Zoning Practice — May 2010

Ask the Author

Here are reader questions answered by Mary-Margaret Jenior, AICP, author of the April 2010 Zoning Practice article "Solar Access: Using the Environment in Building Design."

Question from Jim Upham, AICP:

I get so depressed when I read publications like "Solar Access: Using the Environment in Building Design." From 1978 to 1983 I was working as a rookie planner in Bangor, Maine. I was drawing shadow diagrams (by hand) to determine what the proper south and north building setbacks should be. Then Reagan got elected and we didn’t need solar any more. Plenty of oil!

Think how far ahead we’d be if we had continued to seriously work on solar (as well as wind and other sustainable energy sources) during the last 30 years.

Answer from author Mary-Margaret Jenior, AICP:

Yes, the 1980s were a time of less than desired progress. Funding was less than adequate and limited to R/D and technology transfer. However, there was one positive outcome: I was able to fund basic research on heat and mass transfer so that we could learn how buildings function. And in time, we focused on the development of the tools needed to design buildings correctly.

We live, work, and play inside buildings, so we think we know how they function. That is not true. The 1980s is when we began to understand how air flows in buildings, and tools like the builder guidelines, DOE2, SUNREL, and BLAST emerged or were augmented to more properly simulate how buildings function. Basic R/D occurred on wind, solar thermal, PV, and other renewables. To me, that was good.

In the 1970s we were promoting some technologies before we understood how they should function. That is not to say that great strides were not made in the 1970s. Certainly in passive solar/whole buildings design we were learning a great deal — and continued to do so in the 1980s, just more slowly because of limited funds. In fact, there are still many unanswered questions as to how building elements function and how they interact with each other. It is this interaction that is crucial. Use of energy efficient components does not mean that the building itself will perform efficiently.

I guess I cannot help wondering something else: Why did the planning profession not continue to push for renewables and efficiency?