California Sun House

The authors prove that a couple of "just plain folks" can design and build their own passive solar sun house.

| November/December 1979

  • 060-california-sun-house-01-cover.jpg
    The owners adapted their Sun House design to the Sierra Nevada mountain climate.
  • 060-california-sun-house-02-east-view.jpg
    View from the east northeast, in the early morning after a winter snow. You can see the shade trees to the east and west of the solar-heated home.
  • 060-california-sun-house-03-winter-garden2.jpg
    A winter vegetable garden resides atop five 55-gallon water-filled heat storage drums inside the greenhouse.
  • 060-california-sun-house-greenhouse-diagram.jpg
    Diagram shows the materials, layout, and window glazing of the greenhouse.

  • 060-california-sun-house-01-cover.jpg
  • 060-california-sun-house-02-east-view.jpg
  • 060-california-sun-house-03-winter-garden2.jpg
  • 060-california-sun-house-greenhouse-diagram.jpg

Back in the fall of 1976 when my wife Jane and I decided to build a passively solar-heated home, we had neither the time nor the money to experiment with unproven ideas. Our hearts told us that we needed to be out of the city and into a house of our own quickly.

We were also dead set on becoming as energy self-sufficient as possible (Though we didn't want to end up with a building that looked like a wooden version of Skylab). But most important; we wanted to prove to ourselves that despite the skeptics' claims, it was possible for two average people to teach themselves to design and build their own solar-heated house!

In many respects, our "sun house" may appear to be a rather conservative blend of well-known passive solar techniques. Nonetheless, the proof of the pudding we think is that our cautious mix of modes has worked: only seven months after breaking ground, we were able to move into a house which can be kept warm with one cord of wood per winter and is a pure joy to live in all year round. Best of all, with the exception of digging the excavation we built our dwelling entirely with our own hands ... and for a price which won't keep us in debt the rest of our lives!

Solar Orientation

The climate of our Sierra Nevada foothills isn't known for extremely bitter winters. At the 1,700 foot level where our house is located, we normally see a day or two of subzero temperatures and a couple of feet of snow each year. As a matter of fact, it's actually our winter "monsoons"—when cold rain often falls for as many as three weeks on end—which pose the most significant solar heating problem.

However, the real solar-home-design challenge (in our climate, at least) is to provide for both heating and cooling. We've seen temperatures of over 110°F more often than we care to remember, and a 50*F difference between the nightly low and daily high isn't uncommon. As you can imagine, then, our abode's ability to cool us in the summer is darn near as important as is its power to warm us in the winter.

In order to be sure that our home could perform the dual functions of heating and cooling, we had to adapt solid solar principles to our own location and climate. Instead of facing the major window area due south, for instance, we angled the "sunny side" five degrees to the east. This stance helps the structure even out the wide range of daily temperatures by capturing badly needed early morning rays and rejecting some of the less desirable afternoon ones.

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