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How to Remodel a Passive Solar Home

6/4/2013 11:18:00 AM

Tags: passive solar, home remodeling, Debra Rucker Coleman, design, construction, Mother Earth News

To learn more about passive solar homes, read "Passive Solar Design: Creating Sun-Inspired Homes," an interview with Debra Rucker Coleman, conducted by Megan E. Phelps. In the interview, Debra discusses the many benefits of working with the sun, and what to consider when building a home using passive solar design. —MOTHER EARTH NEWS

Prior to remodeling for passive solar design features, addressing the overall energy efficiency of the structure is important. You wouldn't want to add any type of additional heat, whether it is through passive solar, electrical photovoltaic energy or fossil fuels, unless you first sealed up the paths where this added energy could then leak back out. Having an energy professional run a blower door test on the existing home would be a good first step. You can locate professionals and home energy auditors through Residential Home Services Network or Energy Star. They can help identify any problems with your existing home that may need to be corrected as a first step or at least addressed during the renovation.

Specific recommendations for each home vary greatly and are best handled by a local architect, preferably with passive solar experience, or one who has at least been educated on the subject through one of many passive solar books (such as The Sun-Inspired House by Sun Plans, books by Dan Chiras, etc.).

Overall design issues that would need to be addressed are:

  • Long-term family goals and needs
  • Survey that includes identification of legal building setbacks, land covenants and solar access
  • Drawings of the existing home
  • Analysis of the existing home in terms of use patterns and problem areas
  • Structural analysis of the existing building
  • Energy analysis of the existing home in terms of building shell, mechanical systems, insulation and utility bills
  • Budget and early involvement of builder to review ideas and options

 The specific design elements would then be similar to new construction. 

  • As with any project, make sure that renovated or new spaces add functional value to the home.
  • Review preliminary design options with home owner and builder.
  • Get input from builder on construction elements.
  • Create construction drawings that meet local planning and building codes.
  • Get input from Home Energy Rater, an HVAC designer and a structural engineer as needed.
  • Revise drawings as needed to incorporate feedback from other design professionals.

Then, there are more passive solar-specific concerns:

  • Orient your windows southward. Place most windows on the south side of the home.
  • Shade south windows with a properly sized overhang.
  • Add thermal mass in walls or floors if the total amount of glass on the building’s south side exceeds more than 7 percent of the floor area.

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Debra Rucker
6/8/2013 11:02:11 AM

While not specifically written for renovations, our book The Sun-Inspired House provides information about passive solar in general that your local design professionals (architects, builders, engineers, etc.) can refer to in helpinig renovate for passive solar. (While working with Sun Plans through the internet for creating a new sun-inspired home works very well, renovations typically need someone on site to analyze the existing conditions.)

The photo that Mother Earth New posted with this article is not a renovation project by Sun Plans. We'd love to know who the architect of that home is so that they can be given credit.

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