Solar Home Construction Techniques

There are many ways to build a successful passive solar home (and even more ways not to build one).  These designs and construction techniques vary from the very usual stick construction to straw bales, rammed earth, bermed and buried, cordwood and more.  Each of these techniques can lead to a good passive solar house, but getting there requires careful design. 


Directory for this page:

Be sure to also take a look at Solar Home Design Guides and "I Did It" solar home websites by owners.


Report Broken Links ...

Passive Solar Homes Construction Guides
From the Ground Up -- A primer for Natural House Building
Rachel Ware and Laurie Stone

How to get articles from Home Power ...

Home Power magazine article, issue 99

A good overview of house construction techniques with low energy content (strawbale, rammed earth, and others).  Some how-to information.

Green From the Ground Up - A Builders Guide
David Johnson and Scott Gibson


A good and up-to-date construction oriented book on building energy efficient and green homes.

Fairly nuts and bolts coverage of what's green and energy efficient in foundations, framing, HVAC, insulation, electrical, plumbing, ...

323 page, $25

Fine Homebuilding Archive

How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...


Fine Homebuilding has carried good articles on building energy efficient and solar homes since 1981.

They now offer all of the articles from 1981 through 2009 on a single DVD.  Quite a good resource if you are building or remodeling.  The DVD is very well done.

The Passive Solar Construction Handbook

Steven Winter Associates, Inc

A book covering many construction details used in passive solar home designs.  Hundreds of drawings showing construction details for passive solar construction.  The older edition of this book is usually available at used books at a not quite so staggering price.
Best Practices Manuals
Solar homes work much, much, much better with an outer shell that is well insulated and does not leak cold air in.   This is probably the most important element of getting a solar home to work well.
Building America Best Practices Series

Building America -- Department of Energy

V1 - Hot-Humid Climates (pdf)
V2 - Hot-Dry Climates (pdf)
V3 - Cold and Very Cold Climates (pdf)
V4 - Mixed-Humid Climate (pdf)

From Building America:

These up-to-date and  detailed manuals provide "best practices" for each climate.
Covers site layout, layout of windows for passive solar, insulation, infiltration control, furnace and AC, ...
Insulation Guides  -- Building a well insulated and Tight Shell for Your Home

The DOE-EERE Insulation Guide Series:

Insulation Overview (pdf 2MB)

Insulating Ceilings/Attics (pdf 0.1MB)

Wall Framing (pdf 0.8MB)
Insulating Walls (pdf 0.8MB)

Insulating Basements (pdf 0.2MB)
Insulating Crawl Spaces (pdf 0.2MB)
Insulating Slabs (pdf 0.2MB)

Window Selection (pdf 0.5 MB)

Air Sealing (pdf 0.2MB)
Weather Barriers (pdf 0.2MB)

This is a good and up-to-date series of guides from DOE-EERE site for building an outer shell on your home that minimizes heat transfer.
I guess my one bit of advice would be to go a bit further than they recommend for your climate, because experience shows that in a while (as fuel prices climb) they will be recommending higher levels.


Other DOE-EERE publications here:

Durability by Design,
Department of Housing and Urban Development,
May, 2002



Making homes last a long time with little maintenance minimizes the large expenditure of resources, energy, and carbon that go into building a home.

This 87 page book provides a lot of construction details for maximizing life and minimizing maintenance.

Advanced Air Sealing,


This is quite a detailed and helpful guide on how to seal various joints and penetrations.

Some of these techniques can only be used during construction, so its really important to watch all the sealing details during construction.


Super Insulation
Super insulated lower energy use for heating and cooling by using: 1) air tight construction, 2) high levels of insulation, and 3) limited window area with efficient windows.  Heat recovery ventilation systems (HRVs) are often used to ensure good ventilation with little heat lost.  These techniques can be combined with with solar passive gain through south facing windows to further reduce heating bills.  The next few sections on this page describe different construction techniques that can be used to implement a Superinsulated home.
Massachusetts Zero Energy Challenge Winning Home

All the details...

NEW -- ''as built" plans for this home...

This is a very impressive less than net zero energy home in MA.  It actually generates significantly more energy than it uses.
It uses a combination of a very good thermal envelope, solar passive and active heating, solar water heating, and a PV powered heat pump to achieve this performance.
All the details...
Riverdale NetZero Project

One of Canada's First 12 NetZero Energy Homes

Detailed presentation including description of design and construction detail (10 MB)


Very impressive net zero home in Edmonton, Alberta.  A raft of energy efficient and renewable energy features integrated into a well thought out overall design.

Doubly impressive when you consider how challenging the Edmonton climate is.


An account of 5 large, super-insulated homes built in the mid 80's.   Energy use is reported for each house.

Some of the choices on construction and heating system might be made differently today, it certainly shows the energy saving and cost saving benefits of super-insulation.

The Superinsulated Home Book,
J. D. Nisson and Gautam Dutt



This very good 1985 book provides a great deal of actual construction detail for Superinsulated homes.  
Detailed construction techniques covering several types of double wall construction, Larsen Trusses, ventilation, air tightness, and exhaustive treatment of vapor barriers.
While some of the information is a bit out of date, and  some newer techniques (e.g. SIPS)  are not covered, the book still stands out for the level of construction detail it provides on the techniques it does cover.   310 pages 8.5 by 11 format.
Out of print, but available at places like or used books.
Gregory Lehman: Houses


A very nice super insulated home in Indiana.  Incorporates R70 cathedral ceilings, R31 walls using cellulose + rigid foam.
The south face has two of our thermosyphon collectors integrated into the wall with full insulation behind the collectors.
A great illustration of how a combination of reasonable size, cost effective super insulation and solar heating can make for a very low energy use home at a very reasonable price.
The Kosmer Solar House Project

Additional pictures:


This home has low heating costs in spite of its very large size due to a design that provides very high insulation levels, solar passive gain through high quality windows, and a high efficiency heating plant.  The house is insulted with with 4 inches of polyurethane insulation board that is outside the sheathing.
The house uses a well insulated 1 ft thick slab for heat storage with air circulated to even temperatures.  The attic is within the thermal envelope to provide additional living or storage space.  Quite a few interesting ideas, and a long track record.
Design and Construction of Low Energy Houses in Saskatchewan,
Building Practice Note, Division of Building Research, National Research Council of Canada, 1982

Design and Construction ... (pdf)

In the 80's Saskatchewan was a leader in the development of super insulated homes. 

