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Chapter 2

Building Your Solar Home


Solar Home

Your home is for most people the biggest and most important financial investment we will ever make. Where we live represents how we live and to some extent who and what we are. As oil reserves become depleted and climate change looms large, you should feel some satisfaction that you can do something about these things in a big way by switching to a solar house. Whether you decide to renovate or build a new home, you’ll see that, yes, you can do this.

Before we get into how to build or renovate your home, let us take a walk through our solar home to get some idea of what it is like and how it works.

First of all, take a look at where we’ve sited the home. Right from the start we tried to find a location that is protected from the cold northerly winds in the winter. Trees on the north side of the property seriously protect the north wall from much of the impact that these strong cold winds can have by providing a barrier.

First, we'll walk through the process of how to build or renovate using renewable materials created by solar energy. Then we'll tackle you energy bill. Before we do that though we need to get a hands on feel for what this is all about by building a small scale model. So, get ready to build your own solar powered desk. Through this process you'll... Looking at your place with new eyes. Whether you are looking for a new property on which to build or at renovating your existing place some of the easiest and long lasting opportunities exist for reducing your impact. See where natural resources come for free. The sun, rain, wind, woods, flowers, and garden. How can you mimic nature in order to satisfy your requirements for home, food, work and transportation? Think about how your life relates to place, site, area, landscape, environment, climate and community.


Place is a something we may take for granted. And yet, as in nature, we see that every little nook and cranny offers different opportunities and challenges. Sometimes finding and seeing these opportunities takes a new way of thinking. How would a Beaver construct things if this area was suitable habitat for them? What do the plants do to survive? Why does moss grow on the north side of rocks? Can we learn and work with the natural elements to find the best way to blend with each space.

When we look to build for our home or dig the land to grow food there are many ways we can retain the local dynamics of the area. First of all we can try to minimize any impact at all by leaving as much as possible as is. When trees and land are transformed it may be possible to restore or reuse these material. Green roofing and passive solar provide opportunities for this type of restoration of the local landscape. Using the material for parts of the construction or returning them to their natural state can help significantly towards helping the site return to a state of health. When we build we must realize that we are wounding the space and may need to help return it to health. 

Natural site features to look for:

  • Southern exposure
  • Trees, earth or other houses on north, east, west
  • Top of hill
  • Not prime farmland, unless you plan to farm on a scale large enough to produce for other people
  • Near community and essential services (hospitals, schools, organic food store, community parks)
  • Transit nearby


Depending on where you live different sustainable building systems may be more suitable.

  • Renovation
  • Straw bale
  • Earth ship
  • Earth-sheltered
  • Rammed earth
  • Cave
  • Hybrid
  • R2000



Not needing something can be the most efficient form of conservation. Higher levels of insulation, better windows, sealed cracks, and reduced levels of demand for energy are where renewable energy starts. This is also the cost effective way to be sustainable. It also may be one of the harder areas as the concept of less, invisible savings are hard for some people to grasp. In my own case the exciting concepts of solar panels and wind turbines actively producing renewable energy intrigues me. In reality, the power of efficiency is the key to holding the holistic concepts of sustainable living together. Without thinking efficiently as nature does we are doomed to fail.

It starts with the amount of space you need. Keep it as small as possible. Rethink every element and wherever possible try to work towards as small of a space for what you really need. The benefits of this type of thinking result in cost saving in every other aspect of your life. The flexibility and opportunities provided by minimizing your footprint at this basic level when applied over the long term are the most powerful. Like investing, the sooner you start, the more you put in at the beginning, the better the long term returns. With efficiency this is the formula. However, the difficulty is in that the investment is in reducing, optimizing and eliminating. This kind of thinking is something we find difficult in our culture of consumption and wanting forever more.

Something we will find very hard is to change our ways of thinking. Efficiency is a natural way built into the universe. It is something that we are only starting to grasp but that has long been a part of spiritual traditions and ancient cultures. It has been the recent revolutions in energy usage patterns, innovations in mechanics, and chemical innovation that has allowed us to go well beyond natural limits. This can’t be sustained. The key is conserving wherever possible, insulating, reducing materials, using renewable materials, and organic products.

Using every means possible to reduce leaks, improve insulation levels, and retain heat naturally collected through passive solar means a direct reduction in what we need to produce to maintain comfort levels. Much of this type of efficiency is not sexy or all that visible but it provides far greater value over the long run.

