn’t to say that every house should be ablaze with sunshine, though--in some climates, more sun is the last thing you want. Good solar orientation also demands an awareness of when and where you don’t want direct sun. Always bear in mind, though, that a house that gets too much sun can be easily fixed, while a house that gets too little often can’t.