This 8 page pdf gives some of the design details on these homes and some cross section diagrams of the construction.


If anyone knows of more information on these Saskatchewan homes, please let me know ...

New Hampshire Super Insulated Home ...


Fairly detailed description of a very efficient, super insulated home in New Hampshire.

The home uses a combination of high insulation levels, exceptional sealing, passive and active solar,  and very efficient appliances to very very low energy use.

Neopor Insulation


BASF Neopor pages:

Prefab Wall Panels:



Neopor is a variation on EPS (Expanded Polystyrene) Insulation (EPS is the foam coffee cup material).  It was developed by BASF, and has graphite added to improve its performance.
It has an R value of 5 US per inch, which is 20% more than standard EPS, and about equal to  Extruded Polystyrene Foam (XPS) (the pink and blue stuff).
Applications include use as an external insulation on walls, Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs), and the very interesting prefabricated wall panel shown in the picture that uses thermally broken steel studs to make a SIP like prefabricated wall panel, but without the OSB face sheets.
It looks like it may be OK for applications where it is exposed to the weather? 
Energy Efficient Stick Frame Construction
Methods to improve the energy efficiency of ordinary stick construction without greatly increasing the cost.

Innovative, energy efficient, cost effective Montana solar home

Many framing innovations including an inside-out Mooney Wall, continuous headers, monolithic ICF and footings crawl, integrated Low Thermal Mass Sunspace, ...

Andrew did an amazing job of combining a Low Thermal Mass Sunspace, an inside-out Mooney Wall, plus many material and labor saving construction ideas into a house that is energy efficient, solar heated, and cost effective.

A treasure trove of applied innovative ideas.

All the details...

Gimme Shelter Construction Technique,
Amherst, Wi
Mark Klein and Jim McKnight,

Energy Efficient Home Construction Workshop


NEW: Quite a bit more detail here:
(see "Construction Specifications", and picture sequences under each subheading)



Gimme Shelter Construction has developed some carefully thought out variations on conventional stick frame construction that give a very energy efficient cold climate home with minimal added cost.

Based on a MREA workshop given at the 2006 MREA Energy Fair.
The CLAM Passive House
The CLAM house is an affordable  house built to Passive Institute standards at a cost that qualifies it as affordable housing.
Many innovative techniques were used to provide high insulation levels and very good air sealing without incurring high costs.
The video at the link provides quite a lot of detail on how the house was constructed -- it is well worth watching -- many good details. 
The 4 solar thermal collectors on the roof are designed to satisfy nearly all of the homes space and water heating needs.
Mooney Wall 



A simple, high R value, low thermal bridging, and high infiltration resistance wall.

Suitable for new construction or retrofit.

Mooney wall details ...

Another example of using the Mooney wall ...

Save Energy With Rigid-Foam Insulation,
Rick Arnold,
Fine Homebuilding Magazine, Issue 181, Sept 2006

How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...



Very good Fine Homebuilding article describing how to use rigid foam insulation board over sheathing to get a high R value wall with little thermal bridging.  This seems like a good, simple, and cost effective way to get a high R value wall.

Lots of construction detail.

It seems like this might also make a good retrofit if siding is being replaced anyway.

Double Wall Construction
wo stud walls separated by a break allows for much insulation and no thermal bridging -- R values of 40 or more are possible.
The Superinsulated Home Book,
J. D. Nisson and Gautam Dutt



This very good 1985 book provides a great deal of actual construction detail for Superinsulated homes.  
Detailed construction techniques covering several types of double wall construction, Larsen Trusses, ventilation, air tightness, and exhaustive treatment of vapor barriers.
While some of the information is a bit out of date, and  some newer techniques (e.g. SIPS)  are not covered, the book still stands out for the level of construction detail it provides on the techniques it does cover.   310 pages 8.5 by 11 format.
Out of print, but available at places like or used books.
Energy Saving Details,
Kip park,
Fine Homebuilding Magazine, Issue 92, Jan 1995

How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...


Fine Homebuilding Magazine article on a demonstration home built in Manitoba Canada.

Lots of interesting energy efficiency construction details.  Double R46 walls with excellent air sealing, R11 windows, grey water heat recovery, and a unique HRV system.
SIPs -- Structural Insulated Panels
Panel House Demonstrates Building Innovations



Energy Source Builder Newsletter, issue 35, 1994.
Article on building with SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels) to make a well insulated and VERY tight home.  With some actual measurements of heat loss and air infilatration.
Side-bySide Study Proves SIP Advantages,
Dr. Tony Shaw, Brook University


Study of two side-by-side homes, one with SIP walls, and one with fiberglass batt insulated walls. 
Thermal imaging, in wall sensors, and infiltration tests were used to compare insulation effectiveness.

It would have been nice to see the comparison to cellulose insulated walls, which I think would have done better, but maybe not as well as SIPs?



A good SIP site.  Much reference material and many articles on SIPs.  
Innovative Insulated Panels
Steve Maxwell,
Mother Earth News, Oct/Nov 2005

Finding Mother Earth News articles...


Good MEN article on using using SIPs.
Includes some construction techniques and performance compared to conventional walls.
SIPs: Are They Right for Your Next Project?,
John Ross, Fine Homebuilding Magazine,
Issue 188, July 2007

How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...


