Passive Solar Techniques and Interior Design Basics: Uses of Light and Color

The owner-built home can be designed to take advantage of passive solar effects with simple building tools and an understanding of color's use in interior design.

| January/February 1974

  • Color and Design
    Don't forget about natural light and the effects of color when you're designing your home.
  • 025-083-01b
    Use a heliodon and determine the best home design to take advantage of passive solar effects.
  • 025-083-01c
    Understanding how color is used in interior design allows the owner-builder to create the best impression for each room in his home.

  • Color and Design
  • 025-083-01b
  • 025-083-01c

This series of Ken Kern's work is being taken from two home building and design guides, The Owner-Built Home (already published) and The Owner-Built Homestead  (not yet published in 1974). They are not presented in chronological order due to a desire to print the Homestead chapters as they are written. This chapter covers aspects of designing for natural light and passive solar building effects, as well as color choices for atmosphere, personality and psychological impressions. — MOTHER 

The Owner-Built Home and Homestead: Light and Color

The modern tendency for a professional expert to overemphasize the importance of his particular field (to the neglect of other, equally important fields) is as common an occurrence in the building business as it is anywhere else in our over-specialized work-world. Illumination experts, for instance, specify an artificial light intensity of from 50 to 100 foot candles for most visual tasks. But experts in the field of light and color conditioning warn against the use of more than 30 to 35 foot-candles (they quote opthalmologists who say that visual efficiency rises sharply as light intensity is increased to a level of about 30 foot-candles). Further light intensity is apt to cause visual distraction and glare.

Electrical engineers devise ingenious ways to provide high intensity daytime artificial lighting to rooms that are blocked off with one value walls used for storage and insulation. Millions of dollars are wasted on artificial illumination for want of basic knowledge of natural daylight design. On the other hand, those engineers who choose to work with natural illumination become confronted with over-complicated design formulas. The complication lies in the fact that natural illumination may be direct from the sun, indirect from the sky, and reflected from the ground. Consequently, more and more complicated—and expensive—control devices are resorted to, such as reflectors, glass prisms, plastic louver walls, hanging louvers, and diffused glazing materials of all sorts. Some lighting engineer extremists, like West Coast expert Foster Sampson, tell us that, "it really doesn't make much sense to get light through windows in the vertical wall." Skylights and clearstory windows become alternative solutions. Skylights, of course, are a very effective means of interior lighting. Improved "sky dome" varieties have been recently developed, with two layers of frosted or translucent material to eliminate bright spots of sunshine and provide air-space insulation.

It is practically impossible for those of us owner-builders who must use the common, garden-variety glass window to retain a working knowledge of all the many factors that effect a harmonious lighting arrangement. Actually, there is only one type of inexpensive control device available—the Venetian blind. Most current lighting research concludes that Venetian blinds are the most effective and flexible means of control. They increase the light level at the far side of a room as much as 34%. Ground-light is admitted, as well as sky illumination, by each reflector slat. Thus the Venetian blind is the best "stop-gap" device to employ where there has been a failure or breakdown of basic lighting design concepts. But the owner-builder, without becoming an illumination expert, may achieve comfort and beauty by understanding certain principles.

Passive Solar Building and Natural Lighting Options

The design criteria of room and window sizes, placement proportions, overhang design, and solar orientation must be coordinated to basic natural conditions such as the latitude and altitude of the building site, the time of year and time of day. Later we will see how colors also affect lighting and lighting design. Consequently, the owner-builder who expects to approach his construction project seriously needs a design-aid that will indicate at a glance the fight penetration and extent of shading for every opening in his house, at his exact latitude, for any day of the year and hour of the day. This may sound like an impressive requirement for a simple design-aid to accomplish, but as a matter of fact the heliodon, or "sun machine," can do all this, and can be homemade at little cost.  

A heliodon is simply a simulated sun device. In using it one must first make a cardboard scale model of the proposed house, omitting outside walls and roof. As the winter and summer month solar angle is observed directly from the heliodon, window sizes and ceiling heights can also be determined.

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