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Helga and William Olkowski, Sim Van der Ryn  Berkeley, California, 1974


Peter van Dresser has been a key figure in the development of the counterculture alternative technology movement in the US. Van Dresser was a writer of science fiction, a professional regional and urban planner and a pioneer rocket engineer, turned ecologist and dropout from the military-industrial society in the late 1940s. In 1938, van Dresser wrote an article in Harper’s magazine entitled “New Tools for Democracy,” which described how the liberating force of science and technology could be used to spell out a non-technocratic future on a human scale. He carried out his original hypothesis throughout his 1972 publication A Landscape for Humans, in an ongoing effort to empower rural communities by using his technical skills as a pool for tools and agency in the use of alternative technologies.

His original intent for the Sun-Dwellings project was to retrofit mobile homes with interior mechanisms to harness effectively solar energy. Van Dresser felt that his long-standing interest in raising environmental awareness through self-sufficient communities, could be best expressed with the use of simple yet effective technology. He proposed the development of inexpensive owner-built homes, which would improve quality of life, yet blend seamlessly with the original roots of the community. The proposal was passed and the construction of four two-dormitory units began in 1976. To ensure the integration of these innovative homes with the fabric of the village in northern New Mexico, van Dresser and his team -including architects William Lumpkins and David Wright, engineers Francis Wessling and B.T. Rogers, and New Mexico Solar Energy Association Executive Director Keith Haggard- conducted a thorough historical investigation of the 400 year-old village, of the pueblos and people. In keeping with the local building tradition, their design consisted of adobe bricks made on site, vigas, which are peeled logs found in any local forest, flagstone, sawdust for ceiling insulation, and pumice for wall insulation. The team also sought to develop effective ready-made solar solutions, usually found in solar heating systems.

Numerous thermocouples were fixed in the Sun-dwelling units, including a temperature gauge and anemometer, in the walls, floors and ceilings, while the performance of all the equipment was monitored directly by scientists at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL). Overall, the performance outcomes were reasonably successful for each sun dwelling strategy. This was best proven in a record performance in 1976, when on Thanksgiving, the outdoor temperature dropped to -19 degrees Fahrenheit and the inside temperatures of each unit remained above 62 degrees Fahrenheit. Wilson believes the Greenhouse approach performs best, given its ability to maintain an interior temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit, while outdoor temperature reached 26 degrees Fahrenheit, without any mechanical assistance. The worst performance was the system using the Trombe wall alone. One reason for this result is due to the size of the mullions, which provided too much shade within the unit. Another reason could be the proportions of the wall, which were perhaps too short for effective solar gain. Of the four models, the Trombe wall produced the least amount of fluctuation in temperature due to its thickness. The engineers at LASL stated that with the various passive strategies, each unit supplies about 50% of the total heat needed in New Mexico during the winter season.

The vision and leadership of Peter van Dresser has resulted in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico being one of the most important sites for the investigation of passive solar strategies. The kinship between advanced machinery used in building rockets and passive low-tech technologies used in the pueblos seems odd at first sight; though it stems from the same belief that a missile or a house can become a self-reliant autonomous system, regenerating its output into input to sustain its course. Having departed from the ARS on political grounds, Van Dresser’s embrace of local culture was a purposive act to turn technics into a social and sustainable ecological lifestyle, using soft technology –biotechnical use of earth’s resources, rather than hard technology – namely machines. For Van Dresser, social systems are infinitely more flexible than technological systems, yet this is still a debatable premise.

KEYWORDS: Passive System, Trombe Wall


LACK OF SUN: Poor maintenance and coordination between the house’s inhabitants resulted in insufficient input for the dwellers, including food quality, clean and hot water, and renewable energy resources for use for cooking, which defeats the aspiration for self-reliance.

INADEQUATE RATIO BETWEEN TROMBE WALL AND WINDOW: It was assumed that in order to operate the Integral Urban house a self-reliant ecosystem, its members would change their daily practices, actions and mentality. In reality, behavioral change has proved to be one of the most challenging parameters of environmental change.

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