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New Exhibit Reveals How Penn State Research Influenced Widely Used Solar Design Technique

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Air Wall sketch

A new Penn State exhibit will show how research at the University in the 1950s influenced a passive solar design technique widely used today. “Research Wrapped in Aesthetics: The Air Wall” will be on display in the Architecture and Landscape Architecture Library in the Stuckeman Family Building, January 16–May 5. The exhibit will include images and documents from Penn State’s libraries and archives, as well as a newly built model, all showing how Penn State faculty were among the first to explore solar design techniques intended to make the new glass buildings more comfortable and efficient.

In the 1950s, architecture professor A. William Hajjar worked with faculty and students in architecture and engineering on what seems to have been one of the first projects to build and test a double-skin glass fa├žade. In 1959, they created the Air Wall Test Building, a temporary structure on the University Park campus with exterior walls composed of two layers of glass forming a ventilated airspace used to remove or store heat.

The current exhibit is the result of research by an interdisciplinary team of Penn State faculty and graduate students who, in 2015, rediscovered the story of the Air Wall when California architect Mark Hajjar, William Hajjar’s son, gifted his father’s architectural records to Penn State’s Special Collections Library. The research team has constructed a ½”=1’ model of the Air Wall Test Building, as well as several computational models, all of which help the researchers analyze the different set-ups proposed by Hajjar in 1959 and better understand how this early technology compares to the technology of today.

Hajjar’s project in the 1950s was sparked with funding from the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (now PPG), which allowed for the construction of the Air Wall Test Building, including equipment inside the structure to monitor its performance. While from a distance it looked like a typical mid-century “glass box,” it featured double-skin glass walls. That type of wall was discussed by architects as early as the 1920s, but had never been rigorously tested. It did not reappear in architectural practice until the 1980s and has become a common feature of glass buildings in the past two decades. “Placing the Air Wall in the historical context of the 20th century leaves no doubt that Hajjar’s ideas were far ahead of his time,” said Ute Poerschke, associate professor of architecture and leader of this project.

The Raymond A. Bowers Program for Excellence in Design and Construction of the Built Environment has funded the research into the history of the Air Wall and development of computer simulations. In addition to Poerschke, other members of the research team are Henry Pisciotta, arts and architecture librarian; Moses Ling, associate professor of architectural engineering; David Goldberg, practitioner instructor in landscape architecture; Laurin Goad, Ph.D. candidate in art history; Mahyar Hadighi and Mina Rahimian, Ph.D. candidates in architecture; and Anthony Vischansky and Marie McKenna, both 2016 M.Arch. graduates.