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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Solar Versus Superinsulation: A 30-Year-Old Debate

A dispute from the late ’70s and early ’80s still sheds light on energy-efficient design

Solar air collectors and a bin full of rocks. Sarah Sanford built this solar house on the cost of Maine in the late 1970s. Ductwork connects the vertical solar air collectors with an insulated rock bin under the floor slab. After the home was completed, Sanford realized that she should have installed insulation under her slab-on-grade foundation. The photo appeared in At Home In the Sun, a book published in 1979.
Image Credit: At Home In the Sun, Garden Way Publishing

The oil price shock of 1973 sparked a burst of interest in “solar houses.” During the 1970s, owner-builders all over the U.S. erected homes with extensive south-facing glazing — sometimes sloped, sometimes vertical. Many of these houses included added thermal mass — concrete floors, concrete-block walls, or 55-gallon drums filled with water.

Some of these houses had passive solar features, while others included active hardware: space-heating systems that circulated water or antifreeze through roof-mounted collectors, or arrays of solar air collectors connected by ductwork to insulated rock bins in the basement.

Responding to a growing interest in all things solar, publishers came out with dozens of solar-house books in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It’s fun to re-read these old books — to see the photos of pony-tailed carpenters working on systems they claim will provide “free heat.” Once the warm glow of nostalgia fades, however, one begins to notice what’s missing from these books: any understanding of air leakage.

Most of these “solar houses” were built with little attention to air tightness and were insulated with fiberglass batts. Moreover, descriptions of homes with extensive ductwork never mentioned the need to seal duct seams.

Understanding air leakage

While these early solar houses were being built, researchers in several locations were making pioneering discoveries about how air leakage affects residential energy consumption:

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  1. dankolbert | | #1

    Great recap
    I have recently been trying to go back to some of the books from the 70's and 80's, so I doubly appreciate your brief history lesson, Martin.

  2. Bob Ellenberg | | #3

    Separate The Passive Solar
    Thanks Martin for an excellent balanced article.
    One problem is people with the money to do many of these houses are building them on sites with views and they insist on lots of glass and you can't get that heating and cooling load down but so much with lots of glass. My last personal home was heavily insulated with a sealed conditioned crawl space and moderate glass and worked quite well. However, we separated the breakfast room with a 12" thick masonry (adobe brick) wall and planned for auxilary heat if needed. We found that in the winter we could open it up on sunny days around 10 AM and leave it until late afternoon and heat definitely flowed into the main living area. We considered thermal drapes but the night time temperatures never dropped enough to put the plants in danger so we didn't.
    Bottom line--we found that a separate passive room that could be closed off worked well and created no problems.

  3. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #4

    Failed But Fun Systems
    My favorite failed system was the vacuum contraption that would blow styrofoam beads between the panes of the south facing glass every night. In the morning, the beads would be sucked out. It sucked, all right.

  4. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Steve Baer's Zomeworks and the BeadWall
    You're referring, of course, to the famous BeadWall from Zomeworks, Steve Baer's company. Zomeworks is still in business, and I still talk to Steve Baer on the phone now and then.

    In this 1974 letter to Mother Earth News, Steve Baer discusses the BeadWall. He credits David Harrison as the inventor of the BeadWall. In any case, Steve Baer's decision to integrate a BeadWall into a greenhouse, placing a rack of water-filled 55-gallon drums directly behind the south-facing glass -- a combination he called the Drum Wall -- received a lot of attention.

    For more on the history of Steve Baer's company, Zomeworks, click here.

    Although the BeadWall did not prove to be a practical residential feature, Zomeworks continues to develop and sell innovative products, and Steve Baer is a genuine genius.

  5. Kevin Dickson, MSME | | #6

    And Air Systems with Rock Beds

    I agree with you about Steve Baer, no disrespect intended. Lots of us worked on things that seem nutty now. I researched rock beds for air systems. At Solar Shelter we instead promoted using 3-hole bricks stacked so the air would flow through them for storage. Talk about a waste of basement space!

    Hence my utter surprise when I found that the only solar system you can buy through Xcel Energy in this area is air-based:
    When I quizzed them, it turns out this selection was done by their head salesman, and no engineers were involved in the decision. Maybe it's good for Xcel, this system will cost more and use at least triple the electricity to solar heat your water than a pumped glycol system would.