Good article in Fine Homebuilding Magazine on building with SIPs. 

A good overview of the pros and cons of SIPs, as well as a good bit of construction detail.

Builder Al Rossetto's Super Efficient Vermont Home


This is a modest sized and very energy efficient home in Vermont built by Al Rossetto.   The envelope uses SIPs for wall and roof, ICF foundation, and triple glazed windows.
Solar heat is stored in a sand bed heat storage unit under the slab.  The house gets a 95.3 out of 100 HERS score.
Click on the pictures for a bit more detail -- I've asked Al if he can provide more design/construction detail on the house.
SIPs in Modular Homes

Home Energy Article

EERE article (pdf)



Modular home constructed using SIPs (Structural Insulated Panels), and including other energy efficient features uses about half the energy of a conventional modular home.  The higher insulation levels and much lower air infiltration reduces measured energy consumption by half on this test home.


ORNL test of Agriboard R value:



Agriboard is a SIP that uses compressed straw for the core instead of the usual foam insulation board.
Compared to conventional SIPs, it appears to have greater strength, higher fire resistance, and more thermal mass, but less R value for a given thickness.   The panels can be either 4 or 8 inches thick. 
The use of straw for the core and engineered lumber should reduce CO2 emissions compared to conventional construction.
Enercept, Inc  -- Superinsulated Building Systems

Some useful SIP installation and tech material: .. Technical Data

One of a large number of SIP suppliers.
Some very useful material at the Technical Data link, including a 93 page construction manual for SIPs.
Larsen Truss
A Cost Effective Larsen Truss Design

Detials ...



Robert Riversong details his modified Larsen Truss design.  With this modified design, Robert is able to build Superinsulated homes with R40 walls and R60 ceilings at a price per sqft that is only about 5% over conventional construction.

The design also makes more use of local, sustainable materials.

Details ...

A Deep Energy Retrofit

Full Details...


The details include a 30 page description of he design and construction process, a photo gallery, and a detailed thermal analysis spreadsheet.

This is the most carefully thought out energy retrofit I have seen.  Gordon and Sue took a drafty 1963 brick schoolhouse with almost no insulation and converted into a home with a heating bill that is 6% of a similar size code built home in their area.   

Features include: R40 Larsen Truss walls, triple glazed R6 super windows, glazing revamped for passive solar heating, a new solarium, a hand crafted masonry heater, and much more.  In addition to a very good thermal envelope. Like most good designs, this one is simple and robust without a lot of gadgetry.

Energy Efficient Timber Frame Home Using Larsen Trusses



A Timber Frame home with 12 inch cellulose insulated Larsen trusses.  The owner/designer feels the Larsen trusses provide the same insulation as 10 inch SIPS at less cost and are a more sustainable approach.
Bill's Larsen Truss Retrofit

All the details ...


This is a very nicely done retrofit of a Larsen Truss to the 2nd floor of this two story house.

The truss adds an amazing R60 to the wall.

Straw Bale Construction
Building One House: A Handbook for Strawbale Construction, Nathaniel Corum

Red Feather Development Group, 2004



A very good book on building a straw bale home.  Very hands on.  Detailed step-by-step instructions for every part of the construction process.  Written based on the experience of the Red Feather Development Group in building many straw bales homes.  It includes those time saving short cuts you learn only after doing a job the hard way a few times.
Did I mention that I really like this book?
Table of Contents and a couple pictures ...
You can order the book at the Red Feather website
Build It With Bales -- A Step-by-Step Guide to Straw-Bale Construction - Version Two,
Matts Myhrman and S. O. MacDonald




A very good hands-on book on strawbale home construction. 
The first half of book covers all the aspects of planning and getting ready to build.  A "build it as you go approach is" covered that allows building and paying for a small home as you go, and providing for later expansion.  A very good book for owner-builders on a modest budget. 
The 2nd half of the book covers various strawbale construction techniques in good detail. 
A very good all-around book. has some sample pages and some good reader reviews.

A Unique Straw Bale Arch Home Design -- Good for Owner Builds...


arch straw bale home designA unique strawbale home design by Brian Waite. Very well suited to owner builds.

It uses prebuilt arches that are spaced one strawbale apart so that the bales can be stacked from floor to bale stacking in arched strawbale homepeak in one continuous stack.

The design has a number of unique features that make it energy efficient, sustainable, good for owner builds, and a good solar design.

Information Guide to Straw Bale Building
(a 1MB pdf)

From Amazon Nails website:
which has a wealth of information on straw bale construction.

This a very good free guide to straw bale construction from the UK.  It covers just about every aspect of straw bale building and provides a great deal of construction detail.  There even some sketch plans for straw bale homes.  Highly recommended.

This website has lots of additional information on straw bale construction -- projects, links, publications.

Book:  The Beauty of Straw Bale Homes,
Athena and Bill Steen, 2001, 116 pages



The book describes a number of example strawbale homes that really show the how beautiful and creative this type of construction can be.  This is not a "how-to" book, but a book that shows the wide variety of styles you can build in strawbale.  Many of the homes are small and affordable, including ones that could be built on a pay-as-you-go basis.
A House of Straw,
Carolyn Roberts

Construction photo gallery (good):



Very interesting website and book provides a detailed account of how Carolyn built this very nice strawbale house.  Lots of good material on this website.

The photo gallery provides a lot of construction detail.  Total cost of the 1200 sqft house was about $50,000 with a mix of owner and hired out labor.
The book is very interesting, and really conveys the ups and downs of building your own house while trying to work and raise a family at the same time.

Want to see a strawbale home near you??

