What is "passive solar" design? It's more than just light.

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.

Five Elements of Passive Solar Design


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.


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.


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.


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.

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