    Thanks, Martin, for helping people save the time and effort we wasted in the 70's and 80's.


    Kalwall tubes
    My daughter's best friend still has huge, beautiful but empty Kalwall tubes in her solar green house. I love Kalwall, wish it was still sold as sheet goods, we'd really rather use it than the Twin Wall Poly carbonate stuff but in large sizes Twin Wall is all we have these days.

  7. Riversong | | #8

    Balanced? Hardly!

    Martin tells a very one-sided story of recent building history. He tells of the few notable successes with super-insulation and the many notable failures of solar design.

    The only positive (?) thing he says about solar, like a bank-handed compliment, is "Just because many solar houses of the 1970s and 1980s had design and construction flaws, doesn’t mean we should reject passive solar design principles..." But the rest of his "reminiscence" makes it clear that there are other reasons to avoid solar and go the picnic cooler route rather than utilizing the free (that's "free" without the sarcastic quotation marks) heat. And he throws in his usual pitch for Passive House as the apogee of smart design.

    Bad design is bad design, whether solar or super-insulated or PH. But the terrestrial ecosystem is, arguable, an example of excellent design (life has persisted and often flourished for 3.5 billion years - quite a bit longer than Passive House living). And the entire biosphere is built upon free solar energy. A simple blade of grass is a 95% efficient quantum solar converter that turns energy into food in billionths of a second.

    In other words, solar living has worked for a very long time - as far as we know, nothing else in the universe works as well or at all. So, if we were a more intelligent species, we would put most of our design creativity into solar living.

    What Martin fails to note, is that the "debate" was settled 30 years ago when passive solar was married to super-insulation and the offspring were efficiency, comfort, and a more ecologically-and biologically appropriate approach to shelter. People in hot climates utilize shade and natural breezes. People in cold climates utilize well-insulated clothing, wind protection and either direct sunshine or its biological derivatives (such as wood for fuel).

    There is, in fact, no incompatibility between a very well insulated and reasonably tight house and free solar heat, lovely views, a sense of connection between indoors and out, natural daylighting, efficient natural ventilation, usable interior space, and a well-balanced aesthetic. This marriage is what I have called the "sun-tempered super-insulated home", which is the title of the first course I taught at Yestermorrow.

    The key to living both well and responsibly on a fragile and limited earth is to avoid extremes and excesses of any kind. That means moderate solar glazing, moderate levels of air tightness, moderate levels of insulation (which is a moving target and climate dependent), moderate use of renewable resources, and avoiding the immoderate use of non-renewable resources, synthetics and high-tech equipment.

    This is the way I've been designing and building for most of that 30 years that Martin remembers as a non-stop conflict between two competing approaches to building human shelter. Funny, but I remember that time as a period of the marriage of two good approaches into a higher union with wonderful offspring.

  8. EJ Palma | | #9

    Martin, excellent article
    Martin, excellent article connecting the past and the present, both for those who lived and worked through those years and for those who are new to the industry. It is extremely helpful and beneficial, to explore the transition from an era of innovative, creative empirical thought and action, to the era of computer aided models coupled with the evolution of technology, materials and products. The philosophy is the same in the desire and effort to mainstream clean renewable technologies into our global society, while integrating sound, energy efficient building science in our projects. The major difference lies in products, materials, and the ability to model designs with climate data using a vast array of software programs light years ahead of the 70's. Sadly in the United States a major similarity to the 80's and existing to the present day, is a government and economy that is corporately controlled, supports Big Oil, Coal and Gas, special interest lobbyists, Big Insurance, and Defense Contractors. Reducing the amount of money in the Defense budget alone by half could financially spearhead a green economy while creating a strong future of green jobs. Our highly broken two party system, cannot even pass a strong and influential climate bill because most of our representatives are securely entrenched in the back pockets of Big Fossil Fuels, Big Insurance and Big Corporate Control of government infrastructure. These are major impediments that need to change before we will achieve "Green Success". One step forward is the Architecture 2030 Challenge which has been adopted. Unfortunately the effectiveness of this mandate is weakened by the constant stonewalling by climate deniers and corporate suck-ups in our elected officials (as evidenced by the Gulf Oil Spill catastrophe). When financial and political perks, no term limits, and special corporate interests are the priority of our representatives, the result will be ignoring our planet in peril, the suppression of accurate climate information, and the perpetual strength of corporate control of our political and economic structure. I do not mean to make this a political or social rant, but the establishment of a strong Green Economy and infrastructure directly depends on changing this. As professionals and people it is up to all of us to educate the public mass on the positive effect that Green Building and Green Living will directly have on the health of our planet and the future for all living species. It is also our responsibility to not lose sight of the philosophical, political and social impediments that we are facing. Even though GBA is a technical information source and does a great job in presenting relevant, innovative technical information, I personally believe that the political/social aspect of what we do is just as and in many cases more important. Political and social thought directly influences our movement. Thank you Martin for your ability to blend both the technical, philosophical and social aspects together in highly informative and entertaining presentations.

