Passive Solar Design: Creating Sun-Inspired Homes

Architect Debra Rucker Coleman discusses the many benefits of working with the sun, and what to consider when building a home using passive solar design.

  • Vermont Passive Solar House
    The houses featured in this article, including this passive solar home in Vermont, were designed by architect Debra Rucker Coleman and her company, Sun Plans. 
    Photo By Rob Cardillo Photography
  • South Wall Window Overhang
    Properly sized overhangs above windows help prevent passive solar houses from overheating.
    Photo By Sandy Nelson
  • Concrete Floors For Thermal Mass
    Concrete floors provide thermal mass, which helps keep a house cool in summer and warm in winter.
    Photo By George Austin
  • Passive Solar Design Elements
    Large, south-facing windows let in heat during winter and plenty of light all year.
    Photo By Rob Cardillo Photography
  • Debra Rucker Coleman
    Architect Debra Rucker Coleman's book "The Sun-Inspired House" outlines her passive solar design ideas, and you can learn more about her company and designs at She lives in Citronelle, Ala.
    Photo Courtesy Debra Rucker Coleman
  • South Facing Windows Passive Solar
    South-facing windows are a primary part of passive solar design.
    Photo By Debra Rucker Coleman

  • Vermont Passive Solar House
  • South Wall Window Overhang
  • Concrete Floors For Thermal Mass
  • Passive Solar Design Elements
  • Debra Rucker Coleman
  • South Facing Windows Passive Solar

Many people who are planning to build or buy a house would like to own one that’s energy-efficient but aren’t sure how to get started. Architect Debra Rucker Coleman gives advice by offering insight into the fundamentals of passive solar design, and explains why it’s always a good idea to design homes (or select house plans) with the sun in mind.

Tell us about your background and how you became interested in passive solar design. 

I graduated from architecture school at the University of Arizona. That was in the late ’70s, so before the current green movement, but during the 1970s energy crisis.

The instructors were very sensitive to the environment. So that’s where I got the basics of passive solar design — even though it wasn’t called that and was taught as just one aspect of environmental design.

When did you start actually designing passive solar homes? 

It wasn’t until I left Arizona and started working for other firms in the East — where the climate was colder — that I realized, “They’re not even thinking about the way a building should face or about where the sun is!” It was what I perceived as the lack of attention to the sun that made me decide to go out on my own in 1985 and establish Energetic Design, the company I had when I lived in North Carolina. I was intent on making all of the buildings I designed more energy-efficient and working with the sun as much as possible.

6/23/2014 6:57:43 AM

Using Debra's book and website, I designed our own 2400 square foot passive-solar, earth-sheltered house. More information on our energy-efficient house may be found here:

Tracey Allen
10/12/2012 4:55:33 PM

Wonderful article, we live in a passive solar house and couldn't be happier. I encourage others to chose this sustainable and green housing path. Cheers, Tracey Allen, author of Building a Passive Solar House: My Experience Shared

Scott H.
5/21/2011 8:49:33 AM

Of the dozens of homeplan sites we've poured through, sunplans are by far the most attractive and most energy aware. I've talked to several home designers and they are painfully unaware of many easy and efficient techniques such as passive solar and advanced framing. They just want to sketch and print a 2x4 with code insulation. It is refreshing to see someone is out there that has a clue.



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