Bruce Anderson: Author of The Solar Home Book

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Photo by the MOTHER EARTH NEWS staff
A Plowboy Interview with Bruce Anderson, author of The Solar Home Book.

This Plowboy Interview showcases Bruce Anderson, author of The Solar Home Book.

Bruce Anderson Author of The Solar Home Book

In 1974, the prestigious research firm of Arthur D. Little, Inc. hired a young MIT graduate in architecture to write a definitive, full-length handbook on solar building design. And that graduate — Bruce N. Anderson — labored for a year to produce a manuscript consisting of 800 typed pages and 500 illustrations. One week after the work was handed in, however, Arthur D. Little closed down its publishing operation . . . and Bruce Anderson was left without a sponsor.

Fortunately for the whole solar energy movement, the mere cop-out of his original publisher did not keep Anderson from going ahead and doing something worthwhile with his manuscript. In the fall of 1975, in fact — backed by two friends (Richard Katzenberg and Michael Riordan) — Bruce Anderson self-published the mountain of material he’d assembled under the revised title of The Solar Home Book.

Almost the instant it came off the press, The Solar Home Book was a success. “Before you build or buy a new house, you should read this book,” Wilson Clark (a noted environmentalist) wrote in a review. Popular Science and The New York Times heralded Anderson’s treatise as “the best book yet on solar.” Even the staid Library Journal rated Bruce’s effort “among the best of the new books on solar energy as a viable alternative energy source for homeowners”.

By publishing-industry standards, The Solar Home Book — which has now sold in excess of 125,000 copies at $7.50 each — is a spectacular achievement. By anyone’s standards, it is an important book.

No less spectacular or important than Bruce Anderson’s original publishing success, however, is the success he has met while promoting solar energy via other means. In 1974, for example, Bruce founded his own architectural design and consulting firm: Total Environmental Action, Inc. Since then, TEA (which now employs 30 people) has grown to become a several-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year business made up of a solar bookshop, a publishing arm, and a non — profit foundation.

As if that weren’t enough evidence of Anderson’s interest in sunshine power, Bruce somehow found time in his schedule — in 1976-to help found Solar Age . . . the official magazine of the American Section of the International Solar Energy Society. (During the two short years of its existence, Solar Age has already grown from a few hundred loyal subscribers to a paid circulation of more than 12,000 . . . and the subscriber list continues to mushroom at a rate of 1, 000 new names per month.)

And then, in August of 1977 — just to keep his hand in, so to speak — Bruce acted as the guiding force behind the publication of the widely acclaimed Solar Age Catalog (a book which only made it onto The Washington Post’s best-seller list within a few weeks of its release).

With a record like that under his belt, it’s easy to see why Bruce Anderson — at the still-tender age of 31 — is already one of the fastest rising names in the fast-rising field of solar energy.

But who is Bruce Anderson anyway? How did he get interested in solar energy in the first place? What is his overall goal? Why did he choose to base his operation in Harrisville, New Hampshire (not most folks’ idea of the ideal test site for research into sunshine power)? Where does he stand on the issues of government-funded solar research . . . the usefulness of “active” (pump- or fan-driven) solar heating systems . . . the need to establish manufacturing standards in the solar hardware industry?

It was to obtain answers to these (and other) questions that MOTHER recently sent staff editor Kas Thomas up to New Hampshire to interview Bruce Anderson. The following exchange took place on the second floor of TEA’s 100-year-old “office building” (a former boardinghouse for itinerant textile-mill workers).

Bruce, over the past two years — thanks largely to the success of The Solar Home Book, and your involvement with Solar Age magazine — you’ve risen to become one of the solar movement’s most visible, and highly regarded spokesmen. Yet I think it’s probably safe to say that in your own way you’re probably one of the most private and unsung leaders that the field has. So tell us: Who are you? What’s your background? What factors have led to your becoming the famous solar architect that you now are?

Really! You’re putting me on the spot. Well, I was born in Portland, Maine on June 8, 1947, if that’s any help.

Did you grow up in Maine?

No. I didn’t spend much time there, really, before my family moved to Minnesota. I grew up in Mankato, Minnesota, which is a medium-sized city in the southern part of the state. Spent three years in Okinawa, starting in 1957, where my father, who’s a Lutheran minister, operated what’s called a “service center.” That’s a place where servicemen can come and play pool, watch TV, listen to music — that sort of thing — and then worship on Sundays.

Did your family return to Minnesota eventually?