  9. EJ Palma | | #10

    Thank you to Professor
    Thank you to Professor Riversong for a balanced, keep it real philosophy and approach to the creation of a healthy and efficient house. Keeping it simple while using common sense design, sound building science, quality construction, proper orientation,and the integration of the free heating and cooling that Mother Nature provides always works. We as readers benefit from the debate and discourse that this website provides.

  10. Mark Klein Gimme Shelter | | #11

    a debate between apples and oranges
    I would echo many of Roberts comments. Comparing leaky poorly insulated solar homes to the most successful Passive Designs is disingenuous at best. Much like the proponents of foam based insulation systems comparing their products to leaky fiberglass walls. Highly efficient, well sealed homes still use electricity and heat and are usually grid dependent. When you are done with a great envelope you still need to run the lights, fans, computer etc. Most folks still want a hot shower and even Passive homes in the north country appear to have some form of auxiliary heat.

  11. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #12

    Robert and Mark
    Robert and Mark,
    I described a historical debate that actually occurred among builders during the late '70s and early '80s. Whether the debate made sense or not, it occurred.

    When it comes to my own opinions relevant to today's designers and builders, I tried to summarize them in the last list of bullet points. You'll note that I share your concerns. I don't believe that modern builders should base their conclusions on the flawed buildings of the 1970s and 1980s.

    Sensible builders in 2010 will incorporate passive solar principles into residential design. I have advocated passive solar principles for decades, and have designed several houses following those principles. My own house is oriented on an east-west access, with most of its windows facing south, and no north-facing windows. Moreover, I have two 4x8 solar thermal collectors on my own house, as well as a PV array.

  12. Jesse Thompson | | #13

    The old days aren't dead
    The old days still live on in pockets in the Northeast, we have recently had to gently steer two separate projects away from 50 gallon drum water storage and under-slab rock / sand beds. As well, my sister lives in a bad passive solar house in northern Vermont built not that long ago (wall of southern glass, no mass storage, gets up to 85 on a February sunny day but the oil kicks on as soon as the sun goes down).

    In my opinion, classic passive solar really only thrives for rural construction on vacant lots where you can totally control your building siting. As soon as you start trying to fix older buildings, or build in town or cities, you can't count on enough dependable solar access to provide the majority of your space heating needs.

    We've come to like the balance of trying for ~1/3 of our heating from passive solar, 1/3 from internal gains, and 1/3 from some form of mechanical heating system.

