An Impressive Passive Solar Home Design

Sonya Newenhouse used passive solar design principles to build her family’s dream passive house in the Upper Great Lakes.

Passive Solar Design

Sonya Newenhouse’s Wisconsin-based, 968-square-foot passive solar home is 80 percent more energy-efficient than the average U.S. home.

Photo by Tafline Laylin for Inhabitat

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Building a home with near-zero winter heating costs may sound like an impossible dream in the snowy Upper Great Lakes region of the United States. Yet, one homebuilder in Viroqua, Wisconsin, has achieved the impossible. Sonya Newenhouse’s 968-square-foot home that she lives in with her family relies on passive solar home design to maintain an indoor temperature range of 68 to 86 degrees Fahrenheit, even through the coldest winter nights. Because the home is about 80 percent more energy-efficient than the average U.S. home, it can be heated solely with a hair dryer on each floor. (Building codes required a heating system, so the family installed four 24-inch radiant electric heaters.)

Passive solar buildings incorporate low-tech solutions, including highly efficient south-facing windows, to strategically capture the sun’s energy in thermal mass — such as heat-absorbing stone or concrete floors — throughout the day. At night, the stored heat radiates out to the interior space and is locked in by thick insulation. “The living space is enclosed in a toasty envelope of 16-inch-thick walls, using a double-wall wood system filled with dense-pack cellulose (recycled newspaper),” Newenhouse says. “Thick walls, triple-pane windows, and Energate triple-pane doors sure help reduce sound.” Other green features include a solar hot water system, an air exchanger with a fresh-air diffuser, and edible landscaping fertilized with alpaca manure.

Newenhouse took passive solar design a step further by having her home certified as a Passive House. Based on the German Passivhaus model, Passive House certification requires builders to enact extremely strict building standards to achieve up to 90 percent energy savings compared with typical homes.

“I have never before followed the sun as much as I do now,” Newenhouse says. “I’ve become a sun worshipper.” She chronicles building and certifying her passive solar house in the Mother Earth Living blog series Building the NewenHouse Kit Home.


Kale Roberts is Blogging Coordinator and a former editor of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. He is currently a Rachel Carson Scholar at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy studying Climate Science and Policy. His interests include renewable energy, climate finance, and sustainable rural development. You can find him on Google+.