We went back to Mankato in 1960. I was living in Mankato when I graduated from high school five years later, in 1965 . . . and applied to both West Point and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. West Point because it would be a free education . . . MIT because somebody, someplace in my life, had told me that it was the best engineering school in the United States. My goal in life at that point was kind of to be the best engineer in the country. Anyway, I turned down the appointment to West Point and went to MIT instead.

Did you major in engineering?

Actually when I got to MIT I didn’t know what I wanted my major to be. I was interested in civil engineering and architecture, but both required a really big commitment in terms of academic load. So I decided to major in aeronautics and astronautics, which was the best way I could think of to learn as much about engineering as I could. That particular major had me taking courses in electrical engineering, structural engineering, thermodynamics, materials science, calculus, you name it. It was a great curriculum.

You started at MIT in 1965. I take it, then, you graduated in 1969.

No, actually I didn’t graduate until 1970. I stayed a fifth year in order to squeeze in some architecture courses. In the end, I graduated with two bachelor’s degrees: one in art and design, one in aeronautical and astronautical engineering.

Did you begin looking for an aeronautical engineering job at that point?

No. I went to work for a graphic design firm in New York City called Page Arbitrio & Resen. After a few months there, I worked for I.M. Pei — a very famous New York architect.

How did you manage not to get drafted into the Army? Or were you even worried about that possibility?

Well as you know, in 1970 the Selective Service System held its first-ever “draft lottery,” which was where they pulled your birth date out of a hat, so to speak, and assigned it a “priority number” at random. You want to know what my number was?

What was it?

It was 366.

You couldn’t hope for a lower priority than that! (laughter).

Yep. And from that point on, you know, I kind of felt I had a guardian angel watching over me. I don’t know how to explain it, but that’s how my life has been. That’s just one of many, many incredible things which have “guided” the way my life has developed.

Fascinating. What did you do after you worked for I. M. Pei in New York?

After about a year in the “real world” I decided to go back to MIT for a master’s degree in architecture.

Was that when you wrote Solar Energy and Shelter Design!

Right. That was my master’s thesis. I wrote it in the autumn of 1972.

How did you happen to become interested in solar design? Did MIT have a particularly good solar energy curriculum?

MIT didn’t have a solar energy curriculum. There weren’t any courses on solar design. In fact, there wasn’t anyone at MIT doing anything on solar. It was almost completely a “fluke” that I got interested in solar architecture.

You see, originally, I wanted to do my thesis on the ecological ramifications of building design. I wanted to study such issues as how much energy went into various kinds of building materials. How vegetation can be integrated into shelter design. How it might be possible to pave certain areas without hurting the environment. Those kinds of issues.

I discovered, though — or rather, it was pointed out to me by my thesis adviser halfway through my last semester — that I wasn’t really making any progress in my chosen area, because it was just too big a subject. I hadn’t actually focused on anything in particular. So — with the help of my adviser — I chose an area of concentration . . . and that area happened to be solar architecture.

All right. When did you finally graduate?

I got my master’s degree in 1973.

And how did you happen to wind up in Harrisville, New Hampshire?

One of my classmates at MIT was hired to renovate some old buildings here in Harrisville during the summer of 1972. He asked me to help him, and I did. And in the course of working here that summer, I simply fell in love with the town. So after another brief stint in New York — I spent about eight months working for Dubin-Mindell-Bloome Associates right after I got my M.A. — I decided to come back to Harrisville to live.

But what about making a living up here. Did you have any prospects?

I had a couple of job offers, but instead of taking one of them I decided to see if I couldn’t just do some consulting for the people who were offering me employment. And that’s what I did. In November of 1973, with $700 in savings, I started my own consulting firm: Total Environmental Action (TEA).

Since then, TEA has grown steadily. We now have 30 people — I think — on the payroll. Our staff includes specialists not only in architecture . . . but also design, engineering, graphics, resource planning, materials science, pollution control, economics, and communication. Over the years, we’ve had clients ranging from individuals to private companies, associations, universities, foundations, and state and federal government agencies.

Your company doesn’t just provide architectural services, then.

No. In fact, I’m not even an architect, technically speaking.


I’m not a registered architect. Which means I cannot call myself an architect. To call yourself an architect, you have to serve an apprenticeship with a registered architect for at least three years . . . then you have to pass a set of exams, both oral and written. This is all an addition to seven or, eight years of college. It’s not until you have all that under your belt that you can legally call yourself an architect. Well I haven’t done all those things . . . so I can’t call myself an architect. We do have two registered people on our staff, however. So we can offer the usual architectural services.