    Jesse Thompson
    Kaplan Thompson Architects

  13. Serge NEUMAN | | #14

    Biolcimatic Indicator to stop the debate Sun against Insulation
    Bioclimatic Indicator –solution of the recent thermal regulations
    Very interesting article, but I agree with some comments, there’s a lack of balance.
    From an energy point of view, a building is working with “plugged” energies, natural energies and internal energy (I call “Plugged” energy, any energy you have to provide to the building, for example electricity from the grid. Most of them generate GHG. Natural energies are sun (heat and light), outside air temperature… Internal energy, the energy already trapped in the building). A real passive house should work only with the internal and natural energies. During millenniums it was the case (well we can argue on the fire for cooking. Is it internal or plugged energy? Still the energy consumption for “plugged” energy was very low).
    During the last couple of century or expectation regarding comfort has changed. We have invented new systems running on “plugged” energy to guarantee a level of comfort all the yearlong. No more need to consider the natural and internal energies. Too much heat, use the air conditioning system. Don’t even think about opening the window to take advantage of the fresh cool air from outside! It’s working well as long as you do not have to think about energy consumption and you do not really think about SBS and therefore IEQ. But in the 70s, everything changed and actually mostly in Europe: Germany & France who don’t have their own sources of oil and have winters. Therefore the logical move was to insulate and take the benefits of sun heat. I’m good with that as long as we optimize the balance between “plugged” energy, natural energy and internal energy over the year. Unfortunately, some people started to think increase natural energy inputs (the large south façade) and some other to remove the natural energy from the equation. The article shows why today only the one who want to remove the natural energy from the equation are still here. But it doesn’t mean that they are right. They are still fighting energy with energy which cannot be good. Best examples are all these new office building in Europe that has to cool the building when outside temperature is at 32°F.
    We have to go back to the fundamentals: the building is a transfer function transforming “plugged” energy, internal energy and natural energy into an IEQ. And some of the new regulations in Europe are going that way. They are no more speaking about insulation values. They are working with a Bioclimatic indicator that assesses the energy performance of the core and shell of the building.

  14. Pam | | #15

    Low-E glass
    Martin, great article, as usual. I had a vendor (who is listed on your site) yesterday tell me that "Low E" storm windows are bad for passive solar homes -- that the low-e would slow the warming of the indoors in the winter (I live in the northeast). He added that many folks building passive solar homes are looking for non-low-e glass. Is this true? Thank you.

  15. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #16

    Response to Pam
    Every time you add another layer of glass to your window, you cut down on the amount of light and heat that enters your home. ANY storm window will reduce solar heat gain (and visible transmittance). For the highest possible solar heat gain, you could use single glazing -- ideally, low-iron glass.

    That said, single glazing would be a poor choice for south windows in a cold climate. You might maximize your heat gain -- but you'll also lose a lot of heat during the night and on cloudy days. Most hours during the winter are hours without sunlight.

    So, do you want a layer of single glass plus a storm window? Or a window with double glazing? Or a window with triple glazing? It's up to you. For south-facing windows, some passive solar home designers are happy with clear double glazing. I'd rather have high-solar-gain triple glazing; that choice allows a larger glazing area without overheating than clear double glazing, and performs much better at night and on cloudy days.

    Low-e windows can be either high-SHGC or low-SHGC. The low-e coating lowers the U-factor; how it affects the SHGC depends on the type of low-e coating that is chosen.

    The only type of low-e coating that is suitable for use on storm windows is a hard-coat low-e coating. Fortunately for those of us who live up north, that's the type of low-e coating with the highest SHGC. Windows with hard-coat low-e coatings, in general, have a higher SHGC than windows with a soft-coat low-e coating.

  16. Pam | | #17

    shg etc.
    Martin: Thank you! I had to read it twice, but I think I got it!

  17. Vin Caruso | | #18

    Passive Solar Mood Altering
    We have a passive solar, highly insulted house with mostly south facing glass that have 2 foot overhangs. It is great in the winter with all the sun light that comes in. Many people who visit comment and love the sun in the winter. We put insulating shades (some cellular with side seals, some roman with magnet seals) that look and operate similar to normal shades for nights.

    Our heating costs are 10-15% of the standard house in the area. We still have not installed AC even with the hotter summers and do well. We will add more insulation and lower our heating cost even more.

    We were told it would not work in cloudy Michigan, not true. The coldest days are very sunny. No heat need on 0 degree days and a very sunny interior. Many mood problems in winter may be helped by such designs. Built by us in 1987.

    Thanks for the article.

  18. Bill Burke | | #19

    Low-e glass types
    I refer to low-e glass types to make the point that there are many different types of low-e glass and that they influence building performance in different ways. I feel the best explanation on the internet of the different types of low-e glass available is at In particular, see And if you talk to a window manufacturer who tells you there is only one type of low-e glass understand that what they are really telling you is that their company typically only offers one type of low-e glass, usually one with a low SHGC which would not be appropriate in a heating dominated climate.