The Strawbale Building Registry



About 1200 strawbale homes and businesses around the world that you can arrange to see.
A description and contact information is provided for each structure.  The list appears to be well maintained.
The Last Straw


A well thought of quarterly journal on Strawbale construction dating back to 1993. 
Back issues and CD available.
Building With Awareness


This site is all about building the 800 sqft strawbale home pictured to the left.  Some information on planning, construction of the home.  Also, a good cost breakdown and a Q&A section.  The home includes passive solar heating, rainwater catchment, solar electricity, and a lot of effort to use materials and techniques that reduce impact.
It would be nice if the site provided more detail on some of the subjects, but a DVD and guide book are available from the site that are said to provide a lot of detail.

Review of DVD's ... is dedicated to anyone interested in building their own straw bale home. If you are brand new to straw bale or a straw bale construction specialist there's something for you there.  Lots of detailed information including a photo gallery, step-by-step instructional DVDs, information about straw bale workshops around the world, articles and tutorials, a straw bale social network, a full searcheable blog, and a the free 7 day straw bale e-course. 

I had a chance to review the set of 3 DVDs they offer on straw bale construction -- my thoughts here...

Cedar Ridge Farm
strawbale homeA nice blog on an owner built strawbale home in Kentucky.    The home is timberframe construction with stawbale infill.strawbale home

Lots of construction details is included.

The Bathhouse,
Joe Schwartz and Ben Root,
Home Power Magazine

How to get articles from Home Power ...

Home Power Magazine, issue 63, 64
This is a really nice pair of articles on designing and building a strawbale  bathhouse facility (including Turd Tower.)  Lots of good planning, design, and construction detail.

The Beauty of BALES,
Bill and Athena Steen

Mother Earth News,
Finding Mother Earth News articles...


Mother Earth News Article, Issue 185.
Article on building strawbale homes.  Covers many of the issues on strawbale home design and construction.  Examples of several strawbale houses.

Building With Straw Bales

Athena Bill Stenn


Finding Mother Earth News articles...

A good, detailed 1996 article on building with strawbales.   Covers most of the pros and cons and construction issues. 



Meeting Design Goals with Strawbales
Laura Struempler

How to get articles from Home Power ...

Home Power magazine, issue 100

Overview of construction of strawbale house with some design information.

Earth Garden Strawbale Information Pages


A collection of interesting articles on Strawbale construction in Australia.

Some innovative concepts (like the tire foundation in this picture, fire testing, ...


An Unusual Strawbale Construction Technique from GeoPathfinder...




This super insulated, solar and wood heated home uses an unusual Strawbale wall construction.
Quite a bit of how-to detail.
Huff 'n' Puff Strawbale Workshop Site



Huff 'n' Puff runs workshops on Strawbale construction.  There website has lots of good, practical construction detail on Strawbale construction, including some design ideas I've not seen elsewhere.
Harvest Build



An interesting, informative, and humorous site on natural building techniques.
Stucco Sprayer Plans

Some how-to info and videos from a sprayer maker:

Stucco how-to blog:

A stucco (mud) sprayer is said to make spraying the stucco for strawbale or the bonding for dry stack blocks much faster and less tiring.
Here are some plans to make one that look pretty simple.
Moisture in Strawbale Walls


Some moisture measurements within completed Strawbale walls.
Engineered lumber "I" studs
The Steijger Solar House

Home page for the house:



Details on wall system used in this house:
User and Technical manuals for the engineered "I" beam studs and sole plates.


A very interesting solar home in the UK. 
Features include super insulation, passive solar design with an attached sunspace, heat recovery ventilation, efficient wood heating, 1300 gallon rain water tank, and a 1KW solar electric system.  All packaged in a  very open and appealing floor plan.
The walls are nearly 10 inches thick and use engineered "I" beams with thin webs for studs -- this provides very high R values and low thermal bridging compared to conventional studs.  Blown in cellulose is used for insulation.
The total energy use is about 4000 KWH per year -- about 1/4 of this is supplied by the current PV rig, with more planned.
Many pictures are provided.  The house is located in Sheffield/Nottingham/Derby triangle.
e-co lab -- ecological construction laboratory
Urbana, IL

Home Projects:

More information on Passivhaus Institute:

e-co lab takes on energy efficient home projects in the Urbana, IL area.
These homes are built to the German Passivhaus Design Standard, and use as little as one tenth of the energy of standard homes.
Some of the project examples they show use engineered wood "I" beams for wall studs (as in the example above).  These beams provide sufficient depth for high R value walls (R56) and also greatly reduce thermal bridging compared solid wood studs.
This seems like a very promising construction technique.
Dry Stack Concrete Block
The Van Geet Off-Grid Home: An Integrated Approach to Energy Savings

Van Geet Home (1.8 MB pdf)

This home uses dry stack concrete block walls with 5 inches of rigid foam insulation and stucco on the outside of the dry stack walls. 
This construction method: 1) provides high thermal mass inside the insulation (for good solar performance), 2) high insulation levels with no thermal bridging,  3) low air infiltration, and 4) an attractive appearance.
Dry stack walls are reported to be strong, fast to assemble, and good for owner built homes.
More information on dry stack walls below.

A detailed (70 page) description of a passive solar energy home design west of Denver at 9300ft elevation.  This is a Building America research home, and much effort was put into making the design efficient without making it too expensive.  An about 70% energy saving over conventional construction was achieved without any heroic measures.  MUCH detail is given on the design process, and some simple metrics are presented that could be used by anyone designing a solar home.
Earth-Sheltered Houses, Rob Roy




This is  a very good new book on constructing earth-sheltered homes using dry stack block. 
I attended a workshop by the author at the MREA and was  impressed by his knowledge on design and building earth-sheltered homes, and by his interest in owner built homes -- he knows his stuff.
Dry Stack Wall Procedure from Quikrete

Quikwall Procedure


A procedure for building a dry stack wall from the Quikrete website.


