Monticello shows “green” is old news

Monticello shows “green” is old news

With green building becoming all the rage, developers and builders are jumping over themselves to tout their environmental bona fides. But some, to paraphrase a country song, were green before green was cool. One of them is a native. You may have seen his work around here.


Thomas Jefferson—third president, UVA founder and “green” architect, as Monticello’s sustainable features demonstrate.

When he wasn’t busy extending the doctrine of the Enlightenment, Thomas Jefferson was constantly tinkering with Monticello. While “green building” may conjure impressions of new technologies and cutting-edge designs, a one-hour architectural tour around TJ’s four-story, 21-room house proves the old adage: There (mostly) ain’t nothing new under the sun.

A fundamental tenet of green building is the structure’s relationship with its landscape. Local architect Eugene Bradbury—whose stock is now officially minus one with the Compton House gone—is famous for integrating the landscape into his design. Monticello is no different.

Jefferson built with bricks fired from Albemarle red clay. The six columns standing at the entrance are made from local quartzite. (Because granite wasn’t readily available, the “stone” wall at the entrance is actually a facade, perhaps the first instance in American history of wood paneling.) The Teej hated waste: He used burnt or misfired bricks as insulation.

Before building methods were green, they were simple necessities. Building on top of a mountain—without four-axel trucks, but with slaves—translated to working with what was immediately available, a “new” building idea that had dictated construction for thousands of years (Stonehenge, apparently, excluded).

But TJ wasn’t a homebody. His five years in France opened him to the architecture of the Enlightenment, as well as Classical design. It was in France that he began his love affair with wine (which he talked about ad nauseum, if John Quincy Adams is to be believed). It was also the place where he cribbed the idea of harvesting light, mandating that windows make up a specific area of each room to provide the desired amount of light and heat, a precursor to the concept of solar energy, which still continues to befuddle us.

Jefferson wasn’t any wide-eyed hippie when it came to energy. He knew the value of carbon-based fuel. He also new the value of conservation. Jefferson installed new, shallow fireplaces in Monticello that got 30 percent of the heat from burning wood, rather than the 10 percent from conventional fireplaces. And in a move that anticipated compact florescent light bulbs, TJ switched out standard candles for argon and whale oil candles, which were said to be as bright as eight conventional candles.

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