Guidelines and Tools for Designing Passive Solar Homes

A wide selection of books, articles, and software that you will find useful in the design of your passive solar home.


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Passive Home Design Guidelines
Passive Solar Energy Book

Bruce Anderson and Malcolm Wells



A great book covering passive solar basics, passive solar design, and building of passive solar heating and cooling projects such as solar rooms, solar windows, solar walls, and solar thermosyphon collectors.

A free download thanks to the authors.

Passive Solar Heating and Cooling Manual

Arizona Solar Center

A good overview of passive solar heating and cooling techniques.  Not very quantitative, but gives a good overview of the techniques used for passive heating and cooling, and how they work.  Good place to start.  Other interesting materials on this site.
Path to Passive -- Nebraska's Passive Solar Primer,
Solar Associates, Ltd.
Chen, Hollingsworth, Pedersen, Maloney, Stangl, Thorp, and Rives

Download the book from the Nebraska Energy Office ...


This is a very easy reading and well written 1982 book on passive solar home design.  It starts out at a very fundamental level, and works its way up to detailed design procedures.

It is aimed at Nebraska, but the material is applicable to cold climate areas over a lot of the US.  It has a wider variety of solar designs than most newer books have.

(Thanks to Ed H. (one of the authors) for suggesting this)

Low Thermal Mass Sunspaces

All the details on Low Thermal Mass Sunspace advantages, performance, design and examples...
Colorado low mass sunspaceLow thermal mass sunspaces are a way to provide very efficient space heating to the home (as efficient as high quality active solar collectors). 

At the same time they provide added living space that is good for a wide variety of activities. 
The sunspaces can also add to the aesthetic appeal and value of the home.

The new section on low thermal mass sunspaces provides design and performance data, heat output and efficiency tests, and several detailed examples of low thermal mass sunspaces that work well.

Solar Site Survey...


If you are going to do a solar project, you need to do a Solar Site Survey to make sure that your site gets enough sun during the right times of year to make the project work.
This free and simple survey only takes an hour and is fun and educational.

Its a must do for any type of solar project!
Home Sweet Solar Home -- A Passive Solar Design Primer

Ken Olson and Joe Schwartz

How to get articles from Home Power ...

Home Power magazine article, issue 90

A very good primer on how to design a passive solar home.  A good place to start.

Checklist To Determine Energy Efficiency of A Home,
Leona Hawks, Utah State University Extension

Checklist (pdf)

A checklist of things to look for or include in an energy efficient home.  Covers everything from passive solar layout to energy efficient appliances. 
Fairy high level but useful.
High level design guidelines for passive solar heating and cooling

High level design guidelines for passive solar heating and cooling.
Green Building Advisor


This is quite a good website if you are planning or building a "green" home.  It has: A useful outline/guide on what it means for a house to be a green design, 50+ 2 page descriptions of green homes that people have sent in,  something like a thousand construction detail drawings for walls, windows, ..., a green product guide covering 1600+ home construction materials, a half dozen separate blogs on green building, and quite a bit of useful reference material.

There is a $15 a month fee, but a 10 day free trial is offered to see if you think its worth it. If I was in the process of designing or building a new home, I would definitely maintain a membership to GBA.
Canadian Solar Home Design Manual from Solar Nova Scotia, 2009, 200 pages




This new 2009 edition is a complete rewrite of the older edition.

Very nice new solar home design guide from Solar Nova Scotia. 

The manual is written in a very down to earth (even humorous at times) style, but gets down to enough detail to be genuinely helpful in doing real designs (unlike many other introductory solar books).
Covers a wide range of topics: site planning, space planning, solar site survey, efficient envelope design, ventilation and air quality, provisions for PV and solar thermal, ... lots more.

Six fairly detailed examples of real solar homes are included. The book is written for Canada, but the material is applicable to most of the US.