(note: the Quickrete site has many "how-to" pdfs for using their product)

Construction With Surface Bonding
U.S. Department of Agriculture,
Agriculture Information Bulletin No. 374

Construction With Surface Bonding (1MB pdf)


A detailed 1975 manual on constructing dry stack walls with surface bonding coating.
The Natural Home Building Source



Some useful material on dry stack concrete block wall construction here.

I don't care for the way they run down other forms of energy efficient construction on this site, and some of the statements along that line are simply not true.  While I think their basic design is probably sound, I would use the information on this site with caution.
Dry Stacked Construction Handbook,
Lynn Graves


A promising looking book on Dry Stack Concrete construction.

It appears to still be a few days away from being available.

Many photos of dry stack construction on this page:
Photos ...

Stucco Sprayer Plans

How-To from seller of stucco sprayers:


A stucco (mud) sprayer is said to make spraying the stucco for strawbale or the bonding for dry stack blocks much faster and less tiring.
Here are some plans to make one that look pretty simple.
Exterior Insulation and Finish System (EFIS)

Robert Thomas EFIS site -- provides several helpful downloads on EFIS (the FAQ is very good), industry information, and EFIS suppliers.

EFIS suppliers -- Each of these sites provide quite a bit of design and installation detail


Master Wall





EFIS provides a way to insulate on the outside of dry stack concrete (or other) structures.  This places the insulation outside the thermal mass, where it can be effective in smoothing out temperature variations, and in absorbing solar gain through windows (see entries above).

The links in the left panel provide information on the various EFIS systems, and details on how they are installed.  EFIS offers a wide variety of outside finishes for different looks.

EFIS systems could also be used to retrofit insulation to existing structures.

There have been moisture and mold problems with some EFIS installations, so be sure that you select a EFIS contractor with a proven track record in your area.
Earth Sheltered --  Made With Earth -- Earthbag -- Rammed Earth ...
Malcolm Wells


Malcolm Wells is known as the father of underground architecture.
The home page says:
"This site is dedicated to the promotion and discussion of:
* underground buildings,
* earth-sheltered architecture,
* eco-friendly design, and
* energy-efficient houses

... particularly the ideas of pioneer architect Malcolm Wells."


More on Earthships...



Michael Reynolds Earthship design has: passive solar heating, solar water heating, rain water harvesting, solar electric, grey water recycling, and black water treatment.   It also makes use of rejected and recycled materials.  It not only does all of these things, but it appears to do all of them well. 
"Ship" seems like a good name in that it can operate independently of the world, except that, unlike many actual ships, it does not pollute its surroundings.  
I have to admit I was skeptical of these designs for a long time.  It took a while to get used to some of the unusual approaches, but I think its the real deal and deserves serious attention.  Even if you decide to go a different direction there is much to learn from these designs.
More on Earthships...

Earth-Sheltered Houses, Rob Roy




This is  a very good new book on constructing earth-sheltered homes using dry stack block. 
I attended a workshop by the author at the MREA and was  impressed by his knowledge on design and building earth-sheltered homes, and by his interest in owner built homes -- he knows his stuff.
Cristian's Earth Sheltered Passive Solar Home in Romania


20 pages of pictures, plans, and design & construction details...

A very detailed description covering the design, building, and performance of this earth sheltered, passive solar home in Romania.
Cristian's home also includes an extensive earth tube system, rain harvesting, solar hot water, carefully designed wood heating, and provisions for a future PV system. 
Its a fine design and a great story as well.
Slipfrom Construction ...


More on Doug's house ...

Doug Kalmer has been living in his passive solar, earth sheltered home since the mide 80's.
The house uses slipform construction.  This method is well suited to owner-builders, and results in a wall that is strong, beautiful, and energy efficient.

See all of Doug's solar projects ...

Rammed Earth Homebuilding

David Easton

Finding Mother Earth News articles...



Mother Earth News, Issue 155, April/May 1996

An extensive article on rammed earth house construction – quite a bit of detail.

Adapted from the book: The Rammed Earth House, David Easton, 1996

Building With Earth

Dan Chiras

Finding Mother Earth News articles...


Mother Earth News Article, Issue 191

An overview of adobe, cob, rammed earth, and earth bag home construction.  A start at understanding these techniques for home built from earth materials.

Sirewall  -- An insulated rammed earth wall

TerraFirma... (nice examples and good FAQ)

A few construction pictures...

This is a method of rammed earth construction that uses an insulation layer with rammed earth walls inside and outside the insulation.

High insulation levels can be achieved.  The results can be very attractive.

There are good information and workshops out there on building rammed earth walls -- I think that a careful owner/builder might be able to get a good result using this scheme.

Down to Earth Homes

Dan Chiras

Mother Earth News

Finding Mother Earth News articles...

Mother Earth News Article, Issue 196

A fine article by Dan Chiras on earth sheltered homes.  Covers the various styles of earth sheltered home, why earth sheltered homes work, and provides a lot of good construction advice.  All from the man who lives in one, and the author of “The Solar House”.

Detailed Account of Earth Bermed Home Project

First of 18 page post...


This is an amazingly detailed account of building an earth bermed, dry stack block home.

Lots of construction detail -- covers everything from footings to kitchen counter tops -- quite a story.

Passive Annual Heat Storage

John Hait

Finding Mother Earth News articles...


Some pictures of an Earth Tube installation:



Mother Earth News Article, Issue 91 Jan/Feb 1985

An article describing a scheme for passive solar heat storage on an annual basis.  The scheme uses a large "bubble" of dirt around the house that has a good thermal connection with the walls of the living area, but is isolated from the surrounding dirt by insulation and waterproofing.  Over time the temperature of the dirt bubble can be brought up to a comfortable temperature that varies only a few degrees over the year.