  19. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #20

    Response to Bill Burke
    I've written about the topic many times. For example, see:
    High-Solar-Gain Glazing

    Choosing Triple-Glazed Windows

    Passivhaus Windows

  20. Steve Fields | | #21

    Passive Solar Mood Altering
    I heartily endorse Vin Caruso's philosophy! All technical debate aside, more glass equates to more light and better living especially in winter. I will gladly sacrifice ultimate efficiency, and do, to the mood enhancing view out my East facing window wall even on a gray winter day versus living in warmer but psychologically "colder" housing with "rational" window placement and sizing. It should also be noted that more glass makes smaller GLA live bigger offsetting some of the cost differential.

  21. Mark Chalom, Architect | | #22

    passive vs super insulation
    Hello Robert, I agree, Its not one or the other.. It’s all about regionalism and the climate you design in.. It s nothing more than balancing a check book.. Energy in vs. energy out. Mass and proper design balances the temps and stores through the evening. In Canada and New England where the climate is different, the direction of Superinsulation makes sense as the solar input is low and undependable. Take what you can and keep control.. In the southwest we can be looser w/ insulation and rely more on the incoming heat of the sun.. Again energy in vs. energy out.. fresh air is nice. I have been to Passof houses and find them to be very confining, dark, and hiding from their place on earth. A passive home opens to our climate here and takes care of you fine if you did your homework and balanced your design for your climate.. We do not live with thermal underwear as mentioned in the article.. If my home was transplanted to Boston, yes we might freeze.. It was not designed for Boston.

    Is the ultimate design a 6” Styrofoam box with no open penetrations and an air exchanger? If you look at the energy loss through a window in Boston you should have none? You should see the crap being built here in Santa Fe as green.. No super insulation, garages to the south and bedrooms to the north. If you flip this same design to put garage to the north and bedrooms to the south it will make a difference in energy use. Is this Passive Solar? I think so.. it also relates to place on planet. It does not matter as when you put PV on the house, you can get a Zero Energy home, all the green balloons and tax breaks and flags..

    As I see the solar world now, it is all fucked up.. Passive does work and should be promoted and designed properly for the climate, It has disappeared. Domestic hot water is not being sold or utilized. All the action is in PV. All this is doing is subsidizing the utility companies so they do not have to buy PV for their portfolio. We buy it so they don’t have too.. This is no net gain and the worst way to use PV in small individual systems. Disgusting scam and I’m not playing.. Sorry, I’m out… I do not see these homes as any solution to the global situation. It is a technology for the industrial, rich world only.. I still believe in simple technology that can be transferred to most of the world.. It could have a much bigger impact globally.. Passive solar is common sense in design, siting and climatic response. The building is the machine and responds to its environment.. start there and add insulation and mass until you achieve a balance for your climate..

    I’m getting sick of this one size fits all approach to Green building.. We need regionalism that works and takes advantage of what the world provides us.. One approach will not work in Boston and Albuquerque. and I’m not playing this game.. I live in the southwest and passive solar provides energy. Light. Humidity, connection with the planet, many qualities that will not show up in a calculation.. as opposed to just keeping it in.. I also am not a big fan of Air to air heat exchangers.. I’ve visited some of these homes when the weather is perfect.. All windows closed, The Hepa filter was providing a constant hum throughout the home.. Many then utilize forced Hot air systems to work w/ the exchanger..That also presents a poor way to live in my opinion.. I will not leave with a constant hum and vibration isolated from my environment.. If we cannot breath the air in Santa Fe, we have already lost..

    This is also like the argument, Straw bale or adobe.. Not a fight in my opinion, use both for the qualities they provide and the results will be synergistic. In your opinion, in New Mexico, would you rather live in a passive solar adobe or an insulated box for a full winter without any source of heat other then the sun.. I’d take the adobe.. In the third world, they have no choice.. A Trombe wall radiating at 90+ degrees, inside surface, at 7AM in the winter must be better than a dead, non responsive, insulating wall.

