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Published on October 24th, 2017 | by Carolyn Fortuna

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Solar House Architect & Pioneer Honored By Austrian Science Fund

October 24th, 2017 by  


Austria’s first solar house was designed in 1972 by a largely unknown architect, pioneer Konrad Frey. His work is being honored with the support of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). Architectural theoretician Anselm Wagner, who is curator of the exhibit devoted to Frey, notes that he was not a deconstructivist or an architect who prioritized drawings — solar house architect Frey was a man of research.

solar house

Photo courtesy of Scilog

“The architectural designs of Konrad Frey are characterized by the fact that their form is a consequence of function,” says Wagner, who is a Graz-based art historian. The recent social focus on sustainability issues is mainly concerned with economy and ecology, but not on architecture, he continues. “This has consequences for the countryside in the form of uninspired zero-energy buildings. Aesthetics are left by the wayside.”

The work of Frey, however, who set up the energy consultancy unit at Joanneum Research in Graz in the 1970s, combines scientific insights, a sense of style, and ecological requirements in solar home design and architecture.

Frey’s Solar House Vision as Part of Global Architecture Discourse

Renowned for fundamental thinking and invention in architecture, his early work on solar architecture led material to the limit. As of 1976, Frey made the plans for a house of the former CERN physicist Karl Zankel. The “Haus Zankel,” which is located in proximity to both Geneva and the French border, is an expressive sculptural structure, a solar laboratory, and a test station. It combines the active and passive harnessing of solar energy and functional technological enthusiasm with postmodern implications.

“Frey developed his forms on the basis of function. He would not have been able to establish a school. There is no line, no design he invented,” explains Wagner. Aesthetics within the energy structures were unintentional, as Frey’s foremost consideration was the environment. Emphasis on the environment, for Frey, began with his understanding that “a house was not only a machine for living in but had to cater to the physical and psychological needs of its inhabitants just as it had to fit into its surroundings.” His key projects include the Haus Fischer am Grundlsee, the Kunsthaus Mürzzuschlag, or the kindergarten Pachern.

Frey’s unifying theme for the solar house was to rethink modern premises. No longer were binaries like functionality and flexibility, or environmental control versus responsive the only considerations. His work extends into well-tempered environments in terms of regional contingencies and sustainable resource use.

His work comprises climatic sundomes, greenhouses, infrastructural systems, suitable service modules, sun houses such as the Fischer and Zankel Houses, and the Solar Houses I–III, among others. Frey’s theoretical investigations at the Graz Institute of Environmental Research and international alliances with theorists (CERN, Arup, TU Vienna) are widely disseminated. Those investigations spurred what eventually became the Austrian Energy Advisory Service.

What is the Austrian Science Fund?

The purpose of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) is to support the ongoing development of Austrian science and research at a high international level. FWF tries to make a significant contribution to cultural development, to the advancement of our knowledge-based society, and to the creation of value and wealth in Austria.

The FWF-funded research project is titled ‘The Sun Houses of Konrad Frey: Environmental Research and Solar Design Knowledge,” and is housed at the Graz University of Technology. A researcher who did little in the way of building, Frey’s setting was mostly in peripheral locations, far from big cities or main traffic routes. “Had he worked in Vienna, had his activities started in the urban context, his architecture would have become a topic of research long ago,” Wagner observes.

Early Solar House Design: Passive and Sturdy, but Not Very Efficient

Frey’s work is noted for his emphasis on building solar houses based on data and scientific insights. His first solar house, which was a joint venture with Florian Beigel, was grounded in his research into the use of solar energy as of the late 1960s. In those early passive solar houses, architects and builders tended to reduce window areas on the east, west, and north sides of the house in favor of increased south-oriented windows.

In our modern lexicon of solar architecture, a passive solar house is distinct from an active solar house, which uses pumps, motors, storage tanks, storage floors, and various high tech controls to take solar heated fluids, usually water or forced air, from solar collectors, commonly flat plate collectors, and transport and store the energy to the house interior, where it is released as needed. By comparison, the passive solar house has many fewer possible technical breakdowns than the active solar house.