More information and a book on this scheme is available here:

Here is a review of John Hait's Passive Annual Storage book by  by Nick Pine.

Green Roofs: an Introduction with Pretty Pictures

Links that provide some design/DIY information:
Green Roof magazine etc.
A short but good how-to guide
DIY modular green roof system -- low slope home roofs
UK guide to green roofs

An interesting introduction to green roofs and their advantages.

There is a lot of interest in this area, and green roofs do provide a nice combination of practical advantages and aesthetic appeal.

From an energy point of view, the lower roof temperatures in the summer appear to be the primary benefit, but there is also some winter benefit.

The other links provide more detailed design and how-to information.  If you find any other good design/build references, please let me know.


PAHS Example in Virginia



Description of a Passive Annual Storage (PAHS) home in Virginia.
Much more window area than the Hait home above.
Earthbag Building
Earthbag Building,
Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer


Available from New Society Publishers...

If you are interested in learning about building with Earthbags, this is the book.

It covers the pro/con of Earthbag compared to other earth building techniques, and then goes into a VERY detailed how to go about building an Earthbag building from the foundation up.

The authors have many Earthbag buildings under their belts, and the book passes on the kind of detailed build knowledge that takes years to accumulate.

Earthbag Building

Earthbag Resources...

Step by Step guides...

Earthbag Building Blog...

The Hart Earthbag/Papercrete Home...

Very good website on building with earthbags.  Some good example homes, step-by-step guides, and design information.

An extensive resource list for earthbag construction. 

Plus an active blog on earthbag construction.

This is really earthbag central!

Note that earthbags may not provide an energy efficient approach in all climates, so be sure to do your homework in this.

Low Thermal Mass Sunspaces for Home Space Heating (and many other things)
Low thermal mass sunspaces provide an exceptional combination of advantages:  very efficient space heating for the home they are attached to, added living space that can be used for a wide variety of purposes, a wide range of cost effective designs, and they can also look great (a plus for HOAs and spouses).
Low Thermal Mass Sunspace Section

All the details on Low Thermal Mass Sunspace advantages, performance, design and examples...
Colorado low mass sunspaceLow thermal mass sunspaces are a way to provide very efficient space heating to the home (as efficient as high quality active solar collectors). 

At the same time they provide added living space that is good for a wide variety of activities. 
The sunspaces can also add to the aesthetic appeal and value of the home.

The new section on low thermal mass sunspaces provides design and performance data, heat output and efficiency tests, and several detailed examples of low thermal mass sunspaces that work well.

Sand Bed Heat Storage
These homes use a concrete slab floor with a thick, insulated layer of sand under the slab for solar heat storage.  Solar thermal collectors heat water which is transferred to the sand via PEX coils in the sand.
There is not a lot out there on the design or performance of these homes -- if you have more information, please let me know.
Northern MN Sandbed Storage Passive Solar Home... MN sandbed storage solar homeA very nice 600 sf strawbale passive solar home in northern MN that uses 2 ft thick sandbed storage. 

The owners are quite pleased with it.

Details here...
Technical Evaluation of a Solar Heating System having Conventional Hydronic Solar Collectors and a Radiant Slab, Robert j. Starr, Jon G. McGowan, Brain P McNiff,
From the site.
A 1980's report on a sand bed storage home.
sandbed storage solar test homeA 1980's test home built specifically to examine the effectiveness of solar thermal heating with sandbed storage.

This is the only case of carefully documented performance I've been able to find.  Please let me know if you see more.
Extensive Tour of a 1996 Deep Sandbed Storage Home in Michigan...

tour of sandbed heat storage houseThis is a very interesting and detailed video tour of a home in Michigan built in 1996 that uses a sandbed heat storage scheme.

The solar thermal collectors on the south roof begin charging the sandbed storage in August, and the house is able to utilize this heat through a good part of the winter (into Feb).

The design accomplishes more seasonal heat storage than most sandbed homes because the sandbed is quite deep (about 8 ft). This allows more storage and since the heat charging tubes are near the bottom of the sandbed, there is a long delay (a couple months) from the start of charging of the sandbed until the heat reaches the bottom of the main floor slab.

If anyone knows how to contact Dale Anderson (the designer) please let me know. I would very much like to see the temperature vs depth data that was collected for the sandbed.

Warm, Radiant Comfort in the Sand, Bob Ramlow, Solar Today, Nov/Dec 2007

Ramlow Solar Today Sandbed Storage....
These are some thoughts of mine on the article above....
sandbed storage solar home A recent article from Solar Today with some fairly detailed design ground rules.
Active Solar: Sure-fire success has been boiled down to five rules,
Fredric S. Langa,
New Shelter, March 1983
Rodale sandbed storage solar homeA 1983 article from Rodale's New Shelter magazine describes a home using sand bed storage.  The article is less about sand bed storage that guidelines on solar heating systems, but still has some useful information on the sand bed system.

Note that this system has separate pipe loops through the sand bend and the slab itself, and it is said that this can be used to use the collected heat immediately (slab loop), or store it (sand bed loop)

The Daycreek Home


And, a couple journal entries with some sand bed characteristics:

NEW: Daycreek has an update on their sand bed storage system:
I'd say that the update points to some potential problems with the sand bed storage that one would want to consider in any sand bed storage design.

Daycreek sandbed storage homeThis is a home that uses sand bed storage.  The page listed has some sub-links that provide a little bit of detail on how the home was built, and some hints on performance.

The page listed has some sub-links that provide a little bit of detail on how the home was built, and some hints on performance

The owner has done a lot of experimenting to try  to optimize the performance of the sandbed.This is a home that uses sand bed storage. 

Another Way to Do Sand-Bed Heat Storage?

An alternative way to store heat in a sandbed....    

another approach to sandbed storage 

The page describes a method that was tried by the MN Ag Extension to heat soil in high tunnel greenhouses.    It seems to me that it might have some potential for being used as a way to heat sandbed storage for shops, or barns, or houses.  

