Renewable Energy Design Elements

It is possible to design and build structures which look virtually normal from every angle, producing a highly energy efficient solution while conserving natural resources.


What features and characteristics would such a building need to be ultra-efficient from an energy point of view? Energy efficient design using solar energy does not rely primarily on strange devices attached to structures as appendages, as was characteristic in the 1970's. Energy efficient solutions involve careful use of the following key elements.

               |            Generation           |
               |            Conservation         |
               |            Fenestration         |
               |             Ventilation         |
               |            Aggregation          |
               |             Insulation          |
               |            Orientation          |

        Figure 1. Key ingredients of solar building design


Energy efficiency in buildings is of critical importance -- buildings normally last a century or more. Energy usage in buildings constitutes a significant percentage of the total energy usage in the industrialized world. (Heating and cooling losses in the USA through windows alone represent more energy than is being brought in by the Alaskan pipeline.) Buildings which ignore energy factors are bound to become white elephants sooner or later. Here are a couple of simple solutions to serve as examples:


Design each building facade uniquely and carefully, considering its relation to the sun, the wind, adjacent vegetation, and other external factors. It is especially critical to provide adequate solar access to the southern face of the building. This means north-south spacing between structures at about 30 feet per floor. (For example, two story houses should be approximately 60 feet apart, north to south. With these considerations, the structure has high comfort, and incredibly low utility bills for heating and cooling as well.


The objective of "thermal mass" is to maintain heat in high mass elements inside the structure. Ideally, much of this mass will receive direct sunlight during part of the day, and so it cannot be covered with carpet. For example, one can use a tile floor on the south side of the house, or a vertical wall directly receiving light from a clerestory window.


Energy-efficient lights and refrigerators can substantially reduce energy costs.

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updated 1998 May 26