How Do We Choose a Passive Solar House Design?

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.

After setting our house design priorities, Tyler and I discussed the easiest way to design our custom house. We thought about hiring an architect with a specialization in passive solar design, but ultimately heeded the sage advice of our contractor, Jeff Wooster, and started perusing online house plans. We were assigned to find some house plans that we liked that incorporated passive solar features, and then we’d have custom plans drawn with any modifications we had to the plans. Basically, by doing our best to incorporate passive solar design features, we would forgo a formal drawing session with a specialized architect — and forego the cost, too. (I promise to write a post about choosing a contractor, and also promise to write more posts about the continuing house-design process. It is a long, yet fun and important, conversation.)

Before we looked online, we needed some background in passive solar principles and environmentally conscious building materials and designs. We want to build an energy-efficient home, and also want to pay attention to the environmental footprint of the materials and building process.  So, we thumbed through several books and MOTHER EARTH NEWS articles:

    Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood — Compares green-building techniques and materials, includes really useful charts to help you decide on the building type and process that will work best for you.
    The Solar House by Dan Chiras — A how-to guide to passive heating and cooling systems.
    The Sun-Inspired House by Debra Rucker Coleman — Specific information about passive solar and energy efficiency.
    Passive Solar Design Basics by David Wright — Just like it says, this article covers the basics of passive solar design.
    Passive Solar Design: Creating Sun-Inspired Homes by Megan E. Phelps — An interview with architect Debra Rucker Coleman about what to consider when building a passive-solar home.

Then, we turned to the best research tool we know: Google. I know, it doesn’t sound incredibly romantic or anything, but we Googled “passive solar house plans” and then “small home with open floor plan,” and found a surprising number of options. The plan we based our own home on most heavily is shown above, and we found it at The Plan Collection website, listed below. Many of the results were pretty worthless, but we ended up combining features from several plans that we liked from the following sites:

    America’s Best House Plans — Sounds silly, but you can search for “green” and “passive solar” designs.
    David Wright, Architect — A collection of plans (we liked the cabins page best) from the Solar Environmental Architecture Group.
    EPlans — You can do a quick or advanced search for various factors, including green features.
    Sun Plans — The tag line says it all: Sun-Inspired Design.
    The Plan Collection — Not specific to passive solar, but you can sort by size and style of floor plan.

Drawing of house plans from The Plan Collection are copyrighted by the designer and cannot be downloaded without purchase.

Next in the series: Land Survey Plat Update: Can We Get a Land Zoning Waiver?
Previously in the series:Do We Need a Land Survey Plat? And, What Is a Plat?

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!