Boston project shows how historic buildings can be part of solar era

The architects didn't want to alter the appearance of 29 and 31 Symphony Road. After all, the two red-brick buildings in Boston's Fenway section had remained pretty much the same since they were built some 70 years ago. And Symphony Area Renaissance Inc., a nonprofit community development group in charge of the renewal project, wanted that tradition preserved.

So last winter, armed with a $50,000 federal grant, architects Stephen Hale and Joachim Schlereth undertook to gently coax the two row houses into the solar age.

Instead of installing bulky solar panels on the southern face of the two connected buildings, they did hid the system on the roof. The front of the building would have been more efficient it painted black, but the architects preserved the traditional red brick face by covering it with a 450-square-foot collector.

Admittedly, red brick viewed through dark solar galss may not be everyone's idea of historical preservation. But the neighborhood and professional reaction has been favorable.

"When we were putting the frame up, people were just appalled," recalls Mr. Hale. "But since the system has been installed, we've gotten nothing but compliments."

The projects has generated a lot of interest, including inquires from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Boston Landmarks Commission, and the Boston Redevelopment Authority, he says.

Specifically, the Symphony Road project is one of first attempts to bring 20 th-century solar technology to historical structures. But, more generally, it points to the increasing a adaptability of solar technology to a wide variety of residential and commercial structures.

"That is what the architect is addressing," says Robert C. Jones Jr., a staff member of the solar demonstration program of the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUD). Mr. Jones sees a trend toward increased use of solar heat and light in buildings, even in the more difficult area of apartment and other multifamily housing.

The Symphony Road project, for example, is one of only eight HUD-funded demonstration projects using solar energy for multi-family housing.

Because the project was build on site and not prefabricated, Hale stresses that the design is adaptable to many of Boston's row houses. "This is solution that is designed for multi-family housing. It's local solution to local problems."

While the solar system on the roof is a tried-and-true design for heating water, the giant wall collector is a techological innovation using a new solar glass, produced by Airco/Guardian Glass Company in Northville, Mich. The system is at least 30 percent more efficient, Hale says, tempered to protect against vandalism, and reduces glare significantly for passers-by on the street level -- important considerations for inner-city architecture.

Although the experimental collector cost $12,000 to build, architects Hale and Schlereth predict that in production the costs would be reduced by about one-half.

Meanwhile, residents of the six converted apartments have found their annual fuel bills for water and space heating have been cut to about 38 percent of what their nonsolar neighbors spend.

Hale says he expects future solar projects in historic buildings. Already, Hale is investigating the feasibility of two other Boston-area projects similar to the one on Symphony Road.

"From the response, I think you can conclude that it is really acceptable for the architecturally and historically sensitive people," he says. "We don't want to impose something that's ugly.

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