One of the most promising technologies for the future is also one of the simplest and least expensive: passive solar design. The concept is simple. You can build a house that maintains a more constant, comfortable temperature and reduce your energy bills simply by designing a home to maximize natural heating and cooling.
Last Saturday, I was able to visit three different passive solar homes on a local homes tour that was part of the larger National Solar Tour. The tour confirmed what I've always heard about passive solar designs: They can be beautiful homes.
Sure, not every passive solar house is going to be an attractive home. But the basic principles of passive solar certainly point home builders in that direction. Here's why:
- In our region, one of the most recognizable features of passive solar houses is that they're designed with lots of south facing windows to collect light and heat during the winter. That almost automatically creates comfortable, inviting living spaces with lots of natural light.
- Passive solar designs also have to be well insulated, and they're constructed with a lot of heavy building materials such as brick and stone that transmit heat slowly. That leads to sturdy, substantial walls and a home that feels snug because it's tightly constructed.
- Another feature of passive solar homes is wide overhangs on the exterior of the house, which provide shading during the summer, and incidentally make a home look attractive from the outside, too.
But the real beauty of passive solar is that's an easy way to save energy. In one of the houses on the tour we were told that either the heating or cooling system could go out and the homeowners probably wouldn't notice it for about a week because the house naturally maintains a constant temperature.
Those features didn't necessarily make the home more expensive either. The builders said that the cost of the house was about 15 percent higher than the cost of conventional construction— but they'd also added some special features unrelated to the passive solar design that had driven up the cost. Even so, the owners reported that their energy bills are so low that they'll quickly recover the extra costs.
If you'd like to learn more about passive solar design you can find a helpful article explaining the basic principles here. You can also view photos of homes from the National Solar tour by visiting our online photo gallery.