You Can Build This Energy-Efficient Prairie Solar Home

This new prairie-style solar home is so energy efficient it can cost up to 75 percent less to heat than a conventional home of the same size.

| August/September 2009

Regional housing

The Solar Prairie Home is designed for the “cold” region of the United States


Not so long ago, the best home designs in the United States were based on their local climate, crafted from materials that were nearby, and utilized time-tested building techniques. As a result, different areas of the country were known for their distinctive, regional homes.

But after World War II, cheap energy changed all that. Newly developed energy-intensive heating and cooling systems allowed designers to ignore the climate. The “International Style” of the 1950s embraced this approach: Building styles could be the same from Miami, Fla., to Wasilla, Alaska, without regard for the climate.

Of course, this way of designing is not sustainable. As energy costs rise and we make stronger efforts to reduce global warming, regionally-based architecture is experiencing a renaissance. Regional designs allow homes to be energy efficient, more environmentally friendly, and comfortable. This solar home, which we call our Solar Prairie Home, was commissioned by MOTHER EARTH NEWS to meet all of those design objectives.

The traditional prairie style home has its roots in the Midwest and is easily recognized by the linear horizontal design, roof overhangs, and centrally located fireplaces. This design is optimized for its climate and will perform best in “cold” areas of the United States.

One key ideal of a green home is to keep it appropriately sized. At about 2,600 square feet, this design’s efficient floor plan is convenient and feels spacious while minimizing the heated space and amount of construction materials.

With the specifications outlined below in “Slash Your Heating Bills in Half!,” this home can perform at least 50 percent better than a standard new home. These impressive energy savings come from a superinsulated shell and high-performance windows, together with optimum passive solar design and natural ventilation. Add solar thermal panels and you can cut the heating bill by a total of 75 percent!

nathan kipnis
8/26/2009 8:07:58 AM

The size of the home is 2300 square feet plus a 300 square foot basement section that houses the mechanicals and provides some storage space. The home provides 3 'plus' bedrooms (the study can certainly be a bedroom), 1 1/2 baths, a separate study/computer area at the top of the stairs (the current thought is to located computer areas outside of bedrooms), a family room, kitchen and dining room. There is a mudroom off of the back. It is certainly possible to make a smaller home, but this particular one is essentially 2300 square feet of usable space. It also provides covered outdoor space that acts like an exterior room during good weather (screening that space is an option). According to LEED standards for efficient home design (a nationally recognized point based system for green homes), 2600 square feet is what they term 'neutral' for a home like this. It does not penalize or reward someone at that size. The goal in designing the Solar Prairie Home was to make it as adaptable as possible. Consequently, there are numerous options for the home. These include a fully enclosed garage, relocating the garage to fit specific sites, SIPs construction (same exact dimensions as detailed on the plans), enlarging the basement if that is needed, converting the screened porch into a ground floor master bedroom, converting the powder room into a full ground floor bath that is more accessible, and the possibility of having a residential grade elevator added for access to the second floor. Geothermal can of course be utilized, if it makes sense in that particular climate and with the fuel mix/pricing structure of the local utility. There is certainly nothing in the design that would prevent that. My experience has been in the Chicago area that geothermal is significantly more expensive than other green options and is subject to the pricing whims of the local utility company. Of course, the best option is to make the home as efficient as possibl

jason hinton
8/10/2009 1:04:15 PM

Using energy efficient design should not be an excuse to increase the size of the home. 2600 sq ft is a ridiculous size house considering the average household in the US has less than 3 people. The home I grew up in was 1100 sq ft and had plenty of room for our family of 4.

8/7/2009 8:35:10 PM

2600 sq ft? What in heck were you thinking? Energy efficient or not, the size of this house is ridiculous. How about an efficient house of 1500 sq ft or less for a family of five or less.

paul myers
8/7/2009 3:37:26 PM

It's an attractive house, but it could be a lot more: 1. SIPs/ICFs for a truly energy-efficient envelope. 2. Main floor master bedroom for those of us that are approaching retirement (many of Mother's subscribers, I'll bet). 3. Geothermal (which also provides A/C)--unless you think the price of natural gas might go down, or feel that a 92% efficient mod-con boiler is better than a 350% efficient heat pump. 4. A real garage. There are many places in the "cold" region where you're going to wake up some morning with a 10-foot snowdrift in that carport. Like I said, it could be a lot more.

lily peletis
8/5/2009 9:18:06 AM

I liked your animation on with the energy-efficient solar home. The only thing about it is to make it just a bit slower. I felt like it went by in the blink of an eye.

7/25/2009 3:32:59 PM

I disagree with the comment about unsustainable building designs. You have to believe we are about to run out of energy to agree with that comment. We clearly are not running out of energy and won't run out of energy unless we refuse to develop all the sources, including conventional oil, natural gas and coal. India rejected the basic scientific premise of global warming this week. They add to a long list of countries that disagree with the theory.

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