Art, Innovation, and the Power of the Sun

Paul Soldner loved the sun. The pioneering ceramist, teacher, founder of Anderson Ranch Arts Center, inventor (of Soldner pottery equipment, among a dozen patents), and self-taught green builder employed the sun’s power, energy, light, and symmetry in both his artwork and in the design and construction of his home and studio — which spanned 40 years and incorporated local, natural, and recycled materials whenever possible. Now, with CORE’s help, his daughter Stephanie is carrying forward his legacy, by using the sun’s energy even further and more efficiently.

Paul and Ginny Soldner first stumbled on Aspen in 1953, while Paul was earning his MFA at the University of Colorado. Enchanted with the area, they returned three years later, bought five acres from the Burlingame ranching family, and started to build while on summer break from teaching in California — Paul was a professor of ceramic arts at Scripps College and Ginny taught elementary school.

From the get-go, Paul incorporated environmentally conscious, energy-efficient techniques into the two-building home and studio — which he constructed entirely by hand, with knowledge gleaned from reading magazines like Scientific American and Popular Mechanics (plus lots of calculated experimentation). One side of the roof on the A-frame building, for example, is pitched at exactly 26 degrees, for maximum exposure to the sun in the winter. The design was so precise, according to Stephanie, that on December 21, the shortest day of the year, sunlight coming through a high bank of windows “touches every board as it goes all the way down the walls, and completely illuminates the room — it’s so beautiful.”

Paul built one room of the A-frame to be a greenhouse, and a simple, round building on the property (which started as a garage and is now a gallery of Paul’s ceramic works and Ginny’s paintings) evokes the sun in its circular open loft with radiating beams. Once, when Paul’s attempt to demonstrate his hand-built solar-powered kiln wasn’t effective, he still managed to impress a gathered crowd with the sun’s power by using well-aimed mirrors to burst a pile of cardboard into flame.

“Paul really encouraged risk, trying things, and if they didn’t work out, just move on,” says Stephanie, who noted that in the case of his home and studio, he built models to test his theories. “He believed that if you don’t try, you don’t innovate — that’s what he told his students.”

Following his own beliefs, Paul’s main experiment with solar energy — to heat his home — was partially successful. On the steep south-facing roof of the A-frame he mounted an array of solar panels, which were originally intended to heat water in a kind of underground pond that would then provide radiant heat through the floor. While that experiment didn’t work out well because the volume of the water was too great to maximize the heat output in the space, he tried three different solar panel systems over the years that provided some moderate tempering of the space, while heat was mostly provided by a propane boiler and baseboards.

When in the last several years the propane boiler started failing, Stephanie realized she’d have to redo the heat system altogether, and was prompted to call CORE after seeing a Facebook post about a friend’s success story.

That phone call would kick off a true partnership and one of the more unique projects CORE has undertaken to date.

“It would have been easy to say, let’s replace everything with heat pumps,” says CORE Program Director Marty Treadway. “But the fact is, Paul was so ahead of his time that there were systems in place that couldn’t be abandoned. The solar thermal system was still producing BTUs, so we wanted to maximize efficiency while retaining the components that were still useful.” With CORE’s free energy advising, Stephanie was able to make the upgrades she wanted without losing the features her father had established.

Working together, Stephanie and CORE developed a multi-year plan that will eventually result in a very efficient system. The first year, they put an electric boiler in the A-frame, and the following year a second electric boiler went into the other main building on the property, which Stephanie calls “the orange-door building.” The electric boilers replaced the single propane boiler that had been heating both buildings, and doing it incrementally helped from a financial standpoint, with each expense structured as a community grant matching Stephanie’s costs.

The third step is to put in a buffer tank, which will collect the solar thermal energy throughout the winter and provide enough heat on all but the coldest days. This component, which won’t be needed at all in the summer, improves the efficiency of the entire system by reducing its electrical draw. “We’re taking Paul’s system, which was functioning very well, and trying to maximize its output,” Treadway explains.

In the future, Stephanie hopes to further her father’s vision of using the sun with photovoltaics — a technique that up until recently was too costly for most people.

CORE also provided funding and expertise to seal the buildings against heat loss. That was done mostly around doors and windows, which had developed cracks and crevices over 50 years. But while an impending listing on the National Register of Historic Places precludes a wholesale overhaul of the building envelope to seal it to existing standards, the team found that the ceiling Paul had put in didn’t need any help. Using warped two-by-fours discarded from the lumberyard, a burning technique that sealed the cells in the wood, clamps, and nails, he managed to build an inner roof that’s airtight and fireproof to this day.

“CORE has really helped us take this place to a whole new level that I think my parents would be delighted with,” says Stephanie.

But the energy efficiency projects are not just fulfilling for the Soldner family. They fit into Stephanie’s plans for the Soldner Center, a new nonprofit that’s evolving out of a visioning session she held with her parents’ friends and colleagues after Paul died in 2011 and she inherited the property — which has always been a gathering place for Paul’s students, Anderson Ranch workshop participants, and ceramics world friends in general.

The Soldner Center’s mission is “dedicated to the Soldner legacy of transformative experience by encouraging curiosity, creativity and innovation through integration of the arts, alternative architecture and energy, the natural world and community.”

As a cultural asset and museum, its first phase will include building tours of the energy systems and architecture, plus some small programming and special events. Phase two, the Soldner Center of Arts and Innovation, envisions a residential campus where emerging or mature artists, scientists, writers, and architects come for a period of time to work on projects, mingle and exchange ideas with others, and enjoy nature. “It’s trying to continue the Aspen Idea (of nurturing mind, body, and spirit), which my folks believed in — that’s why they moved here,” says Stephanie.

Central to both phases is highlighting the power of the sun and other green building methods that Paul employed and CORE preserved and enhanced.

“I hope seeing this will help people envision how they can be more energy efficient and have a better impact on the climate and the world,” – Stephanie Soldner

For CORE, the Soldner Center highlights how unique each project can be, and that when it comes to energy solutions, there’s hardly ever a cookie-cutter solution. Through energy advising, CORE can look at a specific space and figure out the best answer for you.

“We’re moving away from prescriptive rebates and programs that tell you what to do, and more toward a custom incentive program where we’ll find funding for you if you have a crazy idea that will help the climate,” says Treadway. “We’ll find rebates for you if you’re doing something that doesn’t quite fit into the requirements but it’s a sensible project. Together, we’ll find the right choices for you and the climate.”


Start the conversation with CORE Program Director Ryland French and get free energy advising on your next innovative project. We know there isn’t one solution for everyones energy efficiency upgrades, so let CORE help you make your dream projects come to life. Check out the photos from the Soldner Center for inspiration.

Written by: Catherine Lutz

Catherine Lutz is a freelance writer based in Aspen. As a former newspaper reporter who has written about everything from entertainment to skiing to climate change for a wide variety of publications, nonprofits, and businesses, she understands the power of words to help connect us more closely with an idea, issue, or other people. An avid skier and biker raising two children to appreciate how lucky they are to grow up in the Roaring Fork Valley, she also hopes she and her family can make a positive impact on the community and the environment that sustains us.

CORE is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to leading the Roaring Fork Valley to a carbon-free, net zero energy future.