This page is long overdue. I started building my solar home thirty years ago, when our president declared American energy dependence "...the moral equivalent of war." I've recently decided that this local campaign has been successful enough to file my report.
I found a site in 1978 with a southern exposure and built it as I had time and money for materials. I spent four winters in an 8x30' trailer and I'm still working on the house interior, but I never borrowed money to build it and thus never had a bank telling me what I had to do, only the building codes. It's classic "massive passive." It's partially bermed into the slope, has lots of glass and insulation around the stone, tile and concrete first floor so once it warms up it stays that way. It has only one backup heater, a woodstove (with catalytic converter) that burns about two-and-a-half cords of wood a winter to supplement on cloudy days. There is no other back-up heating. The space heating has just one moving part - a 36" paddle fan in the stairwell to prevent heat stratification.
The main house is on the right, 1900 SqFt, timber-framed with local white pine, 4" of foam on the outside, slate roof, seen here from the southwest. My basement shop and 1000SqFt friends' apartment is on the left. The roof is high angle, standing-seam stainless Terne, designed for the 5.6kw of photovoltaic panels. Both builldings have solar hot-water preheating panels powered by small PV panels. Not shown is the exterior solar clothes-drying and freshening system - the clothes-line. If your neighborhood has outlawed those, go to war.
Here is the view from the North, small windows to illuminate a bath, utility room, the kitchen sink and my upstairs office.
Here is the view from the southeast. The glass is standard-sized replacement sliding-glass door panels for economy. You can see the stone wall and the reason that folks called the house "the place with the laundry in the window." We have no dryer and use the greenhouse to dry our laundry all winter long. The front door opens to the green house on the right.
Here we look into the greenhouse from the front door. One of the sets of greenhouse French doors is on the right. The greenhouse is only 5' wide, too narrow for use as a sitting room, but the greenery is visible from all the main rooms in the house and gives a sense of warmth even in winter.
So now we're in the downstairs, looking at those French doors from the inside. There is insulation and gravel and drains under the 6" thick, tiled concrete slab. The Jotul Firelight stove has a catylitic converter. We burn two-and-a-half cords per winter, keeping us warm on cloudy days. The swing was installed for my boy, but adults enjoy it too.
The photo below is one of the upstairs bedrooms, immediately upstairs from the previous image. When the french doors are closed on winter nights, the cold air in the greenhouse just fills up the space and stays there. The bedrooms need no barriers to keep warm. The center of the second floor is raised about 8", with a vent at the stepup to allow the heat from the stove to flow up into the bedrooms. The clothsline is on a pulley, and holds a full load of laundry. The light in the winter is wonderful.
Here is the stainless steel 80 gallon holding tank with internal heat exchanger where the solar pre-heated water waits to be drawn into the cold inlet of the electric hot water tank. At the end of a sunny day the preheated water is hotter than the electric heater's setting, leaving it nothing to do. The photovoltaic installation will take 12 to 15 years to pay back its installation cost, but the hot water cut my electric bill dramatically the first month online and should return its cost in 3 to 5 years. Even after a cloudy day, we never seem to run out of hot water.
This tank (American-made!) is up in the cupola of the main house, which has windows I can open to vent excess summer heat. We just leave them open from Memorial through Labor Days. We open the second floor windows and close up the downstairs on hot days. The upstairs gets no hotter than the outside temperature and the downstairs, where we're more likely to be in the daytime, is 10 to 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature. We have no AC and have never felt the need of it.
This kind of massive-passive solar house was state-of-the-lowtech-art in the late 70s, but all aspects of solar have improved markedly - windows, glass, insulation, heat exchangers and moisture control. The thing is to DO IT! Get the right site with a southern exposure without trees between your site and the winter sun and then face most of the glass a few degrees east of south, so you get the heat early, when you need it. Efficiency, insulation and systems to suck heat out of the ground are great, but the sun itself is still completely free. Here in New England we have plenty of cloudy winter days, but when the temperature really goes down below freezing or below zero (Farenheit) - i.e. when you most need it - it's almost always sunny. It costs no more to build solar than conventional and there are plenty of designs that mimic our "colonial" architectural vernacular.
Living in our home requires frequent attention to the details of the house's operation and an awareness of the weather and the forecast. If I leave the house on a sunny winter morning I must remember to turn the stairway fan to high to pull as much heat as possible down into the part of the house that has all the mass. I have to remember to close the french doors at dark to keep the cold air in the greenhouse. I must use the various exhaust fans, in the kitchen and baths, that pull the water vapor of showers and cooking, out of the house to cut down on cold-window condensation. If I know the next day will be sunny, I won't load the woodstove as full when I bank it down before going to bed. In summer I make sure that the upstairs is open and the downstairs is closed. Winter and summer I look ahead and plan my laundries for the sunny days.
Keeping track of these and other little details of living is not stressful, and only requires me to be aware of the weather several days ahead, the size of the pile of laundry, how full the wood crib is. It keeps me connected with this beautiful countryside and constantly changing climate that I live in. It's like living on a boat - you enjoy keeping track of the conditions because it's part of the joy of being where and when you are and will be.