Solar Heated Home Designs

Learn how others have designed and built their own homes using solar heated natural energy.

| July/August 1977

  • Solar House
    The home of Richard Davis in Bar Harbor Maine is a great example of passive solar heating.

  • Solar House

While most everybody else is still just talking about the problems of the energy crisis, a few folks — such as the natural-energy leaders featured in a little book called Design for a Limited Planet — have quietly gone ahead and changed to cleaner, more basic, and less costly (in terms of both the individual and the planet) ways of heating and cooling their homes. Here, three of those pioneering families tell how they built their solar homes and describe what it's like to live on more intimate terms with Ole Sol.     

Sydell and Steven Lipson:  

Sydell and Steven Lipson (who was working in his father's florist shop in New Haven, Connecticut) wanted to build a "live-in" greenhouse — one large, plant-filled space that would get most of its heating from the sun. They had seen the experimental house with transparent plastic walls that architect Mark Hildebrand had built for himself in the woods, and they asked him for a refined version that could be bank-financed. The Lipsons' 4-acre plot is next to a forest preserve in the conservative township of Hamden, Connecticut. Their "street-conscious" neighbors "didn't want a bomb on the street," says architect Hildebrand, so the design of the house had to be appropriate to the community.

His design for the Lipsons' house appears to run counter to energy-saving theories because three walls of the house are transparent. They are made of two sheets of hermetically sealed polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic with an air space in between. Hildebrand had first seen the "pillow" walls used in Colorado and had tried it out on his own house before adapting the technique for the Lipsons' house. "I was experimenting with industrial materials to replace timber construction and thought of plastic because it was economical," he explains. The PVC he chose had good standards for longevity and visual clarity. But the material, used commercially for packing and wrapping, is thought of as disposable and, if subjected to stress, can become brittle and crack.

"We had to design the pillows and install them so that in erection or inflation, they would never be taxed," says Hildebrand. When inflated, the skin stiffens and the plastic forms both the interior and exterior surfaces. The pillows are clamped in place with extruded aluminum frames, similar to the ones that hold storefront windows.

The advantage of the plastic pillows, according to Hildebrand, is that they insulate as well as Thermopane glass — at about one-tenth the cost. However, because of the impermanence of plastic, the pillows will probably have to be replaced every three to five years, adding to maintenance costs.

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