Solar Residential Design

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Initial Version (February 6, 2013) by Courtney Cisler, student at Truman State University


Many solutions to the need for solar energy as a main energy source exist – most of which are affordable for nearly every family. Passive solar design in residential housing is a lesser known, yet effective method of utilizing abundant solar radiation.

Regulating temperature through good design

Simple changes to the design of one’s house can enable a household to use solar energy to its advantage. First, the sun’s thermal energy can be used to control the temperature inside a building. In fact, 43 percent of all solar energy is used as a heating mechanism.[1] Green developments feature extra insulation to both block out the sun’s heat during the summertime and retain heat in the winter months, a low surface area to volume ratio, wider roof overhangs to block the sun’s rays from entering windows during summer months, and thicker window coverings. Double-glazed windows can be 10 times more efficient than standard window panes.[2] Orienting one’s windows directly south, or slightly west of south, allows for maximization of solar energy entering through windows during the winter months, yet can be blocked during hotter times.[3]

Diagram of basic passive solar heating techniques on buildings, including optimal roof overhang, landscaping, heat circulation, and heat storage

Plants can also contribute: shade trees may be grown to block out sunlight, and green roofs can be used as insulation. Even the addition of certain materials to a house may help regulate its temperature. Stone and adobe constructions slowly absorb heat during the day, and then give it off during cooler nights, which stabilizes inside temperatures. Brick walls, stone floors, black water-filled barrels placed in front of a window, or siding made of recycled black rubber tires have the same effect. Tin or black roofs lined with thermal insulation retain heat as well. Beds of pebbles outside a house may be used to absorb heat, as the rocks tend to retain their heat well. It has been observed that Swedish homes built with these components require 90 percent less energy for heating and cooling than the standard American home.[3]

Examples of green building materials include stone exterior, grass roof, and recycled rubber tire siding (for example, "Earthships" designed by Mike Reynolds)

Many other passive solar mechanisms are currently incorporated into homes. For example, most homes now feature large windows which allow for expanded use of natural lighting. Specific uses are also common, such as a thick thermal tarp placed on outdoor swimming pools to warm the water. Greenhouses are also an example of common, profitable uses of solar radiation.[3]

Active solar systems are also becoming more popular in urban residential design. Many modern homes now feature components absorbing heat from the sun which are connected to a fan that circulates air over the hot surface and spreads it throughout the building. Another common invention is water pumped through pipes such that the sun warms the water. The system can be used either as a hot water heater or as a heater for the house, by simply circulating the water without ever drawing hot water from it. This method accounts for as much as 70 percent of hot water used in nations where conventional energy is more expensive, such as in Greece, Israel, and Italy.[3] As a general rule of thumb, solar water heaters are most effective at an angle equal to the local latitude with respect to the horizontal.[4]

Useful Sources of Information

To find ideas of how to incorporate solar design into your home, explore Your Solar Energy Home.

Passive Design section on "Australia's Guide to Environmentally Sustainable Homes"

Energy Use section on "Australia's Guide to Environmentally Sustainable Homes"

For a few specific, traditional solar housing designs with blueprints and detailed diagrams of systems, read Your Affordable Solar Home by Dan Hibshman (1983).

To review many detailed examples and blueprints of solar applications for residential and commercial design categorized by climatic region, refer to Successful Solar Energy Solutions by Spruille Braden III (1980).


[1]Kut, David, and Gerard Hare. Applied Solar Energy: A Guide to the Design, Installation, and Maintenance of Heating and Hot Water Services. New York: Halsted, 1979. Print.


[3]Cunningham, William P., and Mary Ann Cunningham. Environmental Science: A Global Concern. 11th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2010. Print.

[4]Cheremisinoff, Paul N., and Thomas C. Regino. Principles & Applications of Solar Energy. Ann Arbor, MI: Ann Arbor Science, 1978. Print.

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