But you’re right when you say that we do a lot more here than just design homes. Basically, we’re trying to accomplish three different things: First, we do designing, engineering, planning, and consulting for people who want to build solar buildings. We’re trying to implement change. That’s the “action” part of Total Environmental Action, and that’s one way in which we differ from most environmental organizations: We’re geared toward getting things done. Making the changes happen.

At the same time, we’re trying — through our research work and policy studies — to come up with new alternatives, in design, in utility policy, in systems engineering, so that we can play a role in evaluating the need for change, in addition to implementing that change. That’s kind of the second area we’re involved in. Just basic research.

And, third, we’re involved in educational services . . . information transferral. We publish reports. We conduct one-day workshops in alternative energy. We go on speaking tours. We publish a magazine, Solar Age. And, of course, we put out books, such as The Solar Home Book, which, so far, has sold over 125,000 copies.

TEA’s overall goal has always been to improve the quality of life. Not just for our clients. For everyone. You see, that’s what architecture is all about . . . it’s not just designing buildings, per se. When you create a building, you affect the lives of many people . . . not just the people who inhabit that structure. If you design a good building, it’s going to be emulated by dozens of other people. If it’s a really good structure . . . you can affect the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of people.

Our goal has always been — and always will be — to create satisfying, ecologically sound “built environments” . . . and, in the process — to have as positive an effect on as many people’s lives as possible.

That’s good. Over the short term, though, how many lives’ can TEA really hope to benefit? I mean, how many people can afford to have a private architectural design firm, such as TEA, design their house?

That’s a valid point. Not everyone can afford TEA’s professional services. And, in fact, I went through a several-months-long struggle in the beginning, trying to decide whether TEA should be a “for profit” or “not for profit” operation . . . just for the reason you mentioned. The “for profit” idea won out, however — initially, at least — because I felt sure, and still feel sure, that TEA would have greater credibility and more impact if we did our work for profit. The idea being that if we could make a profit providing our kinds of services and disseminating as much information as possible, maybe other people would try doing what we’re doing. And that’s begun to work, I think. We’re setting a good example for other firms to follow in the solar field.

In a way, this is why I set up shop in Harrisville. You asked earlier how I happened to settle in Harrisville. Well, it’s all part of what we’re trying to do . . . we’re trying to show that you can do significant and important work in a non-urban environment and still care about the urban environment.

But back to your last question. It’s true that not everyone can afford to have TEA design his house. To help solve this problem, we created — two years ago — a parallel, non-profit organization called TEA Foundation . . . the function of which is to deal with the needs of low-income people, including local people, and others who might not be able to afford TEA’s services. In many cases, it’s the people who can least afford TEA’s services that most need what we have to offer.

Anyway, as I said before, we’re trying — through TEA and TEA Foundation — to have as positive an impact as possible on as many people’s lives as possible. Which seems to be just the opposite of what many — if not most  — of the very biggest companies in this country want.

Would you care to amplify that statement a bit?

Well look at General Motors, for instance, or Exxon Corporation. Look at the impact they’ve had on people’s lives. For a while, I guess we thought it was positive . . . but I’m pretty sure most of us would now say that the impact has been negative. In contrast, I feel that solar energy — as a “social catalyst” — can have the same kind of impact, in a positive way, on people’s lives as the automobile industry has had in a negative way. I’m absolutely certain of that. Solar energy is going to have an enormously positive impact on lifestyles, jobs, people’s attitudes towards life, everything.

When are we going to start to feel this “positive impact”? Everybody talks about “going solar”. Everyone likes the idea of obtaining energy directly from the sun. The technology is at hand. And, in many cases, that technology is simple, accessible, and cost-effective.


The $64,000 question, though, is: What’s taking so long? Why are there 2,000,000 domestic solar water heaters in Japan . . . and only 20,000 here in the U. S.? Why isn’t the “solar bandwagon” rolling at a faster pace?

Well, don’t forget, Detroit wasn’t built in a day. It takes time to switch energy economies. Think about how long it took us to switch from wood to oil. It’ll take a while to go from oil to sunlight. To the extent that solar development is proceeding at a slow pace right now, I think the “slowness” can be attributed to two things: One is the fact that the solar manufacturing industry hasn’t done a particularly good “selling” job . . . and the other is government foot-dragging.

Please explain.

