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Solar Technologies of Antiquity: Ancient and Historical Technologies for Climate Action and Energy Conservation

The principal investigator is Dr Edmund Thomas (DU) and the co-investigator is Dr Alessandro Pierattini (University of Notre Dame, Indiana). The project will last for two years from May 2022 to April 2024 and is funded by a seedcorn grant from Durham University and the University of Notre Dame.

Project summary

This project investigates how architectural technologies of the past can contribute to creating energy-efficient and climate enhancing structures of the future. By considering the strategies and expertise of previous architects and engineers in historical architecture, this initiative pioneers a conversation between architectural historians, engineers and scientists to facilitate the use of a valuable resource, the historical past, for future design and investment. It will lead to a major research outcome, consisting of a printed and online accessible collected volume, and, through dialogue between academic researchers, architects and engineers, to a significant impact on the future design of the built environment.

It aims to pursue a meaningful and sustainable dialogue between contemporary architects and architectural historians through a series of interdisciplinary meetings at Pittsburgh and New Orleans and directed workshops at Rome, Durham and Notre Dame that will build on the research strengths of these two institutions, including the Durham Energy Institute and the Notre Dame School of Architecture, in order to foster an interchange of ideas that will develop critical ideas underpinning a robust and feasible application for an ERC advanced research grant that will have a significant impact on future architectural design, developing understanding of and building on energy-saving solutions in pre-modern historical architecture to design an energy-efficient architecture for the future that will enhance resilience to climate change.


Upcoming project activities

Sunday 8th January 2023 ‘Responses to climate in pre-modern architecture’, workshop at the Annual Meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America, New Orleans, Louisiana (Thursday 5th to Sunday 8th January 2023), Session 8D, 11.30 a.m. to 1.30 p.m.

This workshop will discuss and debate the responses to climate and landscape that can be recognised in pre-modern architecture and the different perspectives towards domestic, religious and urban design in historical architecture. Short papers will compare the priorities of builders across various cultural environments and time periods, including not only Greek and Roman, but also traditional cultures of the Americas and south-Saharan Africa, and their responses to their local landscapes and environmental resources. Questions to be explored and debated will include the relative emphases placed on durability and re-use, the attitudes of builders to construction processes and resources, and their responses to climate and landscape. How important has durability been as a primary concern and how has it been compromised by other priorities? How do ancient builders and built environments relate to landscape, climate and resource as either economic or emblematic affairs? How have techniques and processes of construction evolved in these communities in response to such priorities? How far have economic and symbolic uses of building materials, of high or low status, been reconciled, and how have builders adapted to changes in availability of materials? How have builders succeeded in balancing supply and demand of materials? How might builders today learn from the past?

Short presentations will be given in person by the following speakers:

Anna Browne Ribeiro, Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Louisville, Kentucky

Samantha Martin, Associate Professor, School of Architecture, University College Dublin

Allyson McDavid, Assistant Professor of Ancient Material and Visual Culture, School of Art & Design History and Theory, Parsons School of Design, New York

Seyi Timothy Odeyale, Department of Architecture, University of Ibadan, Nigeria 

Alessandro Pierattini (ND)

Edmund Thomas (DU)

The response will be led (remotely through Zoom) by the following discussant:

Willeke Wendrich, Director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, UCLA, Joan Silsbee Chair of African Cultural Archaeology, and Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Digital Humanities.

Previous activities

Thursday 28th April to Sunday 1st May 2022 Preliminary networking meetings

In person and on Zoom with architectural historians and architects at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Thursday 3rd November 2022 ‘Sustainability in architecture: dialogues between antiquity and modernity’, the British School at Rome, Rome

This was an interdisciplinary workshop, meeting both in person and remotely through Zoom, between architectural historians and modern architects and specialists in architectural technology. We initiated a conversation between architects and architectural historians, allying their complementary skills and expertise, and worked towards formulating a set of goals and priorities and areas for future collaboration and identifying a suitable funding body to support a longer-term collaborative project with specific goals of mutual benefit to both the study of the past and the secure and sustainable building of the future.

In person participants included:

Edmund Thomas, DU (in person),

Adolfo Baratta, Universita’ Roma Tre, Dipartimento di Architettura, Associate Professor of Architectural Technology (in person)

Laura Calcagnini, Universita’ Roma Tre, Dipartimento di Architettura, Assistant Professor of Architectural Technology (in person)

Lorenzo Fei, University of Roma Tre, Dipartimento di Architettura (in person)

Laura Pecchioli, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (in person)

Alessandro Viscogliosi, Universita’ La Sapienza, Facolta’ di Architettura (in person)

Paolo Vitti, University of Notre Dame, School of Architecture (in person)


Remote participants included:

Hirotaka Sakaue, University of Notre Dame, Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Martina Bocci, Politecnico di Torino, PhD candidate

Andrea Bocco, Politecnico di Torino, Professor

Alessandro Pierattini, University of Notre Dame, School of Architecture

John Onyango, University of Notre Dame, School of Architecture

Gianluca Blois, University of Idaho, Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering

Mohamed Gamal Abdelmonem, Chair in Architecture & Director, Centre for Architecture, Urbanism and Global Heritage, Nottingham Trent University


Saturday 12th November 2022 Edmund Thomas, ‘Green shoots: architectural transfer and the sustainability of Roman design’, paper delivered at the conference ‘Architectures of the Roman World: Models, Agency, Reception’, Wolfson College Oxford, 12-13 November 2022

This paper considered the emphasis placed upon economy of resource in the spread of Roman architectural methods across the Roman provinces. Looking in particular at the example of the transfer of architectural styles and methods between Rome and Asia Minor, it surveyed the theoretical contexts of Roman construction and the societal and economic pressures that prompted builders to seek economies with materials alongside the traditionally recognised desire for innovation and display. It suggested that the capacity of Roman builders for technological invention was countered by the need to make those innovations sustainable for the future, but that, conversely, the preoccupation with making technological change responsive to local conditions and economic realities made those changes more enduring and ultimately transformative. It finished by speculating on some areas of research where current ecological demands might learn from the sustainable generation of innovation within economic constraints.