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What is the value of passive solar design?

julienk | Posted in General Questions on

Does anyone know of studies that have been done which quantify the value of passive solar or sun-tempered design? It seems like common sense to design a home with many south-facing windows (with or without thermal mass), but how much energy can such a strategy save? As an architect in southwestern Wisconsin, I sometimes have clients who say they would like a passive solar home, but they also want to design to take advantage of the views on their site (which are often in a direction other than south). How much of an advantage is correct solar orientation compared to, for example, adding extra insulation in the walls and roof?

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  1. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #1

    Julie,
    I usually tell people that the passive design principles that people espoused in the 1970s have been modified by research and experience since then.

    I still think that it's a good idea for cold-climate builders to put most of their windows on the south side of the house, and to locate mechanical rooms, closets, and hallways on the north side of the house, simply because sunshine is cheerful and welcome during the winter.

    However, there is no economic justification to the idea that south-facing windows should be larger than usual; nor is there any economic justification to the inclusion of extra thermal mass in a cold-climate house.

    For a more thorough discussion of these topics, see these two articles:

    Study Shows That Expensive Windows Yield Meager Energy Returns

    All About Thermal Mass

    It certainly makes sense to include windows facing a nice view. If the view is to the north, choose moderately sized windows -- not large ones -- and make them triple-glazed.

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