The solar space-conditioning industry in this country is — in at least some ways — its own worst enemy. I’d say that the vast majority of people involved in the solar industry right now believe that all we have to do to harness the sun’s energy is slap some solar collectors onto our homes and offices and go on living as though nothing at all had happened. These folks just don’t seem to realize that solar energy is going to have a much more profound effect on our lives than that. It involves a lot more than simply postage-stamping solar panels onto houses.

For one thing, this particular kind of “postage stamp” is going to require a new type of envelope. When you talk about using the sun’s energy, you know, you’re talking about building houses a little bit differently than we’ve been building ’em in the past.

And, of course, when you start talking about solar heating your house, you have to begin to think about certain changes in the way you live. Minor changes . . . but significant ones. Such as opening all your drapes and window insulating panels the first thing in the morning and shutting them when the sun goes down. That sort of thing.

People’s lives change when they start using solar energy . . . they really do. I’ve known individuals to change professions. I’ve seen folks’ marital relationships change because of solar energy. Your relationship to the weather changes. Instead of getting up in the morning to see if it’s raining outside, you get up to see if the sun is shining! Solar energy is such a positive thing. And it’s not just “tacking a collector onto a roof”.

If the people who are marketing solar collectors would only realize this — would only realize that they aren’t just selling a piece of hardware, that they’re actually selling positive changes in lifestyle — I think they’d do a lot more business. A lot more. People are desperate for these changes. I think there was a poll about a year ago which showed that more than half the citizens of this country believe the quality of life has deteriorated since 1962. That’s what the industry is selling against. If only they knew how to take advantage of that!

You said a minute ago that “government foot-dragging” was slowing down solar development in this country. What do you mean by that?

Right now, as we’re sitting here talking, the solar industry is coming to a standstill. It’s dying on the vine while the federal government is deciding what to do about solar tax incentives. Congress, you know, has just been sitting around, twiddling its thumbs, waiting for this gas deregulation issue to be resolved . . . when there are hundreds of small solar energy businesses out there suffering — many of them, in fact, are going under — right this minute because the orders aren’t coming in the way people thought they were going to. And it’s all because consumers are waiting for those tax incentives to pass.

When I say “government foot-dragging”, though, I’m not just talking about the issue of tax incentives . . . I’m also talking about the lack of support given the solar industry by the Department of Energy. You know, DOE is going to spend something like $370 million on solar development this year. That sounds like a lot of money, right? Well, it’s also going to lay out $1.5 billion on nuclear energy this year. That’s disgraceful. Really, truly disgraceful.

I take it, then, that you disagree with Steve Baer, who says that government grants are not only unnecessary, but downright evil.

Yes and no. I agree with Steve that government involvement can be a terribly bad thing. I also think that the solar heating and cooling industry needs encouragement right now.

It needs millions of dollars of federal grants and subsidies?

Unfortunately, I think it does. You see, if we leave it to industry to come up with the millions and millions of dollars of “seed money” that are needed right now to get things going . . . the only organizations that have that kind of capital to invest are the giant energy companies: Exxon, Shell, Mobil, Standard Oil. I would much rather see the government underwrite solar development at this stage of the game than Exxon Corporation.

And mind you, I am talking about “seed money” here . . . not long-term federal involvement. I don’t support long-range government involvement in anything. When I say I’m for the federal funding of solar development . . . I mean support that lasts, say, five years. No more.

Also, I think when you talk about federal funding of solar development, you’ve got to look at things in perspective. I mean, just look at how the government subsidizes nuclear power. And the oil industry. Good grief, if you were to remove all the price controls and subsidies and depletion allowances from the oil industry, active solar heating systems, which are at the moment very expensive, would come out smelling like a rose! But instead, we have these artificially low prices for gasoline and fuel oil and kerosene. Artificially low because of government meddling. That’s what solar energy is up against, you see.

Do you think the Department of Energy should continue to spend millions of dollars on the development of photo voltaic cells . . . the equipment that can convert sunlight directly into electricity?

Yes. We need good, efficient, low-cost photovoltaic cells.

Amory Lovins has said that we already have more electricity in this country than we have “electrical end-uses” . . . and that — therefore we don’t need to pursue photovoltaics.

I know. I guess I feel that the energy problem is so complicated — there are so many ways in which things could go — that we can’t afford to be narrow in our thinking about possible solutions. We need to explore all the options open to us . . . whether it’s hydro power, wind power, biomass, synthetic fuels, solar space heating, or what have you. The energy problem is a very complex one. It demands a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional solution . . . and I think photovoltaic cells  — which actually show great promise of becoming very economically competitive in the near future — are a legitimate part of that solution.

