Celebrating the solstice with passive solar

Amy Musser

I often say that I wish everyone could live in my house for a week.  The winter solstice seems like the perfect time to talk about why.  I’ll give you a hint:  it’s 74 degrees in my living room right now.

Living in a passive solar house is remarkably more comfortable than living in a “normal” house.  It’s warmer.  We set our thermostat for 70 degrees, but most winter days it’s a few degrees warmer than that.  We use a concrete floor for thermal mass, so the floor is really warm.  I enjoy that because I hate wearing socks.  I’ve found some nice little local “hot spots” where I like to hang out.  Our master bathroom has a lot of windows and isn’t that big, so it’s always the warmest room in the house.  Spending time in our soaking tub using the solar-generated hot water is always a nice way to spend a winter Saturday.

The natural light is something that you really have to experience to understand.  The house is really bright in the winter because the direct sun comes into every room.  Sometimes I sunbathe in our guest bedroom.  Our houseplants have a growth spurt in October because the increasing daylight makes them think it’s spring.

Even though no direct sunlight comes in during the summer, it’s still really bright inside.  Since the sun is in the Southern sky, the outdoors is just brighter in that general direction and we get more reflected light from outdoors.  We almost never need to turn on the lights during the day.

I find myself more in touch with the cycles of the sun and the seasons.  I’ve never been a morning person, but I usually wake up automatically when the sun comes up because it’s bright in my room.  I start to wind down for the day and relax when it gets dark outside.  I can sit in my living room and look at the stars and moon.  In the summer, I really feel like its’ summer – energetic and active.  And I don’t mind winter as much as I used to because I’m not cold all the time.  Being more connected to direct sunlight has the same effect as a fire or a mug of hot tea.

At the winter solstice, I find myself reflecting each year that winter is just beginning, but we’ll have a little more daylight every day from now on.  It’s easy to understand how ancient people, who would have spent much more time outside than we do, would be inspired to build something crazy like Stonehenge to celebrate.  Here’s a photo of what’s happening in my living room today:

passive solar 2

Architecturally, you’re practically forced to put porches on the North side of the house, which suits me just fine.  I like a nice shady, breezy porch.  With most of the windows on the South side of our house (which happens to be the back side), we’ve got plenty of wall space to arrange furniture and create comfortable rooms.  The dog isn’t tall enough to see out of the front windows, so he doesn’t have very much to bark at.  There are a lot of surprising benefits.

Sometimes I wonder why passive solar isn’t more common.  If everyone could live in my house for a week, I’m pretty sure it would be.  I think part of the problem is that designing and planning homes is a highly visual process, but living in a home involves all of the senses.

Most homeowners are their own worst enemy when it comes to passive solar.  A lot of people start out saying they want to have a passive solar house.  Then they decide that a long floor plan doesn’t look “interesting” enough for them.  They vary up the shape in ways that don’t exactly help the passive solar design.  Then they just have to have a covered deck on the South side of the house.  That’s way too much overhang for the windows to collect heat in the wintertime.  Then they discover a view to the East or West that requires a giant bank of windows on that side.  Next, they succumb to what I call “window panic” and decide that they have to have windows on every single wall “so they get enough light”.  Guess where the light is?  It’s to the South!  By the time most people are done, they might have a passive solar room, but the house isn’t.  And most of the time, that’s a shame.

It’s true that passive solar homes have a “look”.  A long house with a lot of windows and just the right overhangs on one side is going to take on a certain modern-ish form.  You can use finishes and other detailing to make it your own and to tone down the modern if that’s not your thing.  But you do sort of need to embrace it and work with it.  In the final accounting, there’s a lot going on in a passive solar house that you aren’t going to see on a floor plan.

Copyright 2012 Amy Musser