Things We Do Know: Passive Solar

January 9, 2017

day-night-1553122.jpgThere’s nothing quite like blustery, cold and dreary weather to make a person slow down and do a little daydreaming – and I have found myself thinking a lot about our future house.

The house we’re renting is very cozy … at night, when I’ve got lights on and candles and a fire going in the fireplace.  During the day, unfortunately, it’s very dark.  It’s got pretty big windows, so really the only reason I can think of for why it’s so dark is the way it’s situated.  Those big windows all face west.  The other big light source, the sliding glass door in the dining area, faces east.  In the late afternoons on the (very) rare days we’ve had sunshine, I’ve had to close the curtains because it’s so bright, but the rest of the time it’s dark and pretty darn gloomy, really.

This has led us, however, to a Thing We Do Know!

South-Facing Windows and Passive Solar

Swede Hill house, by Ross Chapin Architects (our #1 house plan so far!)

While we always knew that big windows were a must for the farmhouse, we didn’t actually know about passive solar building practices.  Having missed the 1970s by a thread and growing up in the Pacific Northwest where sun is, admittedly, not the most reliable source of heat or power, I’d never heard of this building design or philosophy.  It was only after Googling “big south-facing windows” that it popped up, and it immediately made 100% sense to us.

The most basic gist of passive solar, and what makes it different from the more commonly known “active” solar, is that a house is designed in such a way that it uses the natural heat and light of the sun to make the home bright and warm, and it doesn’t have to involve mechanical or electrical devices.  Many large, south-facing windows let the sun in and the walls, floors and masonry will store and eventually distribute the heat.  The main living areas – kitchen, dining and living – are all placed on the bright south side of the house, while bedrooms, bathrooms and other smaller rooms are generally located to the north (because a person is ideally not in them as much during the day).

Besides window size and placement, to really get the most benefit from this design the floors need to have high thermal mass, otherwise known as the ability to absorb and store heat energy.  That way the floor can soak up the heat from the sun and slowly release it in the evening after the ambient air temperature has started to cool.  Wood, unfortunately, has a low thermal mass; brick and tile, on the other hand, have high thermal mass.  So, as much as I love the idea of beautiful wood floors in my future house (thick planks of reclaimed barnwood, oh swoon) that just won’t work if I want to do this the right way.

Luckily for me, in this day and age they make tile that looks EXACTLY like reclaimed barnwood floors!  What can I say?  It looks like this was just meant to be.

36ubbaqb99We will probably still hook up solar panels and install a propane furnace, because we are in the rainy Pacific Northwest after all, but I am excited about a house designed with the use of passive solar in mind, about free heat and light, and of course I am excited about those big beautiful windows, with which you just can’t help but sit back and enjoy the view (and the view, in our case, is pretty great).

There’s still so much we don’t know, but I can rest a little easier knowing that we do know this, at least.


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