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Passive Aggressive Solar Design

April 30, 2012
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Passive Aggressive Solar in Steven Holl's St. Ignatius Chapel.

Passive Aggressive Solar Design happens when you incorporate the movement of the sun across the sky into your built environment design. It happens through the creation of fixed shades that cast dynamic shadows. Or with movable devices that require human involvement to change their position: a crank on the wall instead of a motor and sun sensor. It’s the solar equivalent of having a window that opens rather than a massive HVAC system.

Window shading analysis. Slate Shingle Studio.

Unlike its behavioral problem namesake, Passive Aggressive Solar Design is a good thing. After all, the sun doesn’t stop moving. It doesn’t break down and quit after a couple years of operation. You don’t pay for it. It’s just there. In Europe, they protect it with “Right to Light” laws.

Computed projection of a window frame onto the celestial sphere for heliodon analysis. Slate Shingle Studio.

Passive Aggressive Solar is about creating magical spaces by actively considering solar movement in the design. It’s about a window seat and a book at sunrise. It’s about a shady spot at noon. It’s about framing the perfect sunset. At its best, Passive Aggressive Solar is about moments no longer than the time it takes a rainbow to appear and disappear.

As architects we have a goal of expressing structure in design so to provide a sense of order and strength to our buildings. How can we do less than create a dialog between shelter and exposure? If we strive to place vertical elements that correspond to the rhythm and spacing of the structural grid, how can we do less than tell the story of orientation, light and view? How can we honor our innate understanding of gravity without showing a corresponding respect for our diurnal cycles?

Light reflected on a kitchen cabinet

Solar design provides numerous opportunities for computer design tools. The computational aspects of solar position and radiant exposure are well understood but intensive and difficult to execute by hand. The downside of over-dependence on computer analysis, however, is that we lose track of sunlight’s magic in the process. Passive Aggressive Solar Design calls for the ability to combine Steven Holl’s watercolors with computer generated shading diagrams.

I propose a “slow light” approach to solar design, in which we take the time to think about each opening in a space and how it contributes to the magic. Why not use the sun to incorporate movement into the design but on an architectural scale – somewhere between the speed of a waterfall and the stealth of a glacier.

Cats have long been Passive Aggressive Solar Design experts

To paraphrase Aalto, when you design a window, think about your girlfriend inside watching the sunset or your cat’s lazy nap during a sun break.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Steve King permalink
    December 6, 2012 10:47 pm

    Well said. I’m going to take the liberty of linking the piece in my Year 1 coursework.
    regards,
    Steve
    UNSW Sydney

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