Creating an Eco-Friendly, Passive Solar, Earth-Sheltered Home

Professor Wendell Thomas designs and builds eco-friendly, self-heating and self-cooling homes within Celo Community in North Carolina.

| July/August 1971

  • Eco-friendly passive solar home
    Our 32-foot x 24-foot shed-roof dwelling was a moderately solar house. But its main feature was a slot between floor and wall — on all four sides—that drained cold air from the walls down to the deep, completely dry, sealed cellar.
    Photo by Wendell Thomas
  • Earth-sheltered eco-friendly home
    In the ordinary house, the living space is too dry, especially when the house is heated. On the contrary, in our houses—where the air circulates up and down all the time—the living space is normally humid and the below space just slightly more humid.

  • Eco-friendly passive solar home
  • Earth-sheltered eco-friendly home

In 1948 my wife and I joined Celo Community, Inc., in the mountains of Western North Carolina and I chose a site — just off the top of a ridge, on the south side — for building a house. Our place was 100 feet above the highway and commanded a magnificent 7-mile southern view of the gap where the Blue Ridge and Black Mountains met. I had to climb a tree, however, to enjoy that view in the beginning! The Community sold me the acre I wanted for $100 and we lived in a small tent with a wooden platform and side walls while my talented Community friend, Phil Nordstrom, and I built the dwelling that I had designed and which we named "Sunnycrest."  

I should say here that I am neither an architect nor a builder. I had been a university professor up North until I left to experience the world's basic kind of life and my wife had been a librarian. We took the Community plunge not knowing how we would make a living until my wife got a job driving a bookmobile, and eventually became an outstanding regional librarian. 1 worked on the place . . . and wrote.

Our 32-foot x 24-foot shed-roof dwelling was a moderately solar house. But its main feature was a slot between floor and wall — on all four sides—that drained cold air from the walls down to the deep, completely dry, sealed cellar. The living room was 32-feet long and 11-feet high at the front. The 3-way divided bathroom had wooden partitions and the two bedrooms could be enclosed with drapes.

We used the smallest Riteway heater in this house and our fuel was the wood we got from clearing. We spent not a cent on fuel. On the coldest winter mornings (temperature around zero) with no heat in the heater overnight, the temperature in the living space was about 50 degrees F. A fire built in the heater would raise the temperature to 70 within ten minutes and, at 9 in the morning, we would let the fire go out. The sun would then take over and keep the temperature of the house above 70.

I'm not presenting this house as a model. In fact, this article is really about another dwelling that I designed later and which I'll describe presently. But this first house gives me a chance to caution about the solar principle and to recommend the cold air drainage slot which, as far as I know, was my invention for dwellings.

I figured that the sun in our temperate zone shines about one-sixth of the time in the cold season: every other day, at a guess, and 8 hours out of the 24. So, unless you have elaborate arrangements for insulating the windows five-sixths of the time, you're losing heat—not gaining—with an "all glass" solar home design. It's enough to face a few large windows south and have an almost solid, well-insulated wall at the north and west (a western exposure is cold in winter and hot on summer afternoons). (A northern exposure is sunless and cold.)

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