You know, we are so like children when it comes to understanding how to use natural forms of energy. People talk about photovoltaics as being “high technology”. Maybe it is . . . today. But there’s going to come a time when people will say: “Photovoltaic? High technology? What do you mean? Solar cells . . . that’s the most primitive technology imaginable!” You’ve got to remember that right now we’re just neophytes — rank amateurs-when it comes to using the sun’s energy. Someday, we’re going to use a very simple technology to convert sunlight to electricity. I really believe that.

But it’s going to take a long time to get from here to there if the government keeps dragging its feet. We need tax incentives. We need solar development grants. The solar industry needs all the help it can get at this point. It does.

The only area in which I do not go along with the notion of federal funding of solar development — the one area where I definitely agree with Steve Baer — is in passive solar heating. I do not support any kind of federal involvement in passive solar heating.

Why not?

Because it doesn’t need any help.

But the makers of active solar space-conditioning systems do need help?


I’m not sure I follow you. What you’re saying doesn’t necessarily jibe with the seemingly “pro-passive, anti-active” stance you’ve taken in your Solar Age editorials.

I’m glad you brought that up, because I have been accused in the past of taking an anti-solar-collectors stand in the magazine . . . when in fact I’m not “against” active solar heating at all. Let me try to put things in perspective:

Energy conservation and passive solar heating, at least in my mind, don’t need any kind of subsidies from anybody to be cost-effective. Conservation and passive heating are the most cost-effective ways of cutting down on heating bills. It doesn’t cost anything “extra” to build a house facing south instead of west, and to give it a lot of windows on the “sunny” side. And maybe use triple-thick glass on the window openings. And insulate the whole place properly. And weather-strip the doors. These things just don’t cost very much . . . and yet the amount of money they can save on your heating bill is phenomenal.

It is possible right now, in other words, through passive solar heating and energy conservation alone, to get energy consumption in a single-family dwelling down to 20 or 25 percent of what it might be for a conventional building. That sounds fantastic. But it isn’t . . . it’s lousy. You see, you’re measuring this saving with a very poor yardstick, because today’s homes — with their skimpy insulation, their east/west orientation, their drafty doors and windows — are flagrantly wasteful of energy. In other words, 20 or 25 percent of “a lot” is still “a lot”.

Someday we’re going to realize this, and the 20 or 25 percent figure I’ve just quoted — which means a 75 or 80 percent reduction in energy consumption — isn’t going to be good enough. In the year 2000, the passive solar homes that we think of today as being tremendously efficient are going to be seen as fantastically wasteful. And the solution to that — the only way to reduce that 20 or 25 percent figure down to zero — is active heating systems made up of collectors, heat storage facilities, fans or pumps, and so on.

OK. The problem with active or indirect — gain solar heating systems — at least, those systems now on the market — is that they’re incredibly expensive. You can figure on anywhere from $30 to $50 per installed square foot of collector, or upwards of $10,000 for a complete system. Now that’s expensive. I don’t care how you do the economics . . . that’s expensive!

But we need active systems. We’re going to need one heck of a lot of solar collectors in the year 2000. And unless we do all we can right now, today, to get that technology on its feet — including getting the federal government to sponsor basic research into mass-manufacturing methods, the improvement of collector efficiencies, the development of new and inexpensive glazings, etc. — we’re hopelessly lost. It takes years to launch new energy technologies . . . it’s going to take time to get hardware into production and into the hands of consumers. With all due apologies to Steve Baer, I believe it’s necessary and desirable for the government to help finance the transition.

You mentioned that a typical solar collector might cost at least $30 per square foot, installed, as part of an active heating system. How much heat energy will that square foot of collector provide a house in, say, a year’s time?

An active solar heating setup is doing very well if it can supply 100,000 Btu’s per square foot of collector per year. That’s roughly the heat equivalent of a gallon of fuel oil, for comparison. And a gallon of fuel oil costs what? Maybe 50 cents or so? OK, 50 cents per year is what a square foot of solar collector can save you in today’s market, at today’s fuel oil prices. It’s pretty hard to justify that. It’s hard to justify spending $30 for something that’s only going to pay itself back at the rate of 50 cents a year. Even if fuel oil went to $1.00 a gallon, the “payback period” for a square foot of collector surface would be 30 years, given the assumptions we’ve just made.

