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Brief History of Solar Access
Ralph Knowles’ paper, “The Solar Envelope” further discusses the high priority given to structures that reflected the path of the sun in ancient civilizations. The Acoma Pueblo Settlement west of Albuquerque, New Mexico has been occupied by over one thousand years. In Acoma, buildings are arranged in rows oriented to the south at intervals down the hillside. The buildings collectively face south, toward warming rays of winter sun and away from heating east/west sun of summer. In the winter the low sun warms thick masonry walls that in turn warm interior rooms into the night. In the summer the sun passes overhead hitting (and reflecting off of) roofs and terraces. The Acoma houses are spaced to offer protection in summer by sharing sidewalls and so as not to shade one another in winter.
Necessity of Solar Access Laws
As societies have placed value on solar access for centuries, we are faced in a time of extreme exponential growth with the challenges of maintaining equal solar access for all. Equal Solar Access is important in two fundamental ways. The first is science based. Solar access saves energy. In 1988 the Tacoma Energy Office conducted the “Tacoma Solar Access and Economic Benefits Study” and found that solar lot orientation reduces energy use by between ten and twenty percent per single-family housing unit (Aalfs 1997). As in Acoma, the Tacoma energy office recognized the fundamental role the sun could play in efficient energy use and ultimately energy conservation. In Tacoma, energy savings were identified as the primary goal of solar access standards. In Tacoma they cited further that energy savings would be likely to go up in the future with the development of solar technologies and diminishing supplies of petroleum products. Individuals and businesses in both the private and public sectors must have equal opportunity to alternative energy systems that may use the infinite (at least until the sun super novas) supply of solar energy. It is necessary to maintain equal access for not only current energy savings but for alternative energy strategies in the future.
Ultimately, the sun is integral to all life. Knowles states that it is the warmth, energy and rhythm of our lives. It “informs our perceptions of time and space and our scale in the universe.” Knowles goes as far as to say, “Without the assurance of solar access, we face uncertainty and disorientation.
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Solar Access Laws and Zoning
It has proven difficult for the United States government to develop “fair” solar access laws. It is not easy to compare solar access to anything else because of the very transient nature of the “resource.” The English Doctrine of Ancient Lights declares, “if in living memory no one has overshadowed your property, they can not now do so” (Thomas 1976). Unfortunately, this is not objective enough or practical for U.S. court use. Some have suggested adopting the American Water Law in regards to solar access. However, this too is not specific enough to the unique implications of solar access and especially access requirements that vary so drastically by climate regions.
Zoning by local administration has become (by default?) the management tool at least for the time being. Local administration of zoning laws immediately offers a more individual approach and ultimately a more applicable approach to access laws. Also, as the nature of zoning laws go, they are applied to all properties within a district “thus assuring future access and bypassing problems of preference based on prior use,” (Knowles 1999). There are now articles in many town and city land use codes that specifically deal with solar access.
The aforementioned Tacoma Solar Access Standards are broken into three major categories. These standards were proposed by the Tacoma City Light and adopted in 1989 to provide energy conservation from passive solar heat gain through the windows of one, two and three family homes. There is the New Development Solar Access Standard, the Solar Access Setback Standard and the Solar Access Permit. The New Development standard attempts to maximize solar access in new developments by requiring 80% of all lots to have “good solar features.” This basically means a front lot line oriented within 30 degrees of a true east-west axis (Aalfs 1997). The Solar Access Setback Standard (known as the infill standard) is designed to prevent building-to-building shade and guarantee access to direct sunlight. The Solar Access Permit allows residents to apply for a permit that will, once granted, protect solar features from being shaded by certain future vegetation off of the individual’s property. In Springfield, Oregon the “Solar Access Guarantee” is presented a little differently but includes the same fundamental concepts.
The “Solar Access Guarantee” provides protection from the shade cast by new vegetation planted after the date of application. It also defines height limitations for new vegetation located within all zoning districts (Springfield 2002).
Challenges to local legislative action for solar access include time restrictions, budget restraints and big business interests monopolizing towns and individual homeowner rights and desires. Different communities require different variations of laws and must (outside of reclaiming established sites and techniques) work within the confines of preexisting structures.
The Solar Envelope
Zoning laws already in place that limited building heights and set-backs were based on a concept of an envelope of buildable volume and directed Knowles’ development of the solar envelope. As Knowles states it is the “critical relationship of building-height to shadow-area that gave rise to the solar-envelope concept” (Knowles 1999). The solar envelope offers a way to zone cities for solar access. The Solar Envelope may be the answer to the application of solar access laws around the world.
Thomas, William. “Access to Sunlight,” Solar Radiation Considerations in Building Planning and Design: Proceedings of a Working Conference (National Academy of Science, Washington, D.C., 1976): 14-18.
Knowles, Ralph L. Interstitium: A Dynamic Approach to Solar-Access Zoning. University of Southern California, 2002. Interstitium.html
Knowles, Ralph L. The Solar Envelope..
“Solar Access Guarantee” Article 39. Development Services Department in the City of Springfield, Oregon, 2002.