Passive Solar Design

Passive solar design refers to the use of the sun’s energy for the heating and cooling of living spaces by exposure to the sun. When sunlight strikes a building, the building materials can reflect, transmit, or absorb the solar radiation. In addition, the heat produced by the sun causes air movement that can be predictable in designed spaces. These basic responses to solar heat lead to design elements, material choices and placements that can provide heating and cooling effects in a home.

Unlike active solar heating systems, passive systems are simple and do not involve substantial use of mechanical and electrical devices, such as pumps, fans, or electrical controls to move the solar energy.

Passive Solar Design Basics

A complete passive solar design has five elements:

Graphic courtesy of EERE

  • Aperture/Collector: The large glass area through which sunlight enters the building. The aperture(s) should face within 30 degrees of true south and should not be shaded by other buildings or trees from 9a.m. to 3p.m. daily during the heating season.
  • Absorber:The hard, darkened surface of the storage element. The surface, which could be a masonry wall, floor, or water container, sits in the direct path of sunlight. Sunlight hitting the surface is absorbed as heat.
  • Thermal mass: Materials that retain or store the heat produced by sunlight. While the absorber is an exposed surface, the thermal mass is the material below and behind this surface.
  • Distribution: Method by which solar heat circulates from the collection and storage points to different areas of the house. A strictly passive design will use the three natural heat transfer modes- conduction, convection and radiation- exclusively. In some applications, fans, ducts and blowers may be used to distribute the heat through the house.
  • Control: Roof overhangs can be used to shade the aperture area during summer months. Other elements that control under and/or overheating include electronic sensing devices, such as a differential thermostat that signals a fan to turn on; operable vents and dampers that allow or restrict heat flow; low-emissivity blinds; and awnings.

Passive Solar Heating

The goal of passive solar heating systems is to capture the sun’s heat within the building’s elements and to release that heat during periods when the sun is absent, while also maintaining a comfortable room temperature. The two primary elements of passive solar heating are south facing glass and thermal mass to absorb, store, and distribute heat. There are several different approaches to implementing those elements.

Direct Gain

The actual living space is a solar collector, heat absorber and distribution system. South facing glass admits solar energy into the house where it strikes masonry floors and walls, which absorb and store the solar heat, which is radiated back out into the room at night. These thermal mass materials are typically dark in color in order to absorb as much heat as possible. The thermal mass also tempers the intensity of the heat during the day by absorbing energy. Water containers inside the living space can be used to store heat. However, unlike masonry water requires carefully designed structural support, and thus it is more difficult to integrate into the design of the house. The direct gain system utilizes 60-75% of the sun’s energy striking the windows. For a direct gain system to work well, thermal mass must be insulated from the outside temperature to prevent collected solar heat from dissipating. Heat loss is especially likely when the thermal mass is in direct contact with the ground or with outside air that is at a lower temperature than the desired temperature of the mass.

Indirect Gain
Thermal mass is located between the sun and the living space. The thermal mass absorbs the sunlight that strikes it and transfers it to the living space by conduction. The indirect gain system will utilize 30-45% of the sun’s energy striking the glass adjoining the thermal mass.

Trombe Wall at Zion Visitor Center at Zion National Park in Utah. The trombe wall is the lower two panes of the lowest level of glass. Image courtesy of NREL

The most common indirect gain systems is a Trombe wall. The thermal mass, a 6-18 inch thick masonry wall, is located immediately behind south facing glass of single or double layer, which is mounted about 1 inch or less in front of the wall’s surface. Solar heat is absorbed by the wall’s dark-colored outside surface and stored in the wall’s mass, where it radiates into the living space. Solar heat migrates through the wall, reaching its rear surface in the late afternoon or early evening. When the indoor temperature falls below that of the wall’s surface, heat is radiated into the room.

Operable vents at the top and bottom of a thermal storage wall permit heat to convect between the wall and the glass into the living space. When the vents are closed at night, radiant heat from the wall heats the living space.

Passive Solar Cooling

Passive solar cooling systems work by reducing unwanted heat gain during the day, producing non-mechanical ventilation, exchanging warm interior air for cooler exterior air when possible, and storing the coolness of the night to moderate warm daytime temperatures. At their simpliest, passive solar cooling systems include overhangs or shades on south facing windows, shade trees, thermal mass and cross ventilation.


Overhang design for shading. Diagram courtesy of the Arizona Solar Center. The steeper arrow shows the angle of the sun's rays during the summer, while the shallower arrow indicates the angle during the winter.

To reduce unwanted heat gain in the summer, all windows should be shaded by an overhang or other devices such as awnings, shutters and trellises. If an awning on a south facing window protrudes to half of a window’s height, the sun’s rays will be blocked during the summer, yet will still penetrate into the house during the winter.  The sun is low on the horizon during sunrise and sunset, so overhangs on east and west facing windows are not as effective. Try to minimize the number of east and west facing windows if cooling is a major concern. Vegetation can be used to shade such windows. Landscaping in general can be used to reduce unwanted heat gain during the summer.

Thermal Mass
Thermal mass is used in a passive cooling design to absorbs heat and moderate internal temperature increases on hot days. During the night, thermal mass can be cooled using ventilation, allowing it to be ready the next day to absorb heat again. It is possible to use the same thermal mass for cooling during the hot season and heating during the cold season.

Natural ventilation maintains an indoor temperature that is close to the outdoor temperature, so it’s only an effective cooling technique when the indoor temperature is equal to or higher than the outdoor one. The climate determines the best natural ventilation strategy.

In areas where there are daytime breezes and a desire for ventilation during the day, open windows on the side of the building facing the breeze and the opposite one to create cross ventilation. When designing, place windows in the walls facing the prevailing breeze and opposite walls. Wing walls can also be used to create ventilation through windows in walls perpendicular to prevailing breezes. A solid vertical panel is placed perpendicular to the wall, between two windows. It accelarates natural wind speed due to pressure differences created by the wing wall.

In a climate like New England where night time temperatures are generally lower than daytime ones, focus on bringing in cool nighttime air and then closing the house to hot outside air during the day. Mechanical ventilation is one way of bringing in cool air at night, but convective cooling is another option.

Convective Cooling
The oldest and simplest form of convective cooling is designed to bring in cool night air from the outside and push out hot interior air. If there are prevailing nightime breezes, then high vent or open on the leeward side (the side away from the wind) will let the hot air near the ceiling escape. Low vents on the opposite side (the side towards the wind) will let cool night air sweep in to replace the hot air.

At sites where there aren’t prevailing breezes, it’s still possible to use convective cooling by creating thermal chimneys. Thermal chimneys are designed around the fact that warm air rises; they create a warm or hot zone of air (often through solar gain) and have a high exterior exhaust outlet. The hot air exits the building at the high vent, and cooler air is drawn in through a low vent.

There are many different approaches to creating the thermal chimney effect. One is an attached south facing sunroom that is vented at the top. Air is drawn from the living space through connecting lower vents to be exhausted through the sunroom upper vents (the upper vents from the sunroom to the living space and any operable windows must be closed and the thermal mass wall of the sunroom must be shaded).