Once we turn to the active systems like lighting, appliances and heating system these too should be the most efficient and properly sized for the job. Over the long term the more efficient systems will pay for any additional cost that may be involved. Reduced levels of maintenance will typically be an added bonus. Also, efficiency comes part and parcel with quality. Quality is something that people will feel and sense. That feeling of security and comfort will also provide peace of mind and security, such valuable, although difficult to quantify benefits.

Efficiency occurs in natural systems due to real competition. In Europe where energy prices have been higher for longer the use of in-line water heaters is nearly universal. Rather than maintain hot water in a large tank, these systems heat precisely the quantity of water required for specific purposes on demand. These systems are  usually fueled by natural gas or propane, however, the efficiency ratings are dramatically better than other tank based systems. Electric in-line hot water heating systems also exist.

Passive Solar Heat and Cool

Perhaps the oldest, simplest, and most effective heating system, passive solar, directly converts sunlight into heat. The heat is most frequently stored in a thick floor or similarly effective storage medium. This is the most direct form of solar energy usage. Passive solar combines to also provide natural cooling so as not to overheat.

Creating a passive solar home starts by selecting the right site that should include access to plenty of sunlight to the south, a wind break to the north, and effective insulation for the home.  The passive solar effect works naturally since the sun is much lower in the sky in the winter, and so high in the summer. This combines to increase heat storage in the winter when need and reduce heating in the summer. By combining passive solar with natural cooling techniques the home can achieve a natural balance that eliminates the need for a fossil fuel based furnace or air conditioner. This leads to substantial cost saving especially when considered over the lifetime of the home. The reductions in carbon emissions and other pollutants related to the energy required for air conditioning are staggering. These two elements represent nearly fifty percent of the average home’s annual energy usage. Using passive solar and natural cooling  reduces pollution by as much as 90%. Of course all of these numbers are dependent on the area in which you live, level of effectiveness in the passive solar/natural cooling systems, and level of supplemental heating required in the form of a wood burning stove and/or hydronic in-floor heating/cooling system.

Passive Solar

(Note: reverse in southern hemisphere)

  • Use site trees and berms  to block winds to north
  • Face true south within 10
  • More levels to south to capture more heat
  • Reduced levels to north
  • Living areas south
  • Sleeping, utility areas north
  • Green roof provides additional insulation in the winter


Wilson Solar House - Design and Layout by Martin Liefhebber
Passive Solar House Design by Martin Liefhebber.


Key Features

  • Insulating windows south primarily (north in the southern hemisphere)
  • High insulation in foundation, walls (straw bale), and roof
  • Thermal mass to store heat or cold, typically concrete floors, approximately six inches thick, heat is released at night in the winter and coolness is released at night during the summer
  • Shading for summer cooling when sun is high in the sky
  • Hydronic heating to supplement storage and distribution of heated or cooled water
  • Natural cooling or passive cooling, through ventilation, shading, and stack effect that draws cool air from the basement and draws it out of the skylight in the roof
  • Provides extensive natural lighting throughout the home reducing the need for electrically powered lights
  • Potential heating and cooling energy saving can exceed 60%
  • Eliminates need for costly duct work of conventional heating system and prevents molds, mildews and dust produced and distributed by forced air heating and air conditioning systems

Natural Cooling

Layout Elements

  • Basement area in order to store and maintain cool air in the summer
  • High levels of insulation in order to keep heat out and maintain the coolness inside
  • Internal ventilation that allows cool air to be drawn up through the home when the sky lights venting window is opened in the summer
  • Small windows low on the north side, in the basement primarily to allow outside air to be drown from the cooler low - lying areas into the home.
  • A green roof provides significant additional benefits in terms of reducing heating by as much as 30-40% in the summer.
  • Windows that allow for cross ventilation in various directions

Key Features

  • Shading on the south to prevent sun from entering the home in the summer
  • Green roof to provide reduced heating in the summer
  • Large thermal mass in flooring and walls in order to store coolness
  • Sahara type venting skylight in order to draw cool air from lower areas displacing the warmer air that rises naturally
  • Hydronic tubing in the concrete mass to allow cool water to provide additional cooling
  • Trees and native plants that can provide shading in the summer while allowing solar heating in the winter


Documentary Video

See the full documentary video (DVD and high quality downloads are available at



Video 1.1 Straw Bale, Solar, Wind Powered Home Construction
Wilson Natural Home documentary - by John Wilson. 25 minutes in length.


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