  22. Mark Chalom, Architect | | #23

    bead wall
    I'm not sure where and why the slam on Steve Baer.. He has been a leader and pioneer of sustainable living since the 70's look at your old $5 Whole Earth Cataloge. Steve continues to thing rationally about the use of solar.. Steve has been rtiticuled and slamed for years as he does not play the corperate game. He has done presentations where he shows that the back of a PV panel is more efficient as a reflector to a skylight then providing a PV panel, batteries or grid tied to a Compact floresent bulb for light in a building used mostly in the daytime.. Most comercial buildings are. He utilizes a slide of the Sharp headquarters, acres of flat roof full of PV and not one skylight. The Bead wall has been the only fluid movable insulation system designed to date.. A fantastic architectural solution. The beads sticking to the glass has been the drawback..If Steve had a university or Dow Chemical behind him, I'm sure he would of been able to solve static cling. Those of you who think Steve is too out there, read his essay in his book SunSpots, about selling the sun.. he was not too far off 40 years ago in predicting what is happening now.. Also see what he has contributed to Mathimatics and molecular structure. His Double play building is one of the most important designs since Harold Hays Night sky radiant cooling.. It has not received the attention it deserves.. As Steve says it does not twirl, buzz or move enough for the current solar experts.. It just works.. Hopefully Solar Today will start to look at these wonderful aplications of Solar. Thanks Steve..

  23. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #24

    Response to Mark Chalom
    I agree with you. As I wrote in my Oct. 9 post on this page, "Zomeworks continues to develop and sell innovative products, and Steve Baer is a genuine genius."

  24. smalld | | #25

    solar homes?
    I wholly agree with Robert Riversong, there is bad design and there is good design. An example of this is are homes I designed in the 1980's while teaching Building Technologies, utilizing full consideration of detailing in terms of insulation, coupled with conscious solar gain, and thermal mass. A simple example is that one owner was prompted to call me with great concern that the heating system had not come on at all on a sunny -20 January day - but the home was still very comfortable wasn't there something wrong? Please note that this home had no need for summer air-conditioning nor major heating demands in a climate that varied from the mid-nineties in summer to the minus 20's in winter.
    Subsequently to put all this in context - a young family man upon experiencing this particular home decided to build a similar structure for his family. Self-designed, and sadly either disregarding or omitting the many site considerations, convective air configurations,insulation detailing, glazing/insolation criteria, thermal massing, climatic influences and orientation of his site, he subsequently created a totally unbearable home. It proved to be uncomfortably cold in the winter and unbearable hot in the summer, so much so that he subsequently sold to an unsuspecting person/s one and half years later.
    And yes, my design was far more energy efficient per square foot (some 2800sq ft) cost than anything built in the region at that time. Just goes to show ya!
    Good design based on intelligent information or Bad design based on intelligent information. Note I said 'intelligent' information not 'scientific' information - wasn't it 'science' that got us into this mess to begin with?
    Hope you find time in your busy life to think outside the SCIENTIFIC 'BOX", 'cause once your in it ---your in it! 6 sides and everything it contains!

