Founding Father: Thomas Jefferson, Green Builder

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

| September/October 2003

  • Monticello remains a legacy of Jeffersonian simplicity and ingenuity.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline/Monticello
  • Monticello, a prototypical passive solar home, sits atop a mountain with a grand view to the west. The home demonstrates a keen understanding of the rhythms of sun and wind.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline/Monticello
  • Jefferson was an astute, well-read, prolific writer. He spent many hours of each morning and into the afternoon at his writing table.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline/Monticello
  • Part of the home’s heating and cooling systems involved bringing in the cool air from the cellars and releasing warm air through vents in the skylights.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline/Monticello
  • Jefferson used native species and built a stone wall to provide radiant heat and extend the growing season of his garden plot.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline/Monticello
  • Monticello is built in a Roman neoclassical architectural style thought to derive from Jefferson’s study of Renaissance humanist Andrea Palladio.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline/Monticello
  • A sod roof cottage at Gibbs Museum.
    Photo By Philip Beaurline/Monticello

“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

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.”

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