The Solar House

Daniel Chiras

Good book on passive home design.  Goes through the same sort of design guidelines as the refs above, but in more detail.  Covers a number of alternative strategies for passive design, and gives a good feel for the pros and cons of living in a passive solar design house.  He stops a bit short of providing a full quantitative passive home design procedure, but the book is much more useful than the general design guidelines in the references above.  Published in 2002.
The Natural House -- A Complete Guide to Healthy, Energy-Efficient, Environmental Homes

Daniel Chiras



Another very good book by Chiras that emphasizes not only energy efficiency, but also sustainable construction and living.  Covers Rammed Earth, Straw Bale, Earthships, Cordwood, Log Homes construction methods.  Also covers using sustainable materials in construction, and sustainable systems for water and waste.   This book has what I would call a mid level of detail -- its not enough to go out a build a home without more work, but its a good deal more than is provided in the common "overview" books.  470 pages.  Published in 2000.
Green From the Ground Up - A Builders Guide
David Johnson and Scott Gibson


A good and up-to-date construction oriented book on building energy efficient and green homes.

Fairly nuts and bolts coverage of what's green and energy efficient in foundations, framing, HVAC, insulation, electrical, plumbing, ...

323 page, $25

The Energy Efficient House

Solar Today Magazine

Richard Crume

Solar Today Magazine article, Sep/Oct 2005.  Richard describes the process they went through in designing an energy efficient home that incorporates solar passive heating and cooling, solar water heating, and many energy conservation features.  It is the best article of its type I have seen -- highly recommended!

Read the full article

Design a Home That Keeps You Cool, Naturally,
William S. Hoffman,
Fine Homebuilding Magazine, Issue 165, Sept 2004


How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...


Very good article from Fine Homebuilding that details how to design a house for hot climates that minimizes the need for mechanical air conditioning.

Techniques such as shielding from sun, using breezes, good material choices, open plan, ... are described.


First UK Zero-Emission Home Unveiled


Another article with good refs at bottom:

Another article:

The UK is going to require that new homes be carbon emissions neutral by 2016.

This is one of the early cuts at such a home.

It will be interesting to see the designs that come out of this requirement.

Passive Solar Homes -- 91 new award-winning, energy-conserving single family home plans,
U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, 1982

The Plans


This is (I think) a really interesting and useful collection of passive solar home plans.
It came out of a competition that HUD sponsored in 1982 for passive solar home designs.  These 91 award winning plans were selected from more than 500 entries by builders, designers, and architects.
This was a very active time in passive solar home design, and the plans show a high level of innovation. 
This is the first 30 -- rest to come as time allows.
The Florida Solar Cracker House




Very interesting description of a north Florida house.  A passive solar home design philosophy that works well in this difficult climate is described.  The house includes solar electric and waste water treatment and reuse systems, which are also detailed.

Build a Solar Home and Let the Sunshine In

Dan Chiras

Mother Earth News

Finding Mother Earth News articles...

Mother Earth News Article, Issue 193

A good set of guidelines for building a successful passive solar house.  Also includes actual examples of the cost of passive features and the yearly savings achieved.

A Water Wall Solar Design Manual (2 MB pdf)
David Bainbridge
Marshall Goldsmith School of Management



Water walls offer cost effective, efficient, and aesthetically pleasing thermal storage for passive solar heating systems.  This design manual covers many types of water walls, and shows how they can be used in solar designs to provide thermal mass.

David is also the author of this fine book on batch water heaters

"A Tiny Home To Call Your Own"

Patricia Foreman and Andy Lee


This is a really fine book on all aspects of "tiny homes".  It covers tiny home plans, lifestyles, Do-It-Yourself, clutter control, tiny home communities, and provides many stories from people who built a tiny home and live in it.

This book makes some very good arguments for the simplicity, cost, livability, and consideration for the planet that small homes bring.

Small, Efficient, and Beautiful

Energy Source Builder Newsletter



Good article from the Energy Source Builder Newsletter with many practical and specific guidelines on building smaller homes that work well and seem spacious.


