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The passive solar home: fed up with high energy bills? Make your house into a solar collector! Architect Chris Larson tells how.

What attracts me to passive solar design is its simplicity. Except for sunshine and the change of the seasons, there are no moving parts. In the winter, I'm lying on the couch, and the house is heating up. In the summer, I'm lying on the couch, and the house is keeping cool. The energy performance and comfort of any house, (or commercial or institutional space, for that matter) can be greatly enhanced by the common sense principles employed in passive solar design.

Remember all those whacked-out solar houses of the Seventies when solar house design was first getting going? They looked like solar collection machines that somehow people lived in. With the help of technology and experience, passive solar houses today can enjoy the warmth and comfort of solar heat and still look and feel just like home. In the our region, passive solar design usually means using the sun to help heat the house, but it can also refer to passive cooling strategies. For the purpose of this article, I have limited what follows to what I consider to be the easiest and most cost-effective means of passively heating a house: using living space as a solar collector. Other Strategies such as greenhouses, atriums or Trombe walls are related but can be part of another discussion. Also, much of this article relates to new construction, but many possibilities exist for renovation of or additions to existing houses as well.

The first consideration in building a passive solar house is its orientation to the sun. Obviously, access to the sun is critical. A sloped site that is south-facing is ideal. If significant amounts of winter sun reach an east, west, or even north facing slope, don't despair, there still may be great potential, but special considerations may be in order. Ideally, the desired views from the house would be in the same direction as the sun, but again, this is not required. Also, keep in mind, not every room in the house needs to face south. It may be helpful to have a prospective house site reviewed by someone with expertise to determine if the site has the potential for what you intend to accomplish.

The concepts of passive solar design are simple: capture the heat of the sun and then hang onto it. To capture the heat of the sun, make the east-west axis of the house as long as possible, and open up the south side with windows. A good rule of thumb would be to have 10-15% of the floor area of what you are trying to heat in south facing windows. Exactly how this works will depend somewhat on the specific layout of rooms. So, if you are are trying to heat a 2000 square foot area, this might be 200-300 square feet of south-facing windows. This also means being careful with the location and extent of covered porches on the south side because they will block the sun.

An ideal orientation for the house would be to have its long dimension face ten degrees east of south. This will 'allow the sun into the house a little earlier in the day in winter and help block out the low afternoon sun in summer. Siting the house as much as thirty degrees either way of south is possible with only a ten percent reduction in efficiency, but much beyond this thirty degrees will adversely effect performance.

So, now that the heat is streaming inside all those south facing windows, there are two components to keeping it in. It doesn't make much sense to let the heat in if it's going to be going out just as quickly. The first component of this involves examining the performance of the exterior shell of the house. There are two parts to this as well. The first looks to reduce the paths that heated air has of escaping to the outside--i.e. tightening up the exterior shell--but don't make it so tight that indoor air quality becomes a problem. A consideration may be the type of windows used: casement windows are less leaky than double hung windows. Another consideration will be the building and insulation systems--some are inherently less leaky than others. The second part of examining the performance of the exterior shell of the house involves optimizing the resistance of exterior building components to the flow of heat. For windows, this may mean double glazing with low-E coatings, or for some projects, triple glazing. For walls, this may mean looking at ways to reduce thermal bridging or increase insulation R-values. Whatever building system you are considering--straw bale, timber frame, steel frame, aerated concrete block, insulated structural panels, or conventional framing, each will have its own built in advantages and disadvantages in the area of building physics. The important aspect of this is to consider everything together as a whole.

The second component of keeping the heat in is adding mass to the house. This added mass is tuned to the amount of south facing windows and serves to absorb the heat of the sun to be released after the sun has gone. Absorbing this extra heat controls overheating and keeps indoor temperatures stable. To qualify for the passive solar North Carolina tax credits, this mass must be at least three inches thick and have the sun shining directly on it. A concrete slab, either suspended on framing or placed on grade with a tile or stone surface are easy ways to do this. There are other ways, as well. The whole house does not have to be this type of hard surface, and placement of rugs and furniture over these areas can be accommodated in the design. An energy efficient house with south facing windows but without the added mass is not technically a passive solar house, but is referred to as a sun tempered house.

The above works really well in winter, but if left unprotected from the summer sun, all of those south facing windows can be an overheating disaster. Roof overhangs or trellises provide the solution to shading these windows, and are sized so that most or all of the high summer sun is blocked out, while much of the low winter sun is allowed in (see sidebar on page 8), keeping things cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Passive solar can also combine well with other sustainable and earth-friendly building strategies. Given the mild nature of winters in the Southeast, we can stretch the guidelines a fair bit with out getting into too much trouble. Using non-heroic means, heating costs can be reduced by fifty percent or more, with greater reductions possible as more aggressive means are considered. Non-heroic means translate to low initial cost. There are many creative possibilities--more than can be discussed in an article this length.

The bonuses for working in this way are many--all that sunshine in the winter is indeed hard to beat. But best of all, living in a house tuned to nature just plain feels good.

RELATED ARTICLE: Sizing passive solar window shading.

An appropriately sized roof overhang or sun screen will provide full shading in summer for a south-facing window while allowing much of the lower angled winter sun to come streaming in. To determine the appropriately sized overhang for your project, first, make a measured drawing that is cut through the window and overhang. This drawing will indicate the physical relationship the window has with the overhang. From the bottom of the glass of the window, draw a line upward at 73 degrees toward the sun. Wherever this line intersects the end of the overhang is the appropriate length for Asheville, NC and similar latitudes. (Don't forget the gutter if there is one.) Having determined the appropriate overhang, drawing an additional line at 36 degrees will indicate how much of the window will be available for winter sun. For sizing groups of windows of differing lengths or for sloped overhangs, some creative application may be necessary. It s ideal if the overhang doesn't block out any of the winter sun, but with many construction systems and taller windows, this is often hard to do, so it becomes a matter of balancing summer shading with winter sun: I tend to err on the side of winter sun.

Chris Larson is an architect in Ashville, NC offering sustainable/regenerative design, sociable kitchens, and more through his company, Architerra. Contact him at 828-253-4621 or
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Article Details
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Author:Larson, Chris
Publication:New Life Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2002
Previous Article:Tax credits and other governmental goodies.
Next Article:Feng Shui site selection: where the dragon stops: Anne Hansley suggests an ancient formula for auspicious home siting.

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