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Urban Rustic: Evaluating the Success of Passive-Solar-Design Strategies

Tracking the sun around all four sides of our house, inside and out, has proven the value of passive solar design in a cold climate

Our green building adventure began in 2013, when I came across various Passive House and high-performance projects in the book, Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid, by Sheri Koones. The red house featured on the cover and built by GO Logic, in particular, seemed like a striking departure from conventional homebuilding as practiced in the U.S.

In its overall shape, the house echoed an earlier project that I only became aware of later, the Smith House in Illinois by Katrin Klingenberg.

Arguably, in both cases, these homes have too much glass on their south elevations, both in terms of potential overheating of the interior and in purely aesthetic terms. Nevertheless, using south-facing glazing to bring in the sun during the winter months while getting some Btus of free heat made a lot of sense to us, especially in a heating-dominated climate like ours here in the Chicago area.

Evaluating potential problems

By the time construction began, we had settled on what seemed like a significant number of windows and a kitchen door for our south elevation. We felt the layout would be appropriate in terms of passive solar heating, aesthetics, and daylighting.


  1. STEPHEN SHEEHY | | #1

    We've got a lot of South facing glass in our Pretty Good House. SHGC of .49. Does it get warm in winter? A bit, but never to the point which where it's uncomfortable. Maybe it gets to 76-77°.
    My response to suggestions that too much glass could lead to winter overheating is always: why would that be a problem in winter in Maine? I'd have to wear a t-shirt? Bare feet? Open a window? Not have the minisplits come on? When it's below zero, I'll take all the sun and heat I can get.

    1. capecodhaus | | #2

      I love opening the windows in winter!

  2. tommay | | #3

    Simple window treatments such as blinds or curtains can help you control you winter gain. Opening windows in the winter for some fresh air is a wonderful thing. Enjoy your free heat and light. Sit in front of a sunny window and get some sun for a natural boost. Grow an indoor winter garden. Lots of benefits from a passive home.

  3. this_page_left_blank | | #4

    We also have a lot of south facing windows, and never had unwanted winter heating. We've always had the option to open windows to cool the house down; in three winters, we've never felt the desire to do it. The concept is almost nonsensical, since there's a simple and free fix for cooling the house in winter. We do have some overheating in shoulder seasons, which is due to the designer's insistence that we have high gain windows on all sides of the house in order to meet the arbitrary passive house standard for heating load. If we had more sensible low gain windows on the east and west, I suspect overheating would be drastically reduced.

    1. Jon_R | | #5

      > couch is uncomfortable, if not impossible... office ... extremely uncomfortable
      > since there's a simple and free fix for cooling the house in winter

      In the general case, I expect that maintaining each room right at a specific temperature/humidity as clouds, wind and sun angle change is far from simple. But it depends on the goal - tolerable with accommodation or better than ASHRAE minimums with no effort. I suppose there are thermostatically controlled window openers (often used in greenhouses).

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