More on Earthships...



Michael Reynolds Earthship design has: passive solar heating, solar water heating, rain water harvesting, solar electric, grey water recycling, and black water treatment.   It also makes use of rejected and recycled materials.  It not only does all of these things, but it appears to do all of them well. 
"Ship" seems like a good name in that it can operate independently of the world, except that, unlike many actual ships, it does not pollute its surroundings.  
I have to admit I was skeptical of these designs for a long time.  It took a while to get used to some of the unusual approaches, but I think its the real deal and deserves serious attention.  Even if you decide to go a different direction there is much to learn from these designs.
More on Earthships...

New Home Construction Green Building guidelines,
Alameda County Waste Management Authority and Global Green USA


This 48 page guide for green building in Alameda County, CA offers a lot of good advice and ideas for green building.  It should serve as a good checklist to see if you have covered all your bases.

While intended for a specific area, most of the advice is widely applicable -- one exception being the rather low insulation levels they reccomend.
A Guide To Building and Planning Solar Homes  -- Solar Homes for North Carolina II

A Design Competition Planbook June 1999

Energy Division, North Carolina Department of Commerce

38 Page Guide and Plans (3.1 MB pdf)

A 38 page guide to passive solar home design and concept level plans for nine solar homes.  Written for North Carolina, the homes emphasize a careful balance between solar space heating in winter and overheat protection in the summer -- should be applicable to other parts of the SE.
A Builders Guide to Energy Efficient Homes in Georgia





Very good and very detailed guide on building energy efficient homes in the south.  158 pages of great stuff.

Wish other states would follow this lead.

The Passive Solar House

Jame Kachadorian

A book on passive solar home design.   It goes a step beyond the high level design guides to provide some manageable methods to estimate how well your design will perform.  Published in 1997.
I believe there is a new version about to come out that includes some solar design software.  I have not had  chance to look at the new version.
Designing Shading Overhangs with Google SketchUp

Caution:  The free version of SketchUP does not allow you enter your latitude.  For the sun model they assume a latitude of about 40 degrees North.  This means if your latitude is near 40 degrees, the shadows will be accurate.  However, errors in the sun's elevation and azimuth will increase as you go north or south of 40 degrees.  Within the US (latitude 25 to latitude 50), the elevation angles can be off by up to about 12 degrees.  Azimuth angles (particularly for south areas) can be off by as much as 40 degrees.

SketchUp is a free 3D drawing tool from Google.  In addition to being exceptionally easy to use as a general purpose drawing tool, it offers a built in sun.  You can easily draw a wall with a window and overhang, and play the sun over it for various times of day and times of year. 
It could also be used to layout your whole house (with trees and sunspaces), and see how the sun plays over it.
VERY easy to learn.
The Energy Source Builder newsletter

See also the section on Passive Cooling for more passive cooling techniques for homes.


A very good article that provides a simple method to allow you to determine which passive cooling techniques are best for your climate.

This article is based on the  book "Sun, Wind and Light" (see next item).

The method requires some temperature and humidity data for your climate -- these data can be found here:

Sun, Wind and Light -- Architectural Design Strategies, 2nd Edition

G. Z. Brown and Mark DeKay

Details on a large number of specific design strategies for making effective use of the sun and wind, and natural lighting.  It includes quantitative analysis techniques for each strategy.  Intended for architects, but quite readable.  Covers commercial buildings as well as residences.

2001 400 pages

50 Steps to Energy Efficiency in the Home

SouthFace at

Checklist (122K pdf)


A good detailed checklist to use while designing and building and energy efficient home.  Covers both heating and cooling climates.

Some very good ideas, and a good way to make sure important steps in an energy conscious design don't get overlooked.

Other good things on the Southface website.

