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Building with the Sun

House from northwest: Visitors arriving see nothing to make them aware that this is a passive solar house. Images: Russ Lanoie.

Russ Lanoie

Like many first-time do-it-yourself homebuilders, I made lots of mistakes when designing our solar saltbox home. Not enough closets, family and dining areas not adjacent to each other, primary chimney in the wrong place and more. The main thing I did correctly, however, was to orient the house directly south and maximize windows on the south side.

We built in 1976 at the height of the “owner-built home” movement that followed the oil shortages of the earlier seventies. Many of the owner-built practices involved using recycled materials resulting in houses built on old telephone poles or pilings, recycled storm windows for fixed (non-operable) windows, and wood scavenged from wherever possible. While I avoided going to those extremes and used a poured concrete foundation and almost all new building materials, I did manage to construct a substantial house for a $25,000 construction loan. Framing and siding were from local mills and I produced our modified post and beam frame right from standing timber on our own property. The result of this was an early example of “building green” that simply meant to us that we got pine sap in our hair as our freshly cut timbers dried out.

The house has a mix of traditional windows and fixed glazing that includes a solar greenhouse on the south side totaling 200 square feet, and only two windows on the north. One of those original north small double hung windows was replaced with a fixed sliding glass door panel after we became Window Quilt dealers in the eighties so we could have more visibility but keep the heat in during the winter nights. Almost all of our other windows now also have Window Quilts that are still used regularly both winter and summer to keep heat either in or out.

House from Southeast: This view from the southeast shows the solar features of the house including the array of windows and fixed glazing in the basement, the rooftop hot water system, greenhouse and the clothes dryer

Shortly after we built, a local quality home builder constructed a home designed by a well-known solar design group from southern NH that featured a hybrid system of south- facing glass and vertical solar hot-air collectors connected to a rock filled bin that stores heat for distribution when it’s needed. This house was featured on the NBC Today Show during a Sun Day observance a few years after it was built.

After about twenty years the first owners decided to move out of the area but found it difficult to sell this unusual structure and, I’ve heard, finally turned the keys over to the bank. I also heard that it was an HVAC technician who ultimately ended up with the house. While not as off-beat as the owner-built homes on telephone poles, the house was too “far out” for an average person to be comfortable with its novel solar-heating system. Likewise, when owner-builders tried selling those telephone pole perched houses years later they found it difficult to find interested buyers.

Our house, on the other hand, appears much more conventional and visitors hardly notice anything unusual unless they happen to come on a cold but sunny winter day when the house is awash in the warmth of the sun. While I have no interest in selling and hope that the house remains in the family after my wife and I pass on, the next occupant will benefit from the house’s simple solar design along with the 11kWh, 40 panel solar electric system that now graces our barn and adds to our self-reliance.

The lesson from our building experience is that it only takes a little planning and forethought to harness the sun when building a new home or commercial building. “Why Not Just Build the House Right in The First Place” is an article by Ray Bliss, a very early solar pioneer from the 1940’s who lived in nearby Tamworth, NH. Ray stated that simply by orienting the long dimension of the house East-West and placing the majority of the windows to the South, you’d pick up about 25% of the home’s heat from the sun.

Although not every building site lends itself to capturing the sun, I constantly see local examples where homeowners and builders miss the golden opportunity to take advantage of the sun’s warming rays. It is disappointing and indeed frustrating to see that some of the worthwhile lessons of the owner-builder movement following the energy crises of the seventies have been forgotten. For whether a house is built on telephone poles with salvaged lumber and old storm windows and sliding glass door panels, or modern high tech windows and energy efficient building materials, just facing the windows to the south can provide much of the heating demand of the house even if the designer put the family room in the wrong place. It’s much easier to move rooms around inside a house than to change its orientation to the sun.

Russ Lanoie is a long-time solar proponent in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and operated his Alternative Systems business in the 1970s—80s selling solar hot water systems, composting toilets and Window Quilts®. He lives in a passive solar home which has had Daystar solar hot water for forty years and 11kW of PVs on his barn since 2015. www.RuralHomeTech.com.

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