It's hot in Greece. Anyone who has ever been to Greece in the summer months knows this. And it's always even hotter in an urban area because biology is sloppy and people are warm. It was equally hot in ancient Hellas, and the ancient Hellenes found a way to make the heat work for them: solar architecture. Technically the term 'solar architecture' refers to the integration of passive solar, active solar or solar panel technology with modern building techniques. In ancient Hellas, the only method was passive integration, but they were the first to do so!

The idea of passive solar building design first appeared in ancient Hellas around the fifth century BC. Up until that time, the main source of fuel was charcoal, but due to a major shortage of wood to burn they were forced to find a new way of heating their houses. With necessity as their motivation, the ancient Hellenes revolutionized the design of their cities. They began using building materials that absorbed solar energy--mostly stone--and also started orienting the buildings so that they faced south. These revolutions, coupled with an overhang that kept out the hot summer sun, created structures which required very little heating and cooling. It was Socrates who instigated the trend. In 'Memorabelia' he mentions:

"When someone wishes to build the proper house, must he make it as pleasant to live in and as useful as it can be? And is it not pleasant to have the house cool in summer and warm in winter? Now in houses with a southern orientation, the sun’s rays penetrate into the porticoes, but in summer the path of the sun is right over our heads and above the roof, so we have shade. It is in such a house that the owner can find a pleasant retreat in all seasons…which makes the house at once the most useful and most beautiful." [3.8.9]
 The Ancient Hellenes built entire cities which were optimal for solar exposure. In the fifth century BC, for example, a neighbourhood for about 2500 people was built in the city of Olynthus, an ancient city of Chalcidice. The city plan of Olynthus can be found above. The streets were built perpendicular to each other, running long in the east-west direction, so that each of the five houses on each side of the street could be built with southern exposure. A street plan oriented at the cardinal points was not new at the time, but the Greeks did more. It seems that not all houses were consistently built around a south-facing courtyard. The houses that faced south on the street and south to the sun were entered through the court, straight from the street. The houses that faced north to the street and south to the sun were entered through a passageway that led from the street through the main body of the house and into the court, from which access was gained to all other spaces.

Why is this important? In keeping with the democratic ethos of the period, the height of buildings was strictly limited so that each courtyard received an equal amount of sunshine. In winter, rays from the sun traveling low across the southern sky streamed across the south-facing courts, through the portico, and into the house, heating the main rooms. The north walls were made of adobe bricks one and a half feet thick, which kept out the cold north winds of winter.

Another obvious example of Ancient Greek solar planning was Priene, rebuilt in 350 BC and located in present-day Turkey. The city had about 4000 inhabitants living in 400 houses. Its buildings and street plan were similar to those in Olynthus, but because the city was built on the slope of a steep mountain, many of the fifteen secondary streets, running north-south, were actually stairways. The seven main avenues were terraced on an east-west axis.

After Olynthus, other cities followed, and eventually Socrates architectural design was being implemented as far away as central Bulgaria. Solar cities became the norm and the ‘modern choice’ and those who did not have the intelligence to construct their homes in such a way were considered primitives.