Design: Solar Heating Of Buildings and Domestic Hot Water

MIL-HNBK 1003/13A (1.6MB pdf)


170 page mil handbook on solar heating -- starts with general descriptions, but goes on to cover solar space heating and water heating in some depth.  Covers both active and passive schemes.  Its a bit dry in the style of MIL-HNDBKs, but it has a lot of good information, and the price is right!
Guides to Selecting New or Replacement Windows If you are selecting windows for a new house, take a look at this section.


Landscaping for Energy Efficiency:
Energy-Saving Landscaping for Your Passive Solar Home, NC Solar Center (pdf)

Designing Tree Wind Breaks:
University of Missouri Extension:

Purdue University Extension:


Information on landscaping for energy efficiency.  "Carefully positioned trees can save up to 25% of household's energy consumption".


Passive Solar Home Design Software
After you have absorbed the guidelines above, and roughed out your new solar home design, you may be able to check its thermal performance with simulation software.


Additional documentation:



This is very easy to use, yet very capable simulation software for estimating the energy/thermal performance of a passive solar or conventional home.  Weather files for over 500 worldwide locations.  While it initially appears almost too simple, by using the "advanced tab" it can handle a wide variety of situations.  It uses a one hour simulation time step, and weather files that cover a full year of typical weather.  It has been carefully validated.  It is limited to 1 zone, and does not handle sunspaces.  It is a free download.
Passive Solar Design Software See the Solar Analysis area of the References section for other software tools that can be used for passive solar home design.
Best Practices Manuals
Solar homes work much, much, much better with an outer shell that is well insulated and does not leak cold air in.   This is probably the most important element of getting a solar home to work well.
NAHB's Model Green Home Building Guidelines
National Association of Home Builders, 2006

Green Home Building Guidelines (4MB pdf)


A 156 page set of guidelines for builders who want to build green homes.  Starts with high level guiding principles, such as site design, energy efficiency, and resource efficiency.  It then provides very concrete advice on how to achieve these principles.  
Overall, its up-to-date, provides both high level guiding principles and detailed how-to, and covers the whole process of house planning, site layout, and building.
Insulation Guides  -- Building a well insulated and Tight Shell for Your Home

The DOE-EERE Insulation Guide Series:

Insulation Overview (pdf 2MB)

Insulating Ceilings/Attics (pdf 0.1MB)

Wall Framing (pdf 0.8MB)
Insulating Walls (pdf 0.8MB)

Insulating Basements (pdf 0.2MB)
Insulating Crawl Spaces (pdf 0.2MB)
Insulating Slabs (pdf 0.2MB)

Window Selection (pdf 0.5 MB)

Air Sealing (pdf 0.2MB)
Weather Barriers (pdf 0.2MB)

This is a good and up-to-date series of guides from DOE-EERE site for building an outer shell on your home that minimizes heat transfer.
I guess my one bit of advice would be to go a bit further than they recommend for your climate, because experience shows that in a while (as fuel prices climb) they will be recommending higher levels.


Other DOE-EERE publications here:

Building America Best Practices Series

Building America -- Department of Energy

V1 - Hot-Humid Climates (pdf)
V2 - Hot-Dry Climates (pdf)
V3 - Cold and Very Cold Climates (pdf)
V4 - Mixed-Humid Climate (pdf)

From Building America:

These up-to-date and  detailed manuals provide "best practices" for each climate.
Covers site layout, layout of windows for passive solar, insulation, infiltration control, furnace and AC, ...
Energy Efficient Mortgages
These mortgages offered through the FHA and others allow you to add energy efficiency features to your house with no extra down payment and lower total ownership expenses.
Energy Efficient Mortgages


These mortgages offered through the FHA and others allow you to add energy efficiency features to your house in a very financially attractive way.
For approved features, 100% of the extra cost is financed, and the increase in the monthly loan payment is more than offset by the decreases in utility bills.
It seems hard to go wrong with this -- no increase in down payment, lower total monthly ownership costs,  added value at resale, and significant greenhouse gas reductions.
And, the savings should just increase over time as fuel prices go up.