The system could be implemented for a fraction of the cost of solar water heating collector methods, and I don't see an reason it would not work as well? 

Some Further Thoughts on Sandbed Storage Homes...



A few thoughts, comments, questions on sandbed storage homes.

It would be oh so nice to instrument one (or more) of these homes and get a better understanding of the performance.  I''d be happy to loan data logging equipment to anyone who is in a position to do this.
Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF)
Thermal performance of ICF walls -- the effect of wall thermal mass on the effective R value

ORNL Paper

Another recent paper on actual R values for ICF's


ORNL study of the benefits of incorporating thermal mass in walls, and comparing different layerings of thermal mass and insulation.

My thoughts on the bottom line from this paper ...

One Year in A Foam House

Foam House

A fairly detailed description of a house built using Thermasteel SIP (Structural Insulated Panels) walls and an ICF (Insulated Concrete Forms) foundation. 
A Fast Foundation for an Addition,
Rick Arnold,
Fine Homebuilding Magazine, Issue 170, May 2005

How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...


A very good, hands-on article from Fine Homebuilding on how to use Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs).

Good detailed instructions on how to plan, install, and pour walls with ICFs.

This seems like it might be a good choice for owner-builders for a basement or crawl space.

Installation, Design and Specifications for ICF Construction from arxx


arxx is a manufacturer of one type of ICF system.  They provide very extensive design and installation  information (including a 240 pg installation manual).  Some independent test results for insulation value, fire rating, sound absorption, are also provided.

The nominal R value for ICF walls is in the R20 area, but for many climates, the thermal mass makes it behave like a conventional construction wall with a higher R value.  Having insulation inside of the thermal mass is not as good as having the thermal mass on the inside -- see other products below.
Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF) with Insulation on the Exterior
The claim for ICF construction has always been a wall with a high effective R value due to the built in thermal mass of the concrete.  The ICF products listed just below put all or most of the the insulation on the exterior.  This allows the thermal mass of the concrete to be used more effectively.   These products are more likely to actually deliver on the ICF industry claims of high effective R value.  Some of the products also offer very high R value versions by adding to the thickness of the exterior side insulation.
Royal Building Systems Insulation on the Outside Only ICF

Design guides

Builder comments:

Another flavor of ICF that puts the concrete's thermal mass to the inside with no insulation between the concrete and the interior of the building.  The ORNL studies listed below show this to be a better arrangement than the standard ICF arrangement of concrete between two layers of insulation.
Thermo Mass System  (Dow T-Mass)

Thermo Mass Building Insulation System -- some
good what it is and how it goes together info:


Pictures of construction sequence for several projects -- look at project gallery:


The DOW site has a little info (not much):

Another form of ICF with concrete on the inside and the outside and insulation in the middle.  The two layers of concrete are connected to each other with glass fiber connecting rods so that they act as a single structural unit.  The fiber rods are said to be an insignificant thermal bridge through the foam.  The foam can be either Polystyrene or Polyisocyanurate (which would be seem to offer a much higher R value).
Supposed to be available with more than 2 inches of Styrofoam between (which would seem like a good path).
Quad-Lock Asymmetric ICF

Another Asymmetric ICF:

This new product by Quad-Lock allows an ICF construction with 1) more insulation, and 2) all the added insulation located on the exterior.
The exterior insulation allows the concrete to be more effective as thermal mass.  They also offer R values about as high as you could want to go by increasing the thickness of the exterior foam insulation.
Dome Homes
Super Insulated Dome Home

Dome home insuated to R60:


Construction pictures:


Good description of a 46 ft diameter super insulated dome home built using the Natural Space Domes system (see next entry).

Nice detailed set of construction pictures and notes.
The dome is insulated to about R60 and uses passive solar gain.  

Natural Space Domes


This company sells components for dome homes, and various levels of kits to build dome homes.  The system appears to be well thought out, and allows lots of room for insulation.
Quite of bit of reference information on the site.
The Bear Creek Dome example gives lots of construction detail.
Mountain View Dome

Construction Details:




Very complete description of a home built from 8 joined domes. 
The construction starts with an inflatable dome form, then insulation is sprayed on inside surface of the form, then rebar and shotcrete are added to inside to make a structural wall.  The outside is finished with coats of spray on flexible membrane followed by stucco. 
The site provides a very complete and very well organized description of the full construction process including structure and systems.
A very interesting way to build a house.
Prefab Homes
Prefab homes offer the promise of constructing well designed and high quality homes under carefully controlled conditions.
PowerPOD Prefabricated Homes



An interesting small prefabricated home featuring some passive solar, energy efficient construction, rain water collection and options for solar heated water and electricity.
Papercrete Construction

Yahoo discussion group on papercrete...

PaperCrete is a building material made from a mixture of recycled paper, sandy dirt, and a little cement.  It has an R value of 2.8 per inch, good strength, and is lightweight and inexpensive.   While PaperCrete has been around quite a while, it has just started to be used for home construction, so this is for adventurous experimenters.
GreenstarBlox  -- a high R value wall building block
GreenstarBlox  -- papercrete on steroids

GreenstarBloxGreenstarBlox are building blocks made from recycled paper, Portland cement, and additives.  While somewhat similar to papercrete, the GreenstarBlox are commercially made using a carefully controlled recipe and process, and have been subjected to rigorous testing by Texas Tech University.  Building code approval is in the works.
The blocks exhibit high strength, are durable, and have very good insulating value.
I think that these blocks may become a very good candidate for energy efficient owner built homes.