Do you think most solar collectors now on the market will last 30 years? Can the typical $30-per-square-foot collector, in other words, ever hope to pay for itself?

That’s an interesting point. There are some good systems on the market now, systems that will be able to pay back the investments made in them . . . but there are a great many poorly designed, badly made collectors on the market, too.

Given that what you’ve just said is true, how do we go about protecting the buying public from shoddy solar hardware . . . hardware that isn’t going to last?

I don’t believe in “protecting” the buying public. I’m with Bill Shurcliff . . . I think the worst possible thing that could happen to solar energy right now is for government agencies to start dictating design standards. That would just kill innovation. It’d encourage conformity, and kill creativity, at the time when we most need creativity in the industry.

I believe that the buying public has to protect itself. I believe in providing people with the proper information upon which to make purchasing decisions, and then letting individuals make up their own minds. That’s what magazines like Solar Age are all about. That’s what the whole consumer movement is all about.

People don’t go out and buy a new car without first doing some research. People don’t plunk down $50,000 on a house without checking it out first. And yet, you know, contractors don’t have to have a license . . . contractors can go out and build a home without a license, and the only way you know whether or not that home is any good is to check it out yourself . . . or to ask some of the contractor’s previous customers what they think of his work. It should be the same with solar heating systems. I believe in building codes that keep us from, for example, introducing poisonous heat-transfer fluids into a house’s drinking water. But I don’t believe in any kind of government stamp of approval for solar systems.

I also don’t believe that the average person, living in the average American house, should be thinking of going out and spending $10,000 to retrofit his or her home with an active solar heating system anyway. At this stage of the game, homeowners should be looking at much simpler ways of cutting their heating bills.

Such as?

Well the first thing we tell people to do is to open the curtains and let the sun shine in. That’s generally the most cost-effective way to solar-heat a home, you know . . . just let the sun shine in.

It’s funny. People ask me all the time — when I’m at speaking engagements, or doing interviews — “How many solar-heated houses are there in the U.S. today?” The answer I always give them is: “About 63 million.” There are 63 million homes in the U.S., and sunlight falls on just about every one of them. People tend to forget that.

It’s like Steve Baer’s “clothesline theory” of energy. As Steve says, the Federal Energy Administration can’t measure energy consumption when you hang your clothes out on the line to dry in the sun, but they can when you put them in the clothes dryer. Yet, if it weren’t for the amount of sunlight which hits our clotheslines and comes in through the windows of our homes alone — disregard all the rest — the energy budget in this country would undoubtedly be 5 percent greater than it is right now.

The question you wanted me to answer, I think, is “What can a homeowner do to begin solar heating his home, short of spending thousands of dollars on an active system?” First of all, I think it’s crucial to understand that before you begin to consider ways of using solar energy to heat your home, you have to start on a comprehensive program of energy conservation. I can’t overemphasize this point. The most cost-effective and sensible approach to the energy problem is still conservation.

All right then. What do you recommend that people do?

Two things. The two most important things you can do to conserve energy are — first — lower your thermostat, even if only at night . . . and — second — winterize your home.

When you say “winterize your home”, do you mean to . . .

I mean to locate and seal any large, obvious gaps in windowsills, roofs, foundations, etc. Caulk or re-caulk smaller gaps around windows and door frames. Weather-strip your doors, add storm windows to the house if you don’t already have them, and insulate any parts of the building that don’t have insulation. After that, you can — and should — put insulated curtains on your windows . . . or, better yet, make rigid, insulating shutters that can be placed over the glass at night and removed in the morning.

OK. After a person has turned down the thermostat and taken the steps you’ve just outlined, what then?

At that point, you can do any number of things to “solarize” your home. You can install outside shutters on the house . . . shutters lined with foil so that, when they’re open, they’ll reflect additional sunlight into the house. You can put window-box collectors on your windows, as described in MOTHER. You can add more windows to the south side of the dwelling . . . or a glassed in porch.

If you want to get fancy, of course, you can also add a greenhouse to your building’s south wall . . . or convert the entire south wall into a Trombe collector by covering it with glass or plastic glazing — leaving a several-inch-thick air space between the wall and the glazing — and making vent openings into the house at the top and bottom. Naturally, this idea works best with brick, stone, or concrete walls, which are able to concentrate and store large amounts of heat energy during the day and radiate the heat back into the house at night. It works even better if you can paint the exterior of the wall black before you add the glazing.

