In 1977, a group of Canadian researchers built a demonstration house in Regina. Called the Saskatchewan Conservation House, the nearly airtight building had triple-glazed windows, R-40 wall insulation, R-60 roof insulation, and one of the world’s first heat-recovery ventilators.
The home’s design and engineering team included Robert Besant, Oliver Drerup, Rob Dumont, David Eyre, and Harold Orr. That same year, Gene Leger, a Massachusetts builder, finished a similar superinsulated house in Pepperell, Mass.
When it became clear that these two houses used extraordinarily low amounts of energy, progressive builders and energy researchers throughout North America sat up and paid attention. Among those taking notice of the Saskatchewan and Leger houses were Ned Nisson, the first editor of Energy Design Update, and William Shurcliff, a well-known Massachusetts physicist who regularly collaborated with Nisson.
In June 1979 — almost thirty years ago — William Shurcliff issued a historic press release that bears quoting at length. Shurcliff wrote:
“Consider the Saskatchewan Energy Conserving Demonstration House. Or consider the Leger House in Pepperell, Mass. They fit none of the … listed categories [of solar houses]. The essence of the new category is:
“1. Truly superb insulation. Not just thick, but clever and thorough. Excellent insulation is provided even at the most difficult places: sills, headers, foundation walls, windows, electric outlet boxes, etc.
“2. Envelope of house is practically airtight. Even on the windiest days the rate of air change is very low.
“3. No provision of extra-large thermal mass. (Down with Trombe walls! Down with water-filled drums and thick concrete floors!)
“4. No provision of extra-large south windows. Use normal number and size of south windows — say 100 square feet.
“5. No conventional furnace. Merely steal a little heat, when and if needed, from the domestic hot water system. Or use a minuscule amount of electrical heating.
“6. No conventional distribution system for…