Monticello – Thomas Jefferson, Green Builder

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Monticello – Thomas Jefferson, Green Builder

Written by Joyanna Laughlin for

We, the members of the seventh generation since Thomas Jefferson built Monticello, can learn a thing or two from the early green architect.

Monticello Green Building

“Those who construct their own shelter replicate themselves at their deepest and most significant level, in their houses. They are what they build.” —Jack McLaughlin in Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder (Henry Holt, 1990).

When you think of green builders, Thomas Jefferson probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind. But the Declaration of Independence author, governor of Virginia, and third president of the United States was also an architect who created an innovative home that maximized sun and wind power: Monticello near Charlottesville, Virginia.

“Monticello is one of the most sophisticated passive solar houses in the world,” says William McDonough, an architect known for creating buildings that are people- and environmentally-friendly. A principal of the Charlottesville-based firm William McDonough + Partners, McDonough is passionate about this subject. “Jefferson was very precise in his understanding of the way the sun moves around a building and how it would integrate with a house,” he says.

According to McDonough, Monticello, built in the Roman neoclassical style and featuring 43 rooms and 11,000 square feet of living space, is small when compared with the great mansions of the time. He considers the home’s mountaintop location—which allowed Jefferson to look to the west, in the direction of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition—to be his one act of hubris.

Living with the elements

Monticello Gardens

Much of the subtlety and elegance of Monticello’s design comes from Jefferson’s study of Renaissance humanist Andrea Palladio. Palladio rediscovered the classical architecture of first century b.c. Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, who described where to locate rooms relative to the sun’s movement. However, McDonough believes a basic understanding of how to live in relation to the sun and the wind was common to almost everyone in Jefferson’s time. “Jefferson was a farmer, and farmers are intensely connected to the land,” he says. “Jefferson happened to have a grand, eloquent perspective on the world, yet anybody who lived on a plantation or farm at that time would have done similar things.”

McDonough points out that Monticello’s main rooms—the east entrance portico, Jefferson’s bedroom suite, and the dining room and tea room—are positioned to take advantage of passive solar gain based on what times of day and in which seasons the rooms were in use. “The east entrance portico could use a little warm-up as you greet the day and doesn’t necessarily need to be heated in the winter for evening,” he explains. The western-facing living room, shaded in summer by its portico, allows late-afternoon winter sun to warm it for evening use.

William Beiswanger, the Robert H. Smith director of restoration at Monticello, says the home is built so that cold air is brought in through the cellars and hot air is vented through the skylights. During Jefferson’s time, the skylights in the third-floor bedrooms could be opened via a pulley system, and it’s assumed the skylights over the stairwells worked the same way.

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