Side note: In the early 1970s, research initiated by Exxon introduced a way to lower the cost of solar cells and was implemented on off-shore oil rigs to power the warning lights on top of the rigs. The price dropped from $100 per watt to around $20 per watt.

Konrad Frey’s Solar House Architecture within an Interdisciplinary Context

Frey was born in Vienna in 1934. He first chose chemistry and came to know about architecture directly. He likes to quote his wife, who says, “Anyone who can experience good architecture as a child [….] is never the same again.” 

Frey’s work has been identified among fundamentally different assessments, mainly focusing on the avant-garde of the Graz School, or post-modern vocabulary, critical regionalism, and participatory typologies. According to Frey, “The highest quality is close to the banal — the attentive viewer is always impressed when something makes a good impression and is simply made up of little valuable elements.”

However, since Frey’s unpublished sources and solar performance data have not been operationalized in previous examinations, the FWF project will fill in gaps in existing research. Current resources do not provide sufficient means to define a consistent interpretive framework that overarches Frey’s oeuvre and critically assess his approach within the global discourse, according to the Institute for Architecture at Graz.

Konrad Frey, the Austrian Science Fund, and Filling in Solar Design Historical Research Gaps

The Institute for Architecture at Graz outlines how the planned Austrian project will fill this gap in basic research. First, it will scientifically process and evaluate new data, measuring and re-conceptualizing the energy performance of Frey’s solar house designs in order to issue the late 2017 “catalogue raisonné with critical commentaries and a digital database.”

The publications will incorporate previously unpublished sources, new data, measurements conducted by the Department of Building Physics and Building Ecology of TU Wien, and new concepts of energy efficiency. In this way, Frey is to be acknowledged as also having been part of the Graz School, albeit a highly idiosyncratic part.

Second, the research will identify key narratives and analyze Frey’s design knowledge in order to publish an intellectual biography of Frey, focusing on his scientific approach towards architecture, the modern narratives within the history of solar ideas, and the instrumentalism of the environmental discourse. Its relevance will be grounded on the potential of paradigm-shifting insights into solar research, based on Frey’s exploring the viability of solar energy and promoting a new resource policy.

The methodology that grounds the research into Frey and his innovative solar house architecture is interdisciplinary in approach, drawing upon mixed method / quantitative and qualitative research methods of the theory and history of architecture. It will be combined with building physics and building technology as well as cultural studies, such as sociology of technology. The documentation, critical analyses, and energy evaluation of Part 1 will use digital measuring (fieldwork), collecting primary sources (archives), interviews, parametric simulation models and maintenance concepts of three case study houses.

On the basis of the catalogue raisonné of Part 1, the methods of Part 2 will deploy discourse analysis, sociological, and historical approaches as parts of the interpretive framework.

The project intends to record the detailed work of the architect, describe his approach, and elucidate how he translated insights into spatial design. “Frey has a highly scientific approach to his architecture,” reiterates Wagner. In this way he differed from his colleagues and contemporaries in Graz.

Konrad Frey’s Most Recent Solar Architecture Design

Frey is definitely a consistent outside-the-box thinker. In his most recent structure — his own private home — he incorporated only standard building elements from DIY chains. “In this way,” explains Wagner, he was able to “demonstrate and prove that it is possible to build a solar house at low cost and with standard elements. And a high-end solar house, at that.”

Drawing on the architectural estate of Frey, already placed in advance in the archives of TU Graz, the current project, running until 2019, will produce an online catalog and a monograph.

Post Note: Anselm Wagner (Professor of Architectural Theory/TU Graz), Ardeshir Mahdavi (Professor of Building Physics /TU Vienna), and Ingrid Böck (post-doc scientist) will establish scientific co-operations with Daniel A. Barber (Professor of Architecture/University of Pennsylvania) and Albena Yaneva (Professor of Architectural Theory/University of Manchester) as part of the FWF project.


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About the Author

Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She's won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. She’s molds scholarship into digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+



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