  25. small d | | #26

    'Appropriate' design
    You and your cohorts continue to suggest many so-called 'alternative concepts' of residential and oftentimes commercial design without any regard to the energy footprint/demand or to the repercussions for the average citizen of the 'first world' (your very real neighbours) with" limited or often non-existent" funds for the highly technical designs and retrofits. Nor do you seem to address the options available to the other 80% of the planet that is poised to become the #1 consumer of energy as they swiftly attempt become equal to us; the confused/frustrated of the privileged world in terms of energy consumption and environmental destruction.
    I would humbly - yet strongly suggest that the bottom line is "Appropriate Design" : rather than the popularly touted 'Sustainable Design' . There has never been nor ever will be a design protocol by 'Architectural' nor 'Scientific' standards and certainly non by so called: "Corporate' standards that could be defined or even considered 'Sustainable.', - although W.Mcdonough has come close.
    There has been very little that humankind has undertaken in terms of habitation or agricultural endeavors within the last ninety years that would ever fall within in the terms of the real definition of the word -'SUSTAINABLE'. There has been historically: many ideological, political and economic theories,doctrines and philosophies as well as prevailing scientific documents that have touted this ideal. However given the reality of gluttony/avarice of the average first world citizen (G20)+, along the simple and chilling reality of "corporate privilege , impunity and sanctified exploitation". All this coupled with the belief, envy, avarice and hostility of so many of the various and diverse peoples of the 'developing' world who are still invested in the mythopoeic belief -- of the land of streets paved with gold and 'extreme' prosperity of the so-called WEST for all -- ( kind of wizard of oz crap), and it quickly becomes apparent that possibility of a SUSTAINABLE FUTURE passed us by a very long time ago, economically and environmentally.
    It simply comes down to the base reality of : USE OR LOSE!!!! This is not a time of expertise for the sake of positionally, power nor maintenance of the status quo by definition of professional, scientific, technical, economic, or political hierarchies. It does not in any way require the prevailing cultural myths of politics or prevalent (re:rehashed) economics ot endure or be justified. It doesn't even require the pretense/advertising/promotion of a specific social and political hierarchy. It is the simply the reality or in your case (sic) the math of survival!!!! It requires non-formatted innovation!!!!!!
    I would suggest therefore that you and your cohorts get your heads out of your proverbial 'positions' and get on with real and actually affordable solutions, be they housing or lifestyle that could provide those very real people - with very real and affordable alternatives?
    That would entail providing the reality of relatively efficient homes for real people with real houses, living on real incomes or as an option; to at the very least offer real affordable solutions to at least get us all through a very brief period of the early transition of climate change and buy us all a tiny bit of time to adapt and create more viable economic, philosophical, political, ideological, and spiritual systems that 'may'? work a whole hell of a lot better than the b-llsh-t we have been provided with up till now.
    Bottom line- AIN'T no room for a 'HIGH HORSE' -- but a REAL NEED for a whole lot of formats and formula thinkers to just simply and heroically think outside the traditional, veracious and proverbial box and start thinking about integration with our various climatic zones, not isolation from our surroundings but integrating our various cultures ,economies,and structures into their immediate environments.One size ius not fitting all - never has -just another myth- like I'm better, wiser, smarter and therefore deserving than them-----. There ain't a beyond this planet. This is it -- the only planet, the only presentaly available spaceship & simply the only HOME you got ! No options in the immediate decades, possibly centuries.
    And it is the health and reality of the climate of this planet that is paramount - there are no areas, borders,colors, cultures,economic,political or religious philosophies that are excluded by some obscure right from its impact of extreme climatic change on our all collective lives and the live of our children.
    This may 'piss' a lot of people off, but they got no other bus, this is it; be it economic, philosophic or spiritual belief system none will be immune to the very real repercussions of any of our decisions today, just as we are about to pay a very heavy environmental interest on the bad decisions we made over the last century!.

  26. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #27

    Response to SmallD
    I'm mystified as to why you chose my article about a 30-year-old debate to post your verbal challenge to me "and my cohorts" for evidently advocating what you call "highly technical designs and retrofits."

    In any case, if you read my blogs, you may be surprised to find out that I agree with you that First World builders can learn from simple solutions developed in Third World countries. For example, read my blog, Green Homes Don’t Have To Be Durable.

  27. R S Mills | | #28

    You can now build a near zero-heat home w/ lots of glass in any part of the country by using Energy Star Plus modeling software and Build America for engineering details. It doesn't matter where you build the soft ware will input all the necessary weather and climate data and give you the insulation, siting,and glass factors. 30 years of scientific study have found the answers and it's time to stop the personal attacks and use the common sense god gave us. With proper siting, good insulation and sealing you can have 90% fuel savings. We have everything we need today, let's get on w/ it.

  28. Steve V | | #29

    I built a super insulated home with a sun room in 1987
    In 1987 I built my own super insulated 1,800 sq ft. home in western PA. I caulked around every exterior stud and sealed the exterior walls with plastic . My walls are R 32 and ceilings R 60.
    I built a south facing sun room with an insulated ceiling that is 8' x 24' with a patio door into my living room . The patio door is only opened to allow the heat in when the sun room heats up on it's own from the sun. The sun room has no other heat source. In my opinion this is the best combination of the 2 , super and solar.