A lean mix of Portland Cement and pumice (a light volcanic rock) make a low density "concrete" that has insulating value and thermal mass and sufficient structural strength for residential walls.  Walls are typically 15 inches thick to provide strength, insulation, and thermal mass.  
Building with Rastra


Rastra is a wall building material that is made from recycled polystyrene (coffee cup foam).  The cavities are filled with rebar and concrete for strength. 
Building a House of Insulated Concrete Block,
Fred Leadbeater,
Fine Homebuilding Magazine, Issue 132, July 2000

How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...



A good Fine Homebuilding article on building a home in SW Montana using Rastra block.
Lots of good construction detail included.

Note the sidebar on R values for this type of wall construction.
Using Salvaged and Reclaimed Materials
Beetlekill Boards -- Beautiful Salvaged Wood
Beetle killed pine boardsThis is a very good video  describing the use of lumber cut from trees killed by the Mountain Pine Beetle.  It turns out that these trees can be cut into lumber that shows a very distinctive and beautiful blue staining.
The video is by Bozeman contractor, video maker, and environmentalist Peter Brown.  Check out his video blog for other good videos.
Phase Change Materials
Drywall with Phase Change Material for Heat Storage

"ThermalCORE" phase change drywall...

Treehugger article on phase change drywall...

Article from on phase change drywall...

Apparently a phase change version of drywall is coming out from National Gypsum.

Phase change materials store and release heat at a nearly constant temperature.  The heat is stored or released as the material changes from a solid phase to liquid phase (or vice versa).

Some thoughts on how the performance of regular and phase change drywall would compare...

More on Phase Change Materials and Heat Storage
The Phase Change Materials Homepage

One PCM supplier

The latest on the application of phase change materials for heat storage.
Log Walls
Thermal Efficiency of Log Walls

R values of log walls measured conventionally: ... /EEM-04756.pdf

Good article on mass effect on R value:

ORNL testing on massive walls:

more on massive walls ORNL

more still on massive walls ORNL

There is an ongoing debate about the thermal efficiency of log walls.  Everyone agrees that the R values as measured by standard R value tests for log walls are low.  But, the claim is made by people favoring log construction that the thermal mass of log walls makes them perform as well as low mass walls with higher R values.  There is some truth to this under certain conditions, but the conditions are limited.  You should read the references to the left carefully and make sure that you are in a climate and setting where the extra mass of log walls will be a genuine benefit, else you may be disappointed with the thermal performance and comfort of a log home.
Construction Details
Installing Windows with Foam Sheathing on a Wood-Frame Wall
Building America -- USDOE

Using rigid foam sheathing on the outside of a wood frame house reduces thermal bridging due to wall studs.  This paper details how to install windows correctly for this type of construction.
Duct Losses Hurt Forced Air Heating System Performance, Oikos Green Building Source

If you are building a hose with forced air heat, make certain that supply and return ducts are carefully sealed with duct mastic, and insulated.  Best thing is to run the ducts through conditioned spaces.

Good article describing findings on forced air duct systems showing that a 30% loss in heating and cooling efficiency due to duct leaks and poor duct insulation is typical
Five bucks for a can of duct mastic and a half a days work could save you a lot on heating fuel and green house gas emissions.
See the sealing guides in this section or the Harley book for how to do the sealing.

One report from a person who seals ducts states that duct leakage on existing homes can usually be reduced to 5% (the CA requirement) by 1) sealing all accessible ducts in attics and crawls, and 2) sealing all air outlets by removing grills and reaching in.
"Home Run" Plumbing ...


Home run plumbing systems run small diameter PEX tubing to each fixture from a central location.  Result is less installation labor, less waiting for hot water at fixture, and significant energy saving.

Planning the plumbing system to shorten the runs for the manifold to the fixtures also pays big dividends in not wasting hot water.

HVAC Ducts in Conditioned Space



Heating and cooling ducts running through attics and crawl spaces typically lose about 15 to 30% of the heat or "coolth" they carry to these unconditioned areas. 
By including the furnace and ducts in the conditioned space, and larger energy saving can be achieved.
Plumbing Vents Using Air Admittance Valves


These air admittance valves eliminate the need for vent stacks for plumbing fixtures.  It seems like a nice way to eliminate the penetrations of the thermal envelope that go with regular vent stacks. 

Seems like a good idea -- wonder why its not used more?
(thanks to Eric for suggesting this)

Retrofitting Energy efficiency
This section shows some ways in which the thermal envelope on an existing house can be made much more efficient.
These are methods that will result in large improvements in thermal efficiency, but are also large projects -- for more conventional energy improvement for existing homes, see the Conservation section.
Mooney Wall 



A way to retrofit a high R value, low thermal bridging, and high infiltration resistance wall.

Mooney wall details ...

Another example of using the Mooney wall ...

Remodeling for Energy Efficiency,
Betsy Pettit, Fine Home Building Magazine
May 2008, issue 194

How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...


This is a good article in the May 2008 issue of Fine Home Building magazine that describes 3 really serious home remodels that include really serious increases in insulation levels.

By insulating basements and changing the insulation line to be along the roof line, living space increases were also achieved.
Save Energy With Rigid-Foam Insulation,
Rick Arnold,
Fine Homebuilding Magazine, Issue 181, Sept 2006

How to get articles from Fine Homebuilding ...



Very good Fine Homebuilding article describing how to use rigid foam insulation board over sheathing to get a high R value wall with little thermal bridging.  This seems like a good, simple, and cost effective way to get a high R value wall.

Lots of construction detail.

It seems like this might also make a good retrofit if siding is being replaced anyway.

A Cost Effective Larsen Truss Design

Detials ...


The Larsen Truss was originally developed for retrofitting high R value walls to existing homes, and is still good for that.

Robert Riversong details his modified Larsen Truss design.  With this modified design, Robert is able to build Superinsulated homes with R40 walls and R60 ceilings at a price per sqft that is only about 5% over conventional construction.

The design also makes more use of local, sustainable materials.

Details ...