Finalizing Our Passive Solar House Design: Minor Tweaks and Major Planning Tips

Reader Contribution by Jennifer Kongs
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The Small Home, Big Decisions series follows Jennifer and her husband, Tyler, as they build a self-reliant homestead on a piece of country property in northeastern Kansas. The series will delve into questions that arise during their building process and the decisions they make along the way. The posts are a work in progress, written as their home-building adventure unfolds.

A few weeks ago, we picked up the preliminary house plans that we had drawn by John Roe at McCray Lumber near us in Topeka, Kan. We highly recommend paying the additional fee for a set of preliminary plans. Based on the estimate our contractor, Jeff Wooster, came up with by looking at the preliminaries, and based on some of the design features we wanted to adjust for aesthetic or functional reasons, we would have been in a tight spot should the first drawings have been our finals. After we discussed the changes we wanted and the changes Jeff recommended, we finalized our passive solar design plans (see evidence above) and are now awaiting a revised lumber list so we can put it out for bids.

We’ve outlined a few of the points we made sure to pay attention to below, because we think they are worth considering as you design your own future home. We’ve spared you the finer details about how many square feet our deck will be, or how many feet high our kitchen island will be. (You’re welcome.)

Lifetime planning. We plan to live in the house for the rest of our lives, so we chose to adjust the width of each doorway to be large enough for a wheelchair or walker, and made the master bath a step-in shower instead of the original shower-tub combo we’d first chosen. As young newlyweds, we felt odd talking about these (hopefully) far-off “maybe’s,” but ultimately, it just seems practical to plan for our whole future. We are building our dream home and farmstead, after all!

Movement planning. We had to shuffle items around in the kitchen and our bedroom quite a bit. We really sat and thought about how we move in our current house, and what would make our use of space more efficient. So, the kitchen now has a tighter “flow” from the refrigerator to the sink to the work space to the stove and oven. We’ll have a good amount of room for people to mill around without being in the way, which is perfect for how we entertain: lots of cooking, snacking and chatting around the kitchen. Movement planning is the main reason we built in a “drop zone” (or mud room) right inside the garage, complete with benches, hooks and small cubbies; why we set up our closet and bathroom off of our bedroom the way we did; and why there are built-in bookshelves in the living room. As you narrow down plans you like, spend plenty of time paying attention to how you move in your current home, how you wish you could move in your current home, and visualizing the spaces you’re looking at as 2D plans in a 3D version. Seems obvious, but it’s a small (free!) planning tool that makes good sense.

Windows. We added a whole-house fan and made sure the windows that were originally drawn as “fixed” (which means unopenable and pretty useless for our purposes) were all, but a couple, double-hung and operational. We plan to take advantage of cross breezes and the simple cooling technique of allowing cooler night air in and then shutting out warmer summer air to reduce our AC needs. We are purposefully spending what seems like an insane amount on high-quality, wooden windows in order to not pay for heating and cooling air that would leak out through our windows if we went with cheaper options. Totally worth the investment.

Gardening and food preservation. While our basement will be unfinished (we plan to finish it ourselves over the next several years), we did decide to have Jeff put in some food-and-garden-specific features. First, he’s going to build in a MOTHER EARTH NEWS original basement root cellar, which means we’ll be able to access our reserved storage crops without having to trek through the winter elements to get to them. We’re also putting a steel insulated door on the basement level that’s wide enough for my large harvest cart or a wheelbarrow to easily pass through. There will be a deep crop-washing sink, along with a depressed, wall-less shower area, so we can wash off our harvests and then our own persons before storing crops in the cellar or taking them up to the kitchen.

Woodstove placement. Our woodstove was originally drawn to sit in the corner of our living room. It would have been located in a good enough spot to heat the house efficiently, but with the way the roof is angled there would not have been a good spot for the stovepipe to go up and out of the house without some pretty unique angled cuts bends in the pipe. We moved it to a workable location just 5 feet or so further into the living room. Bonus: It’s right by our bedroom wall, which means our room might stay a bit warmer than other corners of the house.

Now, we’re beginning the many, many, many decisions that go into the “look” of the house. We’re focusing on how fun it’s supposed to be, and breathing deeply to prevent decision overload and general overwhelm. Building a house seems to require a lot of patience and yoga.

Final plans drawn by John Roe with McCray Lumber. All images are copyrighted and not available for reuse.

Next in the series:Perc’ Test: What It Is and How It’s Done
Previously in the series:Working Outdoors: Perennial Plants, Trail Building and Cutting Firewood

Jennifer Kongs is the Managing Editor at MOTHER EARTH NEWS magazine. When she’s not working at the magazine, she’s likely in her garden, on the local running trails or in her kitchen instead. You can connect directly with Jennifer and Tyler by leaving a comment below!