  29. Robert Opaluch | | #30

    Built passive solar (i.e., super insulated) home in 1983
    Solar vs. superinsulated is a false dichotomy. I have always taught that passive solar has three components: Substantial south-facing glazing, super insulation (including tight construction) and substantial thermal mass (to reduce temperature fluctuations). All calculated and sized before building to yield well-engineered thermal performance. It would be just as silly to debate whether to encourage superinsulation vs tight construction, or active vs. passive solar. And this false dichotomy is helping to create some animosity on this discussion board. I would have liked to see greater attention paid to how do design well, and how to avoid common design errors, rather than a false debate. Superinsulation, tight construction, passive solar and active solar are complementary and integral if you know how to design and build well, and pay attention to your own plot of land (climate and solar access). Net Zero-energy, maximizing energy conservation, low-cost construction, comfort and aesthetics should be our goals. Insulation, window orientation and building materials are tools and building blocks to reach those goals.

    I built passive-solar in Boulder, CO, a cold and very sunny winter climate. I used backup heat once in five years downstairs with a direct gain slab design. Downstairs indoor temps typically were 68 to 78 mid-winter. Rarely dropped below 65. Upstairs bedrooms with minimal thermal mass typically were 65 to 82, and required minimal backup electric heat overnight on the colder winter nights. Two passive batch hot water tanks provided free hot water anytime except winter mornings when a small backup electric tank boosted lukewarm water to hot. The "cost" of these improvements was FREE because I deleted the typical gas or oil heating and heat distribution system (and the yearly maintenance and bills) and substituted cheaper insulation and radiant electric backup.

    I like summer not winter, and don't have SAD but am happier in sunny warm weather and bluer in mood mid-winter. The bright sun and summer-like yet free indoor warmth was almost as good for me as the mere $25/month higher winter heating bills. The solution was borderline super insulation levels, four south-facing large fixed glass and four sliding glass doors, a tiled slab floor and tight construction (except sliders don't qualify). In summer the home felt air-conditioned since the slab soaked up the heat, and south-facing windows were shaded by an overhang and a south-side second-floor balcony deck along the three bedrooms. I did all the heat loss/solar-gain calculations before building, and had my design checked by a noted solar engineer. And I turned a boring flat grass landscape into a wooded hilly area with dry streambed and decks for a private and aesthetically pleasing view from those south-facing windows. But this sunny, private wooded solution is not for everyone. Some may prefer darker indoors, maximum privacy, and the very stable 70 degree temperatures of Passivhaus.

    The typical builder next door built a sunroom with lots of south-facing glass, but typical insulation levels and no solar mass. So yes his solar doesn't work but that's what I call incompetence or ignorance, not passive solar failure.

    My design for a home in New England is very different. Its updated higher super insulation values, attention to tightness including only casement windows, no additional solar mass but 82% of required glazing faces south. Calculations indicate $125/month heating bills will result. And yes it would be a free "upgrade" since instead of the usual expensive gas/oil infrastructure, there's three times the insulation, better quality windows and doors and cheaper electric heating units for the minimal heating needed. I do worry about the gloomy New England cloudiness with far less glazing in this design, but pure passive solar seems impossible to do economically in this climate.

    I lived a year in Germany and do like the idea of Passivhaus for northern Europe with their much higher energy prices. Here it seems like expensive overkill, unless the USA's aging electrical grid dies mid-winter. Then the extra cost "insurance" against outages and inflation might prove Passivhaus a good investment some day.

    Hopefully we all make more sensible choices that work well over the next century instead of the typical gas-fired home with insulation levels designed for fifty years ago. Germany mandates Passivhaus for all new construction. We need updated national building codes and better education to reduce unnecessary energy consumption. Overall we set a poor example for the rest of the world and for each other. We need more Steve Baer creative geniuses, more education about energy-saving and safe sustainable energy-generating alternatives, better well-publicized examples of successes and common mistakes, better national policies and building codes, and reputable builders to get the job done for the next century. Lets work together to get there.

  30. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #31

    Response to Robert Opaluch
    You wrote, "Solar vs. superinsulated is a false dichotomy. ... And this false dichotomy is helping to create some animosity on this discussion board."

    This article discusses a historical debate which actually occurred. I don't disagree with your design advice, and you will find many articles on the GBA website that provide the same advice. However, your advice (and GBA's advice) doesn't alter the terms of a historical debate that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The debate was real, and was often based on an incomplete appreciation of the importance of air sealing.

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