SunEarth House

Paul Shippee, Designer

This earth-covered, passive solar, 1863 sq ft house achieved the very best performance in a HUD-sponsored energy survey when it was first built in the late 1970's. For three years after the house was built, it was computer-monitored, and according to the National Solar Data Network, the SunEarth house out-performed hundreds of passive solar houses in the country. The house was designed, built, and marketed by Colorado Sunworks. The furnace was put to rest during its first winter because the pilot light was wasting natural gas. All of the space heating demand is supplied by the passive solar system.

The heating system is a direct gain, passive solar system and drum wall. The south side exposes 300 square feet of glass windows. The windows are two panes of insulated glass that run floor to roof. Behind the windows are 54 large, vertically stacked barrels. Sunlight directly warms these 55-gallon oil drums that are painted with a flat black finish and filled with water. During the day, the water and interior concrete walls inside the house absorb the sun's heat. The heat is released slowly after the sun sets.

At night, when temperatures begin to drop, a blower pushes polystyrene beads between the two panes of glass, providing insulation to keep the daytime heat inside the home. On winter nights, this moveable Beadwall insulation converts the large window areas to R20 heat loss barrier. Six vertical skylights are arranged on the north side of the earth roof. Maximum solar energy takes place during the winter, and minimum solar energy occurs in the summer.

House interiors are pleasant and attractive. Rooms are arranged in a spacious manner around the great room. Bright and warm in winter, cool and shaded in summer, every element of the design works with the changing environment. Skylights and light floor tiles help bathe all walls with natural light while collecting solar energy. The centrally located interior garden is colorful and inviting. Plants supply fresh air and humidity year round.

First Floor

The South side exposes 300 sq ft of glass windows to the winter sun-this directly warms large barrels of water about 10 degrees F. on a clear day. Atrium windows admit sun directly to lightcolored floor tiles which then reflect the light to interior concrete walls, storing more energy for night time use. On winter nights moveable insulation (Beadwall) converts large window areas to R20 heat loss barrier. Other energy conserving features of the SunEarth House include a garage buffer to the northwest, air-lock entry, vertical skylights over the north wall, air tight construction, thermal envelope ceiling for natural heating and cooling, fireplace piped to outdoor air, summer shading devices, and passive tank type water heaters. The floor plan emphasizes elongation of the south side of the building for good solar exposure. Rooms are laid out to aid natural heat flows. Note that the south collector/storage wall can "see" much of the north wall for effective distribution of heat.

Winter Mode

Stored solar heat is released from the water containers as needed. Heat flows naturally by low temperature radiation and by warm air convection to the north side of the house, thus balancing comfort zones throughout the living space.

Summer Mode

Interior thermal mass is cooled down on summer nights by providing a natural air now path. Daily heat gains aree rejected by this method through turbine roof ventilators. The cooled massive house is then closed up on hot summer days for comfortable living.

Construction Information
The house is constructed with concrete walls that are insulated on the exterior. Earth is piled up over the north, west and east walls. One foot of earth with vegetation covers the roof. The weight is supported by steel bar joists and a concrete deck.

Underground wall
The design begins with concrete wall construction insulated on the exterior. Concrete walls (secondary thermal mass) are equal in heat capacity to the south water wall. Wall temperatures rise 3F degrees on sunny winter days, then discharge heat to the rooms at night. Earth protects wall from outdoor temperatures, but must be insulated from the concrete.

Exposed exterior wall
Parts of the surrounding concrete walls are exposed to air, especially near windows. Direct contact with outdoor temperature requires R20 insulation to be placed on the exterior. Tough styrofoam is glued to wall then plastered with mix of cement and glass fibres.

Roof section
One foot of earth cover provides patio, garden, and grassy areas on the roof thus increasing useable outdoor space. Effects of outdoor temperatures are dampened considerably. Ceiling is suspended from steel joists providing air flow plenum for natural cooling and heating.

Vertical skylight well
Maximum solar energy is admitted during winter, minimum in summer, by this vertical arrangement. The bright light wells diffuse strikingly pleasant natural lighting along interior north house wall. Triple glazing cuts heat loss to tolerable levels.

South glass wall
The south glass is vertical and functions as a solar collector. On winter nights the 5 inch cavity between tempered glass panes automatically fills up with tiny styrofoam beads. The insulating value then becomes R20, keeping stored solar heat inside the house.



Passive water heater

Passive tank heaters inclined at the south wall collect solar energy used for pre-heating domestic hot water. The cusp reflector directs all the light falling on the glass to some portion of the tank. Beadwall insulates the glass at night.

Options and Modifications
The design as presented is how it was originally built. The house continues to be occupied, and still performs remarkably well, using virtually no fuel other than the sun during the winter. The beadwall system is no longer in use, as it developed some problems; however thermal curtains could be used to insulate the glass at night instead.

The barrels of water could be replaced by a masonry trombe wall that would be nearly as effective. Alternatively, the barrels of water could be eliminated entirely, with somewhat reduced thermal performance.

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I specifically disclaim any warranty, either expressed or implied, concerning the information on these pages. Neither I nor any of the designer/architects associated with this site will have liability for loss, damage, or injury, resulting from the use of any information found on this, or any other page at this site. Kelly Hart, Hartworks, Inc.

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