March 7, 2008

Rehabilitation of Henry Wright’s Ramirez Solar House

by Thomas Solon, AIA
National Parks Service

Summary: The Ramirez Solar House sits off Raymondskill Falls Road just south of the town of Milford, Pa., in the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, a unit of the National Park Service. Designed in 1944 by architect Henry Wright Jr., FAIA; the Ramirez Solar House is believed to be one of the earliest examples of a passive solar home in existence. Wright was the son of Henry Wright, town planner, who, in partnership with Clarence Stein, designed many of the early garden cities, including Radburn, N.J., and Sunnyside, Queens, N.Y. Henry Wright Jr. was famous in his own right, notably as editor of Architectural Forum magazine, educator, and author of dozens of articles on architecture and engineering, not to mention as an early practitioner of passive solar research and design.

Interest in passive solar heating emerged in Europe in the years following the First World War where, according to renowned architect Marcel Breuer, a major goal of the German housing movement was to save fuel with solar energy. In particular, Wright’s Ramirez Solar House has a large 18-foot-tall window wall on its southeast side, permitting the sun’s energy to warm the living room in winter, and a roof overhang to shade the window wall from the summer’s mid-day heat. The Solar House is a remodeling of a 1910 summer home that was already on the site, so it represents not just early passive solar design but also sustainable renovation. By necessity, wartime modifications reused much of the original building material.

Wright enhanced the effectiveness of his solar heating design at the Ramirez House by introducing built-in technological improvements. The use of such large glass areas in an intemperate climate though, posed a threat to comfort. A Venetian-blind pocket above the window wall together with curtain tracks supported blinds and curtains. These window treatments protected the occupants from glare and provided some control over excessive solar gain and heat loss.

To more effectively reduce heat loss, Wright used insulating glass. This was a relatively new product at the time that was manufactured by creating a metal-to-glass hermetically sealed air space between two sheets of glass. Introduced by Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass in 1935, Thermopane glass reduced heat loss by 50 percent. It also tolerated much higher inside relative humidity by overcoming the problem of condensation that usually occurs with a single sheet of glass. To warm the downdrafts of cold air falling against his window wall, Wright installed removable “winter windows” eight inches behind the bottom five feet. These inner windows channel downdrafts of falling air to concealed radiators below. Before reaching the floor, the warmed air is deflected into the room. In addition, he installed under-floor radiators, crawlspace heating coils, clerestory radiators, etc.—all using the original steam heating system for economy. (These details were thoroughly documented by Architectural Forum and House Beautiful magazine in 1944 and 1945.)

The Wright way
Henry Wright recognized that insolation is a mixed blessing—that winter’s advantages are equaled if not exceeded by summer’s disadvantages. He called, then, for the use of correct orientation and selective shading devices to achieve year round comfort. His aim was always comfort and economy, not 100 percent solar heating. “In the process, the whole design of the house is modified,” Wright said of solar heating. His interest in solar heating design opened the door to “variable” elevations such that “The house began to look like a ‘glass house’ only if it were seen from one or two sides at the most.” This is an apology, of sorts, to the average reader of Tomorrow’s House who had not yet accepted Modern architecture or been weaned from traditional styles. So, although Wright confessed to being a “convinced Modernist,” he was hesitant to “drape an old fashioned plan in a cubistic exterior.” Yet he denounced “the fakery of bygone handicraft techniques.”

Instead he promoted the honest use of forms, materials, and technologies that, when combined, formed a unified response to all that nature had to offer. “From here on in, anyone who plans a house without giving serious consideration to the operation of the solar house principle is missing a wonderful chance to get a better house, a more interesting house, and a house that is cheaper to run,” predicted the authors of Tomorrow’s House. In light of this generation’s focus on sustainable design and holistic resource management, the relevance of Wright’s work is as clear as the noonday sun.

What next?
The house has been unoccupied for more than 20 years. The probable use for this historic property is foretold by a proposal to create a sustainable design center. Frederick Schwartz, FAIA, has been working with the Park Service to adopt and use the building. Schwartz is an ardent advocate of green building, past winner of the prestigious Rome Prize for Architecture, activist, and humanist whose career has been dedicated to some of America's most visible public projects. His visionary thought for the THINK team for the World Trade Center site and his globally acclaimed new South Street Ferry Terminal have established Frederic Schwartz Architects as among the most creative architects working in New York City today. He is forming a nonprofit for the express purpose of preserving this early example of a Modern building and has offered to assist with preparing the construction documents for the rehabilitation of the structure.

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Thomas E. Solon, AIA, is the National Park Service historical architect in charge of restoring the structure. Stationed at Delaware Water Gap, he is expecting to receive funding from the President’s Centennial Challenge flex funding program for National Parks. The Park Service is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2016. Solon has been assisted with research on this National Register-eligible property by Joanna Kendig, AIA, a private practitioner from Princeton, N.J. Kendig used the property as a case study for a Masters thesis at NJIT.

For more information, contact Thomas E. Solon, AIA, or call 570-420-9782.

Portions of this article were excerpted from a paper titled “Tomorrow’s House Today: Solar Heating the ‘Wright’ Way,” by Joanna M. Kendig, AIA, and Thomas E. Solon, AIA.

Photos courtesy of the National Parks Service.