Modeling Passive Solar Homes

What You Need


  • Cardboard
  • Wooden blocks
  • Polystyrene
  • Foam
  • Foam boards
  • Snap Blade Utility Knives
  • Cutting boards
  • Rulers
  • Glue and/or cool melt hot glue gun
  • Miniature carpenter’s square (or similar)
  • First Aid Kit 
Modeling Passive Solar Homes Photo Credit: By Department of Energy Solar Decathlon (CC BY-ND 2.0) via flickr.


To build architectural models of a passive solar house to help students visualize a design and explain their passive solar house design to the building team.


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 third in a series of three lessons that focus on the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels and how passive solar design and technology can help mitigate that impact. In this lesson, students will build a prototype of the home they designed during the second lesson 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.

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 the second lesson in the series, Designing a Building Using Passive Solar Energy, students designed a building using passive solar energy techniques. They studied the local geography around their school to determine a building site. Then they used software to design a passive solar building.

At this grade level, students should understand that models are used in science to help scientists study and understand the things they are meant to resemble. A model could be a device, a plan, a drawing, an equation, or a computer program. Physical models are perhaps the most familiar with this age group and they are actual devices that behave enough like the real thing that scientists can hope to learn something from them. It is in this vein that architects use models to try to determine how their designs will behave. Models are some of the best tools for exploring space, scale, materials, and other considerations in building design. (Profiles of Selected Architects: On Architectural Models

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. Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

MS-ETS1-2. Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

MS-ETS1-4. Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

Ecosystems: Interactions, Energy, and Dynamics

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

Planning Ahead

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 can get background information on models by reading Building Great Architecture Models.

It would be a good idea to have a first aid kit on hand since your students will be using very sharp knives for cutting.

This lesson will take 3-5 class periods to complete. We suggest you read through the lesson and activities to determine the best schedule for your class.

Depending on how many models your class(es) make, storage can be an issue. Make a plan for where to store the models between class periods so that they will not get damaged.


Begin this lesson by having a class discussion about models. Ask students:

  • Have you ever made a model of some kind?  
  • What did you model? 
  • How realistic were those models?
  • What materials did you use to make the model?
  • Has anyone ever made a house out of Legos or K’nex?

If you have a model car or plane, it would be a good visual for the students to see. You could use a variety of models ranging from as simple as a Matchbox car to an elaborate model ship or plane. You could try to build a house out of Legos, K’nex, or Lincoln Logs.

Then begin to discuss scientific models. Show them some examples of scientific models (use pictures from online if you don’t have any good models). Ask students:

  • Why do scientists use models instead of studying or displaying the real thing? 
    • (For example, models for showing cell structure are very useful, because cells are far too small for us to study easily. We do not have strong enough microscopes to see all the cell’s structures. Planetary models are useful because the solar system is too large for us to be able to see the whole thing at once and with any type of detail.)

Explain to students that architects use models for similar reasons. Models allow architects to see how a building will look on the building site. They allow for modifications to be made to the design. It allows for more creativity in the design process.

Students should use their Modeling Solar Homes student esheet to watch Adam Savage’s One Day Builds: Foamcore House to see him build an architectural model of his childhood home. 

Discuss these questions with the students after viewing the video:

  • What was the reason that Adam Savage stated for making models of his homes?
    • (It helps him understand a house. It allows him to put a house in his head.)
  • When, according to Adam, should you change your knife blade?
    • (You should replace a blade when it starts to pill—that is, the blade is grabbing at the foam core.)
  • Why are templates for doors and windows used?
    • (They are used to help ensure that they are positioned correctly and they are the right size.)
  • Adam included some features of the home, but not all features of the home. For example he included his first workshop in the basement level of his home. Why do you suppose he would include that, but not things like the kitchen cabinets?
    • (Lead the discussion to the idea that the model will include features that are important to the design or to the designer.  Not all aspects of the home must be included, only those that are significant for some reason.)


Before students work on their models for passive solar homes, they should learn more about the how’s and why’s of building models in the field of architecture. For more information about how to make architectural models, they should use their student esheet to go to Building Great Architecture Models.  This will give them a great overview of techniques and tools for modeling.

Explain to students which of those tools they will use (or substitute for the things on that page). Be sure to stress the safety issues around using the very sharp knives to be used for cutting cardboard or foam core. To help them understand how they can safely cut and use foam core, they could read the PDF "Foam Core Tips," which is linked from the bottom of this High School Engineering Design curriculum.

To learn the benefits of using models rather than just computer renderings, students should use the student esheet to go to and read On Architectural Models. After reading the article, discuss these questions:

  • What role do physical architectural models play in the design process?  What was common among all of the architectural firms they asked?
    • (The physical architectural models help architects address issues like buildability and economy before construction begins. They also help them to make modifications to designs before actual construction.)
  • How do models compare to virtual methods of representing designs?
    • (The models help builders to look at the relationships between inside/outside, front/back, structure/detail. They show the abstract, structural, tectonic qualities of a project.)
  • What types of materials did the architects prefer for building their designs?
    • (They prefer using cardboard, foam board, and wood.)

Organize students into groups of two. They should go to Planner 5D to review their designs for a passive solar house. They should discuss their designs with their partner and pick one of the two designs to model. Students should use the Evaluating Passive Solar Design student sheet to help them decide on the best design to use. Before students try to do this activity, you should go over the sheet with them to make sure they understand how to do this activity and see if they have any questions. As they’re doing the evaluation, you should walk around the room to determine if any students have questions or need help with the evaluation.

Before students begin construction, provide them with the Modeling Passive Solar Homes teacher sheet that has the scoring rubric on it and the Build a Model Home student sheet, which provides directions for doing the activity.

Explain to students that they will present their models. Disuss expectations for an oral presentation and go over the points (from the rubric) that students should include in their presentations. Emphasize that they should be professional: make good eye contact, avoid reading directly from their note cards, project their voices, etc.

Next, it is time to begin construction of the models.

The models should contain the same five rooms as the online design:

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

The model homes should show how they take advantage of passive solar energy. They should address each of the following:

  1. Construction materials
  2. South-facing windows
  3. Thermal mass
  4. Landscaping (trees, etc.)
  5. Geography: How does the house sit on the original home site selected from Google Maps or Google Earth?


To assess the models, students should present their models to the class. They should explain all of the key elements of their design. Emphasis should be on several points:

  • How well the model matches the design they did on the computer
  • Craftsmanship: They should demonstrate proper use of tools and be neat and accurate to the computer design.
  • Realism: The model should look like the house would look if built. Construction of the model should be selective about what’s being emphasized. It does not need to include every tedious detail that is not important to the “big idea” of the design; in this case the passive solar energy.

Use the rubric on the teacher sheet to grade the projects.


You can help extend the learning about models in this lesson by leading your students through Cells 1: Make a Model Cell. In this lesson, students make a model of a cell to help them learn more about cells.

You can also build on the learning in this lesson by introducing students to biomimicry in the Death-Defying Cockroaches lesson. First, they will get to see this concept in action by watching a brief video about the invention of the CRAM (compressible robot with articulated mechanisms) that was developed based on observations of cockroaches. Then they will be presented with a challenge of observing an organism and designing a technology based on it.

Students could brainstorm ideas about the limitations of prototypes. You can engage students in a class discussion of those limitations and expand the discussion to talk about what can be done to accurately determine these factors for final production.

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