Multiple Ways to Let the Sunshine In

I went to the first annual Fort Collins Tour of Solar Homes a couple months ago. There were many interesting features, some of which Carol and I hope to incorporate into an addition. That was the main reason we took the tour. We already live in a passive solar, earth-bermed house. I didn't design or build it, but it's very similar to the designs I did for the house we plan to build on our property near Livermore.

But apparently solar living is not for everyone. The previous owners sold because the wife wanted a back door. With dirt piled to the roof on three sides, that is a problem. I liked our house because it was small and cozy and affordable, a good place to live for a few years while we built our house up north. But then we started a family. Now our two-bedroom home has become tiny and cramped with four people so we're adding a detached garage, a couple bedrooms and a bath in the old garage, and if we can afford it, a family room addition with sun room and attached greenhouse. The reason we took the tour was to get some ideas for the proposed new sun spaces.

On the solar tour were a few comfy greenhouses without window coverings but with enough thermal mass to carry the plants through cold winter nights. We were worried about the costs and construction of adequate shutters or window quilts, but now I'll concentrate on isolating the thermal mass from outside. One of the most interesting ideas was movable cement walls in a bungalow on Mountain Avenue. There were five one-ton panels about three feet wide by four feet high that swiveled on bearings. These concrete vertical shades could turn to collect the most heat from the sun and also open up the room for a view.

In the subdivisions near me, all the homes are custom-built, but they certainly aren't custom-designed. Many have the garages on the south and huge windows facing west for the view. Yet an entire house doesn't need a view, just certain rooms. Many house designs were probably plucked from magazines and situated so the main exposure looks at the mountains. A few weeks spent organizing the rooms for the views, the sun, and the unique qualities of the lot would result in a custom-designed home.

Solar ideas can fit any house. One Victorian-style home on the tour had a glorious two-story sun space. A log home had a cozy sun porch. Granted, not all ideas fit a house or lifestyle. Some people may not want a greenhouse if they don't like maintaining plants. Some people may not want tile or hardwood floors for thermal mass or Trombe walls reflecting on their deck. Carol and I don't like the noise problems of open floor plans found in many solar homes. But solar living can be as easy as orienting living spaces to the south and calculating the correct overhang to prevent summer heating.

The main reason I always hear for solar homes is to conserve energy. That is number two on my list. I like sunshine. I like having a house that doesn't need lights during the daytime but stays fairly cool in summer. Best of all during these ultra short winter days, I like inviting the sun inside. After a blizzard when the low winter sun comes out and reflects off the snow, I often have to put on shorts and sunglasses just to tolerate the bright heat. It's kind of enjoyable to do in the dead of winter.