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Design around the Sun

By Dan Chiras 

Tags: Dan Chiras, passive solar, green homes, solar-powered homes,

Solar Home 

One of the key points I drive home to students in my passive solar design classes at the Evergreen Institute is to design new homes and businesses around the sun. Put another way, the passive capture of the solar energy for home heat should be the central organizing principle when designing a new home.

Architects are taught to design homes around use patterns — accommodating patterns of habitation and use preference and ensuring the smooth flow of traffic in a home. In rural areas, home design often revolves around a client’s desire to capture views for which they’ve paid dearly.

Unfortunately, very little, if any, thought is given to designing homes to capture the low-angled winter sun, which can provide free heat for life in many areas. Doing so can dramatically reduce home heating costs and the carbon footprint of homes while increasing comfort levels immensely.

To create truly efficient homes that tap into the sun’s generous supply of energy for heating, all homes should be designed around the sun. Begin by orienting the house to the south, so the long axis runs east to west.  Then concentrate the windows on the south side. Doing so permits the low-angled winter sun into your home, providing free heat. Once the home is properly oriented, arrange rooms accordingly to solar heat demand.

Ideally, a house should be designed so that each room becomes an independent solar collector. This requires a rectangular design — basically a one-room-deep home. 

To avoid the solar trailer syndrome (long skinny homes), most passive solar home designs are two-room-deep rectangles. In such instances, it is best to place rooms that require more heat on the south side of the home. Living rooms, dining rooms and home offices are good candidates for direct solar gain. Rooms that require less heat or are used less frequently, such as pantries, bedrooms, utility rooms, and bathrooms should be placed along the north side. The same goes for rooms like kitchens that generate their own heat.

These and a few other measures, like providing adequate overhang to shade a home in the summer, airtight design and construction, and high levels of insulation, will result in a home that heats itself naturally.

The cool thing about passive solar is that they generally cost about the same to design and build as conventional homes. A little foresight and intelligent design can reap huge financial benefits. The question is not “Why should I build a passive solar home?” but rather “Why wouldn’t you? Why wouldn’t you build a home that heats and cools itself naturally and that’s going to cost the same as a home that’s going to relegate you to exorbitant heating and cooling costs?”

If you are interested in learning more, you may want to pick up a copy of my book, The Solar House: Passive Heating and Cooling, or sign up for one my passive solar design workshops.

Above: A passive solar home in Pueblo, Colo. Photo by Dwight Stone, Courtesy of DOE/NREL.

Contributing editor Dan Chiras is a renewable energy and green homes expert who has spent a lifetime learning life’s lessons, which he shares in his popular blog, Dan Chiras on Loving Life. He’s the founder and director of The Evergreen Institute and president of Sustainable Systems Design. Contact him by visiting his website or finding him on .
wendell freeman
2/7/2010 6:11:58 PM

dan; inherited some land in eastern kentucky,a region not well known for "free thinking", -it lies in a "holler" ,where the road runs mostly east-west,leaving the place i've picked with a verry good southern exposure..with a hillside at the back of a small (maybe 1 acre) of land in front.. -my great-grandfather grew tobacco,and made his living for most of his life onthat-and several other small plots along the holler.. --i'm debating between using shipping containers for thew base structure,or going underground,digging into the side of the bank,with glass-and a geo-solar system to warm and cool..-with a lot of concern about the humidity levels,along with radon gas infiltration,as this seems to be a concern in this part of the world.. --like most,money isn't plentiful,so i'm seeing if this can be done on a shoestring budget,along with a lot of help from family for the physical parts.. -one thing learned for generations here--don't build on the flat land,as a plowable field is your most precious commodity,so the houses were built up the hillside-makes getting the groceries a challange-especially when it snows. --just thought i'd see if anyone here at mother earth news could point me towards some plans-a former homeless man could use-to put together a low energy use-economical building? far,it's just me,but would like to have room for a family-but DEFINATELY not a mc'mantion. any thoughts?

dan chiras
2/5/2010 6:51:04 PM

The nice thing about passive solar is that it works with any style of building. I have never found banks are biased against passive solar. If yours is, design it to look like any other house, just increase the glazing (glass) on the south side and minimize glazing on the north, east, and west. I am working on a house right now with a client. It looks pretty normal, too. I can provide the glazing recommendations if you don't have them.

mike schonlau_3
2/5/2010 12:37:47 PM

Dan, We've found that bank appraisals can be a stumbling block to building a passive solar home because they "look different" and, therefore, are more difficult to compare. Do you have any advice for designing a passive solar home that has a more traditional look, but keeps the passive solar design concepts intact?