How a 1930s Architectural Masterpiece Harnesses the Sun to Keep Warm in the Winter & Cool in the Summer

Keep­ing the sum­mer sun out and the win­ter sun in has fig­ured promi­nent­ly among the tasks of archi­tec­ture ever since antiq­ui­ty. As Aeschy­lus said, “only prim­i­tives and bar­bar­ians lack knowl­edge of hous­es turned to face the win­ter sun,” and he’d nev­er even lived through a Chica­go win­ter. Two and a half mil­len­nia lat­er, in the sub­urb of Schaum­burg, Illi­nois, the archi­tect Paul Schweikher built a house not just turned to face the win­ter sun, but inge­nious­ly and ele­gant­ly designed nat­u­ral­ly to stay warm in the cold months and cool in the hot months. Archi­tec­tur­al design edu­ca­tor Stew­art Hicks explains how in the video above, an intro­duc­tion to what’s now known as the Paul Schweikher House and Stu­dio.

What will strike most vis­i­tors to the Schweikher House, which now oper­ates as a muse­um, has less to do with its com­fort­able tem­per­a­tures than with its look and feel. “The house does­n’t give all its secrets away at once,” says the site of design and fur­nish­ing com­pa­ny Tryst­craft.

“Instead, the vis­i­tor is teased with hints that lead you under and past a car­port, along a long board and bat­ten wall around the perime­ter of a lush court­yard with a mag­nif­i­cent tree — pro­vid­ing a won­der­ful con­trast to the lin­ear­i­ty of the struc­tures sur­round­ing it.” This “entry sequence” also intro­duces the house­’s main mate­ri­als: brick, most vis­i­bly, but also red­wood now weath­ered to “a range of beau­ti­ful dark browns and grays.”

Schweikher used these mate­ri­als and oth­ers to con­struct what Hicks calls a “direct gain pas­sive solar sys­tem,” whose open­ings and over­hangs are “posi­tioned so that it lets in win­ter sun, while block­ing the sum­mer sun,” which beats down at a slight­ly dif­fer­ent angle. “Ele­vat­ed, oper­a­ble open­ings on the oth­er side of the build­ing allow warm air to rise, and draw in air from out­side,” in addi­tion to oth­er fea­tures that main­tain a tem­per­ate inte­ri­or cli­mate with­out the use of any elec­tri­cal or even mechan­i­cal appa­ra­tus. Hav­ing designed this res­i­dence for him­self and his wife in 1937 put him on the van­guard of what would lat­er be rec­og­nized as the Amer­i­can inter­pre­ta­tion of mid-cen­tu­ry mod­ernism, as well as what’s now called “solar home” build­ing tech­nol­o­gy. Arguably, Schweikher’s tech­niques are even more valu­able today: the cli­mate may change, after all, but the sun’s sea­son­al angles stay the same.

Relat­ed con­tent:

1,300 Pho­tos of Famous Mod­ern Amer­i­can Homes Now Online, Cour­tesy of USC

What Frank Lloyd Wright’s Unusu­al Win­dows Tell Us About His Archi­tec­tur­al Genius

George Bernard Shaw’s Famous Writ­ing Hut, Which Could Be Rotat­ed 360 Degrees to Catch the Sun All Day

What Is the House of the Ris­ing Sun?: An Intro­duc­tion to the Ori­gins of the Clas­sic Song

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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