We are building a 100% Solar Home that will be Comfortable and Enduring. It will use no fossil fuels for heating, hot water, cooking, etc. – none, not a drop. It will be a simple house, where the most complicated components are circulator pumps and a grid-tied inverter. Yet, it will have all the modern conveniences we have come to appreciate. We are using common materials and no special tools or techniques, just uncommon thinking and practices.
There are several constraints I have put on this project that make building this home more challenging than “simply” building a Net Zero Energy Home. First and foremost, I don’t want to be dependent on the grid. This is a huge assumption when it comes to heating. Much easier is to use a large PV system to bank electricity in the summer and then pull it out in the winter, using a geothermal (or now even an air source heat pump) to heat your home. But if the grid becomes unavailable or unreliable, or more likely I choose not to stay connected for political or personal reasons, then this approach fails.
My second self-imposed constraint is that I want to use ½ cord or less firewood a year. Again, it is rather easy to be 100% solar in a fairly well insulated home that burns 3 or more cords a year! I have nothing against burning more wood, if you live in a rural setting. But, if there are dozens of other families nearby burning wood too, it is not good for your or your neighbor’s health, nor is it sustainable in suburban or urban settings. New England’s forests were pretty much denuded using this approach in the 1800s, as are many lands today. Also, I’m getting old and cutting, splitting and stacking ½ cord of wood that can usually be found for free is great hobby exercise, while doing 3 or 4 or 5 cords is a lot of work! If you want to use wood burning as a larger strategy, burn pellets – they burn much cleaner and are more sustainable.
The third constraint was imposed by my wife – our new house needs to be comfortable! We are getting older and as your blood thins and metabolism slows comfort is more important. Perhaps the most interesting thing I learned during my five years as a home energy advisor was that the most common reason older people (65+) called for help was to make their homes more comfortable. We are approaching these golden years and need to prepare!
For many years I have often heard, "you cannot use just the sun to heat your house in our upstate, NY climate." I have long believed you could even with my given constraints, but it wasn’t until I became proficient in Energy Modeling and Advanced Building Science that I was able to quantify how this might be done. Now Simon Burke-Lipiczky and I are building this house to: confirm or deny my hypothesis; adjust for real world conditions; and learn from the experience. When finished, I will also share the energy usage and comfort results.
I am not focused on just home heating, but will also use as little electricity as possible for heating water, growing & storing food, cooking, cooling, washing & drying clothes, lighting, computer and TV. Anything we can do to save electricity will allow us to travel farther in the electric vehicle we hope to have someday, lessening the total fossil fuels we burn!
In building this house we used a very specific design philosophy that focused on our goals and implemented this design with many solar concepts and passive haus techniques, including:
The two marked with an * are somewhat original, while the rest are a collection of concepts and techniques I have gathered over the years and applied in a way I think best for our home in our climate.
As I said, we are “building” this home, the shell is complete, and many of the above are started, as they are fundamental and central to the house. We have recently completed the wiring, plumbing and wiring. We are in the process of installing drywall. With a little bit of luck we will have a conditional CO and be living in the new house by December 1st.
Over the next months, I will share some of the details on how we built our house and the results we get.