Sun Cottage, Part I: Site Selection for a Passive Solar Home

As part of an ongoing discussion of passive solar home design, an architect dedicated to energy-efficient affordable housing discusses several important factors in site selection.

  • site selection, passive solar home - model floor plan of basic Sun Cottage Modular
    Model floor plan of the Sun Cottage Modular.
  • site selection, passive solar home - model of basic Sun Cottage Modular
    Model of the basic Sun Cottage Modular design.
  • site selection, passive solar home - illustration of basic Sun Cottage Modular
    Site selection is an important early factor to get right, if a passive solar home design like the Sun Cottage Modular is to work effectively.
    Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

  • site selection, passive solar home - model floor plan of basic Sun Cottage Modular
  • site selection, passive solar home - model of basic Sun Cottage Modular
  • site selection, passive solar home - illustration of basic Sun Cottage Modular

All too many of us have found that building an energy-efficient home seems to be a dream, a fantasy that's kept just out of reach by escalating prices and high interest rates. And as if the cost of building weren't enough of a hindrance, some of the funds that might otherwise be saved toward paying that price often end up being spent on energy to keep our "old" houses comfortable. Of course, MOTHER EARTH NEWS has long been exploring ways to break this vicious circle of waste.

One inventor of solutions is architect Angus W. Macdonald. The innovative architect was educated at Yale University and holds a master's degree from the Yale School of Architecture. After spending eight years developing low-cost buildings in Jamaica, he returned to his native Virginia, where he now practices passive solar architecture in the town of Orange. 

Macdonald has developed a number of designs that apply low-cost building techniques to earth-tempered and passive solar homes. He's agreed to relate much of what he's learned about planning and building such structures. We'll cover the complete process of home construction from site selection (in this article) all the way through excavation, drainage, building walls, insulating, waterproofing, and interior finishing, and every installment will be written to help the builder who's on a tight budget. 

By the end of the series you should have the basic information necessary to put up your own energy-efficient home at a rock-bottom price. In fact, we'll illustrate the whole process with photos of the construction of a passive solar, earth-tempered home design — Macdonald calls it the Sun Cottage Modular — that qualifies for FHA or VA financing and costs only $20 per square foot to build!

Our Sun Cottage Site Excavation and Floor Plan Diagrams will give you an idea of the structure he’s talking about.

When you're shopping for a piece of property on which to build a passive solar home, keep your wits about you and look both up and down: Be mindful of the sky and the earth; after all, the marriage of proper sunlight, terrain, and soil will be crucial to the ease of construction and to the performance of the finished residence.

Sloping Ground

To save money on excavation and insure adequate drainage, it's best to build earth-tempered housing on sloping ground. However, the hillside in question need not be steep. In fact, too great a slope can prove to be a bigger problem than none at all. In my opinion, an ideal site will have the floor level at the back wall, about 4 feet below the existing grade; try standing where the front of your future home might be and imagining the location of the rear of the building-to-be.

A 4-foot-deep excavation will usually produce enough leftover subsoil to berm up the back wall to its full 8-foot height, and enough topsoil to cover the roof. In addition, the earth piled above grade against the rear will help direct rainwater away from the building.

Hunter Melville
8/18/2020 2:05:41 PM

I built one, 37 years later:



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