Passive Solar Energy Warms a Lincoln Park Architect’s Studio

Howard Alan

Howard Alan

“Light is what keeps us alive.” – Howard Alan.

I found a little oasis from the traffic and horns through an alley just off West Armitage. I entered the hidden studio through an entranceway that I learned was an airlock—to keep warm air in and cold air out. I climbed the spiral staircase and found Howard Alan, the creator of the building—and one of the foremost authorities on solar energy.

Howard Alan Architects Interior

Howard Alan Architects Interior

“Everything begins with the sun,” said Alan, the past president of the Illinois Energy Association.

The heating of Alan’s 849 West Armitage studio certainly bears that claim. It uses passive solar energy. The entire building gets its heat from sunlight, which warms the masonry walls, concrete floors and five fiberglass water-filled tubes. The water warms up three degrees, enough to keep the interior space toasty. It could be a frigid one degree outside, but inside the studio, the temperature will be 68.

It also helps that the building is insulated with R-7 grade, four-and-a-half-inch-thick closed-cell foam. It serves the same purpose for the building as my North Face down-filled coat does for me when I’m waiting outside for a CTA bus in January.

Howard Alan Architects Interior

Howard Alan Architects Interior

The top of the building is also insulated, but with open-cell foam. That less dense insulation lets you know if there’s a leak in the roof.

If there’s a week of cloudy days and below-zero outside temps, Alan uses radiant heat embedded in the floor as a back-up. During the summer, the building design allows north wind in for cooling. Again, as a secondary cooling option, a small, flexible air conditioner can be used, if it’s higher than 95 outside. That only usually occurs about three or four days a year, Alan said.

Howard Alan Architects interior

Howard Alan Architects interior

And lest you think solar energy is a recently-discovered phenomenon, Alan explained that the Pueblo Indians used the technology to warm, cool and insulate their mountainside homes back in the 1300’s.

Howard Alan Architects exterior

Howard Alan Architects exterior

Bill Motchan

Author: Bill Motchan

Bill Motchan is a writer and photographer, and a former resident of the West Loop. He can be reached at bill@ChicagoArchitecture.org.

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