Designing a Passive Solar Building

Designing a Passive Solar Building Photo Credit: By Jeremy Levine (CC BY 2.0) vie flickr.


During this lesson, you will explore your neighborhood to select a building site and design a passive solar house that you could build on it. Use the resources on this sheet to help you select a site and design your house.


Selecting a Site

Before you select a site for your home, you should learn more about passive solar landscaping and site selection by going to these two resources:

Answer these questions on your Designing a Passive Solar Building student sheet:

  • What are the geographical considerations in selecting a passive solar home site?
  • Which side of the house should the large windows be located?
  • How does the planting of trees and other vegetation affect the design?
  • Explain the difference in the solar orientation of a home depending on if a home is in a northern or southern climate.

Now use Google Earth or Google Maps to explore the area in which you live. Select a building site for your passive solar home. As you select your site, you should consider:

  • What part of (or how far from) town you want to live in. 
  • Access to roads and other public utilities. 
  • The size of the lot. Is there enough southern exposure to effectively do passive solar?
  • Is the site open enough for sunlight to reach the house? 
  • The topography, which are the features of a particular area of land (hills, rivers, roads, etc.).

After selecting a site, take a screen shot of it (you can do this by pressing the "Prt Sc" or "Print Screen" button on your PC keyboard or pressing Command-Shift-4 on your Mac keyboard and then using your mouse to select the area you want to capture) and paste a picture of it into a document. Using this document, write a paragraph that describes the location and why you selected it for a passive solar home. Be sure to include in it your answers to the questions above.

Designing a Passive Solar House

To design your passive solar house, you should use a free software called Planner 5D. Start by watching the video How to Make Floor Plans Fast and Easy with Planner 5D. It will show the basics of using the software.

Now go to Planner 5D. To start designing your house, you should select Create a Project and then Start From Scratch. When you do that, it will bring up a brief tutorial that shows the features of the program.

After reading those pages, close the window and you will see one room on your screen. This is the start of your design. From there, you can add rooms by copying and pasting the one on the screen, or by selecting rooms of different shapes from the menu on the left.

Once the basic room shapes have been drawn, then you can add features like doors and windows by selecting the construction tab from the menu on the left. You can rotate and resize doors and windows as needed. When you insert a window, for example, there is a dialog box at the bottom of the screen that allows you to adjust the dimensions.

Adding furniture and landscaping is done much the same way. Select the tab for the menu on the left, and insert the feature you want. You can resize, rotate, duplicate, and change colors by selecting the tools on the popup menus on each item. Just play with it until you get a feel for it. 

Your home design should contain at least five rooms:

  1. Kitchen/Dining room
  2. Bathroom
  3. Bedroom
  4. Living room
  5. One additional room of your choice.

Be sure the floor plan makes sense. For example, there should be doors in to each room. Kitchen cabinets wouldn’t be hung in front of a window. You wouldn’t likely park a car in your bedroom. Be creative, but realistic. It is possible that you will not be able to include exactly what you want in the design because of the limits of using the free version of the software. Use the best choice for your ideas that are available for free.

Your home should be designed to take advantage of passive solar energy, including:

  1. Construction materials: What types of materials would be most effective to aid in heating and cooling? Consider using low-e glass windows (can minimize the amount of ultraviolet and infrared light that can pass through glass without compromising the amount of visible light that is transmitted), insulation, recycled materials, and other “green” building materials. You may not be able to specifically choose those options in the software, but you can indicate in your description of your house what materials you would use.
  2. Orientation of the house: Be sure to have lots of south facing windows.
  3. Thermal Mass: What features inside the house will absorb and release heat energy?
  4. Landscaping (trees, etc.): How can plants be used to shade the house when it’s warm, and allow sunlight in when it’s cold?

Add furniture, change the flooring and wall colors, and add whatever other features you care to. Be creative, but always be thinking of how your design fits into the passive solar energy concept. If there are things you would like to do that the software won’t allow, use the best choices for your ideas that are available for free and take notes about what you would have liked to have done to include in the narrative you share with your teacher.

Knowledge Check

After creating your house, write a few paragraphs to justify and explain your design, choice of materials, landscaping, and geographic location of the house. You should include pictures of the site from Google Earth or Maps and both 2D and 3D renderings of your house. If you had to make choices in your design that were less than ideal due to using the free version of the software, explain where those choices were made and what you would have selected instead if it had been available. In your paragraphs, address the following:

  • Where is your building location, and why did you select it?
  • How did you use your knowledge of passive solar design to complete the design of your passive solar building?
  • What were the physical and biological constraints you needed to take into account when designing your building?
  • What are the unique challenges of designing for passive solar energy compared to a more conventional design?

This esheet is a part of the Designing a Building Using Passive Solar Energy lesson.

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Esheet Details

Grades Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards