Designing a Building Using Passive Solar Energy

What You Need

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


To learn how building design, construction, and location can mitigate the use of energy for heating and cooling.


This lesson is part of the Inventing Green Project, a collection of invention education resources that can be used to engage students in grades 6–12 in problem-solving, creativity, design, and social awareness. Invention education encompasses the idea that learning is powered by hands-on experiences that allow students to turn ideas into inventions with impact. You can learn more about invention education by reading the first part of the Invention Education Educator Toolkit.

This is the second in a series of three lessons that focus on the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels and how passive solar design and technologies can help mitigate that impact. It relies on the students having some prior knowledge of climate change. As a prerequisite, we recommend that students complete the first lesson in this series.

In the first lesson, Mitigating Climate Change through Passive Solar Design, students investigated what materials might be most effective as a thermal mass in a passive solar design. They should now have some idea of the types of building materials that could best serve that purpose.

In this second lesson in the series, students will design a building using passive solar energy techniques. They will first study the local geography around their school to determine a building site. Then they will use software to design a passive solar building. Students will consider many factors, such as location, building materials, and construction techniques in designing their own energy efficient, passive solar house.

In the third lesson, Modeling Passive Solar Homes, students will build a prototype of the home that uses passive solar to help decrease the amount of energy used for heating and cooling. They will be encouraged to try something new and innovative.

As the demand for energy increases, we must begin to consider our use of energy and the impact that energy production has on our global environment. The data is clear that global temperatures are rising. Although some of that climate change may be from natural causes, much of it appears to be caused by human activity. Heating and cooling accounts for almost half of energy used in the typical US home.

Passive solar design refers to the use of the sun’s energy for the heating and cooling of living spaces. In this approach, the building itself or some element of it takes advantage of natural energy characteristics in materials and air created by exposure to the sun. Passive systems are simple, have few moving parts, and require minimal maintenance and require no mechanical systems.

Operable windows, thermal mass, and thermal chimneys are common elements found in passive design. Operable windows are simply windows that can be opened. Thermal mass refers to materials such as masonry and water that can store heat energy for extended time. Thermal mass will prevent rapid temperature fluctuations. Thermal chimneys create or reinforce the effect of hot air rising to induce air movement for cooling purposes.

This lesson will focus on the design of a building. The students will select a suitable building site near their school. Then, using the free online program Planner 5D, they will create a 3D rendering of the house they would build on that site.

Ideas in this lesson are related to concepts found in the following Next Generation Science Standards:

Engineering, Technology and Applications of Science

  • MS-ETS1-1.
    Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  • MS-ETS1-2.
    Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

  • MS-LS2-5.
    Evaluate competing design solutions for maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Planning Ahead

For background information on passive solar energy, go to Passive Solar Design.

Before you start this lesson with your students, we encourage you to read the Invention Education Educator Toolkit. We also suggest that you provide your students with the Invention Education Toolkit student sheet so they can get background information on invention education.

You may want to check your computers to make sure that Adobe Flash player is up to date, because it will be needed to run Planner 5D. Conversely, Planner 5D is available as an app for iOS or Android for free. If your students have access to mobile devices, they could potentially use the app instead.

There are some limitations to the software that may make specific passive solar elements difficult to include. It is recommended that you explore the site yourself first to familiarize yourself with its functionality. See the Designing a Passive Solar Building teacher sheet for some tips for using Planner 5D

The recommended time for students to use the 5D app/software for designing their house is three 45-minute class periods. 


Review with the students the key concepts from the first lesson, Mitigating Climate Change through Passive Solar Design.

  • What is passive solar energy?
    • (Passive solar energy uses heat from the sun to warm buildings.)
  • Why would one choose to build a passive solar home?
    • (There could be a number of reasons, including the desire to use less energy, the desire to reduce the amount of fossil fuels that are burned, the desire to be energy independent, etc.)
  • Why do passive solar homes use a lot of glass in their construction?
    • (The glass allows the heat energy from the sun to help warm the homes.)
  • Which direction should all that glass be facing on a passive solar home?
    • (Most of the glass should be facing south.)
  • What is a thermal mass? How does it benefit a passive solar home?
    • (Thermal mass is something that can absorb, store, and release the sun's heat energy. It can benefits a passive solar home by absorbing the sun's heat energy during the day and then releasing it at night.)

Show the Power Point slide show of homes attached to the lesson. Some homes are passive solar energy designs, and others are not. Discuss the aesthetics of the homes, have the students predict if the home would be passive solar or not based on the evidence they see in the photos. Discuss the landscape around the home. Ask students, “How would the vegetation and geography of the location affect the passive solar design?”

Tell students that they will design their own passive solar home using an online design site, but first they must find just the right place to build it.

Students should use their Designing a Passive Solar Building student esheet to access Google Earth (or Google Maps if Google Earth is not available). They should find recognizable locations such as their home, their school, or the local park. Once they are familiar with how to find things, they should use the program to look for a location to build their house. Before they try to choose a location, though, they should visit these two resources to learn more about passive solar landscaping and site selection:

As students go through the resources, they should answer these questions on their Designing a Passive Solar Building student sheet:

  • What are the geographical considerations in selecting a passive solar home site?
    • (When selecting a passive solar home site, you should take into consideration the orientation of the sun during the day, the placement of trees and other plants, the type of climate, range of average temperatures, whether it is usually cloudy or sunny, etc.)
  • Which side of the house should the large windows be located?
    • (The large windows should be located on the south side to take advantage of heating from the sun during the colder, winter months.)
  • How does the planting of trees and other vegetation affect the design?
    • (Planting trees and other vegetation can help to keep a building cooler in the summer months and also act as windbreaks to help keep it warmer in winter months.)
  • Explain the difference in the solar orientation of a home depending on if a home is in a northern or southern climate.
    • (If a home is in a northern climate, the long axis of the home should run in an east-west direction, allowing for maximum solar gain on the south facing side. If a home is in a southern climate, the long axis could very well be designed to run in a north-south direction.)

Based on what they learn, students should select a building site and take a screen shot of their Google Earth or Maps location to paste into a document. They should write a paragraph explaining why their site would work. They should consider these factors in their paragraph:

  • 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/location. Is there enough southern exposure to effectively do passive solar?
  • Is the site open enough for sunlight to reach the house? 
  • Topography, which are the features of a particular area of land (hills, rivers, roads, etc.).


NOTE: You may want to have your students work offline first and draw a floor-plan by hand, since brainstorming often responds well to sketching by pencil, jotting down ideas, and back-of-the-napkin approaches. If you decide to include this strategy, consider reorganizing this section to introduce the design parameters before the Planner 5D video and engagement.

Now, students should use their student esheet to go to Planner 5D. This is the site where they will create their solar home design. Show (or have the students watch) How to Make Floor-Plans Fast and Easy with Planner 5D, the video that will demonstrate the basics of how to use the site. The esheet provides some guidance on how students can use the software. In addition, the Designing a Passive Solar Building esheet and provides information about how they should design their passive solar homes. You may also wish to share the rubric from the Designing a Passive Solar Building teacher sheet.

The homes that the students design should contain at least five rooms:

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

Students should be sure their floor plans make sense. For example, there should be doors into each room. The kitchen cabinets shouldn’t be in front of a window. There shouldn’t be a car in the bedroom. You should encourage students to be creative but realistic. It’s possible they won’t be able to include exactly what they want in the design because of the limitations of the software. Encourage them to use the best choices available.

The homes the students design should be designed to take advantage of passive solar energy by taking into account these factors:

  1. Construction Materials: What types of materials would be most effective to aid in heating and cooling? Students should consider low-e glass windows (low-e 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. Students may not be able to specifically choose those options in the software, but they can indicate in their description of their house what materials they would use.
  2. South-Facing Windows: Students should be sure to orient the house so that it can take advantage of the sunlight that can come in through south-facing windows.
  3. Thermal Mass: Students should indicate what features inside the house will absorb and release heat energy.
  4. Landscaping (trees, etc.): Students should take into account how plants can be used to shade the house when it’s warm and allow sunlight in when it’s cold.

Students should be encouraged to add furniture, change the flooring and wall colors, and add whatever other features they care to.


After students have completed their designs, they should write a few paragraphs to justify and explain their choice of materials, their landscaping, and their geographic location of the home. They should include pictures of the site from Google Earth or Maps and both 2D and 3D renderings of their house.

In their paragraphs, they should address these questions:

  • 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?
You can use the rubric in the Assessment section of the Designing a Passive Solar Building teacher sheet to help you assess students' essays.


Follow this lesson with the final lesson in this series: Modeling Passive Solar Homes.

You could extend the learning in this lesson by leading your students through Death-Defying Cockroaches in which students study organisms to figure out how they move and then make an invention that can move like them.

Funder Info
The Lemelson Foundation
Based in Portland, The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives. Inspired by the belief that invention can solve many of the biggest economic and social challenges of our time, the Foundation helps the next generation of inventors and invention-based businesses to flourish. The Lemelson Foundation was established in the early 1990s by prolific inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy. To date the Foundation has made grants totaling over $200 million in support of its mission. For more information, visit http://lemelson.org.

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Lesson Details

Grades Themes Type Project 2061 Benchmarks National Science Standards

Other Lessons in This Series