What if you live in a house that doesn’t — strictly speaking — have a south-facing wall? What if your home sits on, say, a northeast/ southwest axis?

You don’t have to have a north/south-oriented house in order to use solar heating principles. That’s one of the big myths that people have somehow gotten into their heads. I hear people say, “Oh, my house doesn’t face south, so I can’t use solar energy.” That’s nonsense.

Something like 1,600 Btu’s of heat energy per square foot per day strike a vertical wall that faces due south. OK. What most folks don’t realize is that the same wall — if it’s rotated 30 degrees to either side of due south — will still receive more than 1,400 Btu’s per square foot per day, or about 90 percent of optimum. Rotate that wall even further — so that it faces exactly southeast or exactly southwest, or 45 degrees off due south — and it’ll still get 72 percent of the maximum.

Proper orientation, then, is not nearly as important a factor in whether or not you can use solar energy as many people think it is. As long as your house isn’t totally shaded by trees, you can consider it fair game for some form of solar heat.

Bruce, you’ve just mentioned a few of the many ways in which people can wholly or partially convert a conventional house to solar space heat. But what about the solar heating of water? Is it worthwhile for people to get involved with that?

Oh yes. Absolutely. Solar water-heating is a very cost-effective way for the owner of an existing, conventional house to harness the sun’s energy. Solar space-heating devices tend to sit idle during the warmer months of the year . . . but you need hot water year round. Twenty percent of the energy we use in our homes goes to heat our water. Thus, any device you can use to solar heat your water is going to save you money every day the sun shines.

Again, though, before we start to talk about solar water heating, we should focus our attention on ways to cut down the amount of hot water we need in the first place. Conservation first, always. There’s plenty of room to conserve, too: Each person in a typical American household, for instance, consumes about 20 gallons of hot water per day . . . which is much more than other people in the world use.

I hope you’re not going to tell me I have to give up my hot showers.

I’m not going to tell you anything of the sort. It’s possible to dramatically cut hot water use without “sacrificing” at all.


Well, consider what the hot water is used for. About half of our average daily consumption goes for bathing. Another 25 percent is for laundry. The rest is for cooking, hand washing, and miscellaneous cleaning. Now, obviously, if you can cut by 50 percent the amount of hot water your family uses for bathing, you’ve automatically cut your total water heating bill by 25 percent. And that’s easy. Just take showers instead of baths, number one . . . and number two, consider the installation of a water-conserving shower head that squirts out a fine, misty spray rather than a hard, steady stream. And that’s it. Then you can save hot water when you do the laundry by only washing full loads, and by washing them on “warm” instead of “hot”. Better still, wash with cold water. And when you do the dishes, be sure and rinse them in cold water or in a basin of hot water rather than under a steady stream of hot tap water. After you’ve begun to cut back on hot water use — and the suggestions I’ve just made are by no means the only ways in which you can cut back — you can begin to think about making your own solar pre-heat apparatus. Solar water heaters are not that hard to fabricate, and building your own family solar water heater is — I think — an excellent way to gain personal experience with solar hardware before moving on to bigger — projects.

Where can people go to get more information on do-it-yourself solar water heaters, and other solar projects that can be used with existing homes?

Any number of good books on the market contain such information. TEA, in fact, has just published a small guide — which I helped write — that offers dozens of ideas for converting conventional homes to solar space and water heating. Indeed, most of the ideas we just talked about are covered in this one little manual.

What’s its title?

It’s called The Fuel Savers: A Kit of Solar Ideas for Existing Homes. Anyone who wants a copy can get it by sending $3.75 to TEA, Church Hill, Harrisville, New Hampshire 03450. I’m very excited about this little 60-page book, incidentally. I think it’s quite possibly our most important publication ever, because of its comprehensibility, its immediate usefulness, and its low cost. I think it may even be more important than The Solar Hone Book. It’s just filled with simple, practical ideas for conserving energy and using sunlight for space and water heating.

Energy conservation seems to be an important part of TEA’s work . . . much more so than the titles of your publications would seem to indicate. I know you’ve mentioned the necessity of conservation several times throughout this interview.

That’s right. I regard conservation as the foundation for all energy change in this country. I can’t stress that enough. Solar energy isn’t just slapping collectors on a building and then going on as if nothing had happened. It’s a whole different way of thinking about energy use.

You know, if you read The Solar Home Book, you’ll notice that it’s not just about solar energy . . . it’s also about conservation, only the conservation parts are kind of woven into the text so that you don’t notice ’em right away. We did it that way because you get people’s attention when you talk about solar energy. You don’t get it by talking about conservation.

That’s unfortunate . . . but that’s the way it is.

Whenever I speak or write about energy conservation, I always stress its cost-effectiveness . . . mainly because that’s what interests most people the most. People pay attention when you say “money”. But there are other, far more subtle — and far more important — reasons to practice conservation.

One reason has to do with . . . well, with aesthetics. No matter how plentiful a resource is, wastefulness never breeds creativity. It never breeds quality. When you go to a Scandinavian country, for example — where people are very aware of the need for conservation of resources — you can’t help but notice that everything is done with care and attention to detail. The same is true of Japan and China. Anywhere there’s an awareness of resource shortages is where you see the nicest, highest-quality products. You don’t see the kind of awful, use-it-once-and-throw-it-away plastic there that you find in the U.S.

There are also thermodynamic reasons for conserving energy, especially fossil fuel energy. By this, I simply mean that there’s an upper limit to the amount of heat which can be released on this planet . . . and we’re fast approaching that limit, according to some experts. The National Academy of Sciences released a study last year which said that if current trends of fossil-fuel consumption continue, the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere may rise an average of 11 degrees Fahrenheit, and perhaps as much as three times that at the North and South Poles. Obviously, we can’t allow that to happen.

But, to me, the best and most compelling reasons to think about energy conservation have to do with lifestyle. Energy conservation — perhaps I should say decreased consumption of nonrenewable energy — runs hand in hand with improved quality of life . . . there’s no question in my mind about that.

The wasting of energy or any other resource is antithetical to any kind of healthy, invigorating quality of life.

You can see examples of what I’m talking about right here in the U.S. The people who are thrifty, self-reliant, and who understand the issue of limited resources live a much happier existence than those of us who blunder along in a world of waste. Take the Mennonites, for example, or the Quakers. The quality of their lives is — in many ways — much higher than ours. We should learn from their example.

Now that’s not to say that you have to go back and till the soil by hand, or keep the wood stove going constantly every winter and burn five cords of wood. That’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m not saying you can’t have electric lights or a comfortable sofa or a color TV. You can have those things, I think, but there comes a point where you need to combine an understanding of the nature of our resource-limitation problems with an understanding of what technology can do for us . . . and bring those two lines of thought together to make the best use of technology while we all lead a healthy, productive life.

TEA’s solar design work is, I think, a really good example of this. By careful designing and engineering, we have been able to create houses for people that use about 10 percent of the energy of conventional houses . . . without imposing any hardships on the homes’ occupants. The people who live in these buildings live at whatever temperature they want to live at. If it’s 65 degrees they live at 65 degrees. If it’s 75 degrees, they live at 75 degrees . . . without having to feel guilty, or as if they’re wasting energy. Because the sun is their main source of energy.

At the same time, the humidity level in such a house is actually better than in most homes, because there aren’t cold drafts running through the structure. The inhabitants of a good solar home enjoy a higher standard of living than other people, because they’re not spending 20 percent of their income on heat. Thanks to their built-in greenhouse, they can grow some of their own food . . . so they’re spending less on food, too. A person who lives in a home like this doesn’t need to go south for a couple weeks in the winter to get the cold weather out of his or her body, either . . . because he or she has the tropics right there in his or her greenhouse!

That really sounds too good to be true!

We’re doing it. We’re designing houses just like that for people. We’ve already designed, or done the engineering work on, scores of the kind of energy-saving homes that I’ve just described. This is what’s possible right now, today.

And it’s going to get better. With the active systems that are going to come along in just a few years, and with a new generation of photovoltaic cells right around the corner, believe it’ll be possible to create homes that produce energy in excess of what they use. Homeowners will actually be able to store a surplus of energy. Store it or sell it. I can envision a situation someday in which, instead of an oil truck coming to your house to deliver fuel oil, a truck will come to your place to pick up the valuable hydrogen that your house has to sell!

I think we ought to make this a national goal right now. We ought to set a goal that, say, by the year 2000 all the buildings in the country put together will consume “X” amount of energy. And we ought to set a second goal which says that by the year 2025 — or 2010, or whatever — the net amount of energy consumed by all buildings in the country will be zero.

I think we should try to achieve such goals. It’s not a matter of “Can we do it?” We can. We must. We’ve got to get our energy consumption down to a sustainable level.

As Amory Lovins says, it won’t be easy. But it will be easier than not doing it.