Are solar panels ugly?

A recent letter to a local paper, evidently in response to the new Solarize Provincetown initiative, expressed the opinion that solar panels make houses ugly and that the town is unwise to make that sacrifice for energy efficiency. As a cautionary example he points to the cape-style house on Briar Lane in Wellfleet (across from Box Lunch), the roof of which is covered with panels.

It’s an important issue. We’d presumably all like to save on our electric bills (and fight climate change into the bargain). But if doing so makes our houses ugly, possibly affecting their market value, we might think twice.

By the letter writer’s thinking, Solarize Wellfleet, which has been instrumental in putting panels on around 150 houses, has made quite a sacrifice in the direction of ugliness, a matter of concern for a town known –and visited by tourists—for its charm. Do we have to subtract lost tourist dollars from savings in electricity? How will that affect the payback calculations of owners of solarized homes?

But there’s another way to look at it. My mother’s grab bag of sayings included “Handsome is as handsome does,” an attempt to curb vanity in her children. In other words, how something functions affects how we see it. Not just that what you do is more important than how you look but what you do actually affects the way you look. The aesthetic of things—houses, say—is related to how it functions in our lives.

To the knowledgeable—and we are all getting more knowledgeable about solar—a lot of glass on the south side of a house looks good because it looks smart. Less attractive these days perhaps is a house sited and designed without regard to the sun, with a roof that is designed to keep out the energy of the sun, along with everything else, and as a consequence to require a gas- or oil-guzzling furnace in the cellar to keep the box warm.

Beautiful is a house that looks like it works well. A house is a machine for living in, said Le Corbusier, and I believe he regarded good machines as attractive architecture.

So yes, solar panels may erode the charm of a traditional roof. (I might lament the solarizing of an old thatched English cottage). But they create another sort of look which I imagine is pleasing the eye of many contemporary beholders. Smoking used to look very sexy until recent decades, whether engaged in by movie stars or handsome cowboys. Now that we know more about how it functions in human health, not such a good look.

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