A Passive Solar Cabin Design, Part I – Getting Ready
For over a decade I have been wanting to build a passive solar (and PV panel ready) cabin of my own. I’ve read a few books and skimmed a lot more, helped friends in various stages of building “green” buildings, and worked with a close friend (ex-wife!) to create a cabin design that not only took full advantage of the sun, was small, efficient and aesthetically pleasing, but a design that was functional and comfortable for year round living. After years of dreaming I have finally completed my first ever full fledged cabin from start to finish – and I have to say it feels pretty darn good!
What I hope to do in this article to is relay information that I think is important and/or helpful for folks who might have the same dream. Learn from my experience and mistakes and you’re bound to construct a pretty sweet cabin of your own.
South, south, south. Good southern exposure is essential for a passive solar building. You can get away with not having full southern exposure, but the the more you move east or west the less efficiency your building will have. Luckily, my cabin is situated on a piece of land that faces due south and, also, has a pretty clear east and west range to catch the early morning and late evening sunlight. I designed and built my cabin primarily with passive solar gain in mind, yet wanted to construct it in a way so I could add PV solar panels (active solar) at a later time. I thought it would be easier to incorporate the lighting and electrical into the cabin now, than have to retrofit it later.
I wish I could say if you want to build a solar cabin to just go for it, but to be honest I want to save you a lot of time, energy, money and mistakes right off the bat. Bottom line, if you don’t have any carpentry experience DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME. I salute do it your-selfers and homesteaders for your vision, drive, ingenuity and follow through, but if you don’t know the basics of laying out a square, load bearing capabilities of lumber, how to frame around doorways or windows, et cetera, don’t try this alone! You might be able to slap something up but it won’t pass the test of time. Find a more experienced friend to help, or start by helping your friends and neighbors with their projects and gain experience the good old-fashioned way – by hands on doing.
Every project I do at my homestead starts, of course, in my mind. I have an idea and I think about it a lot. Really, A LOT, to the point if I wake up in the middle of the night I will think about it while trying to go back to sleep! I mulled over every aspect of this cabin; materials, shape, orientation, use, longevity, cost, labor involved – not only for myself, but the need for additional help at various stages, weather, time commitment, and so on. I believe this is the most important part of any project. For me, I’ve got to work out every detail in my head (and sketching on paper) before I can even think about nailing the first board. If I really take the time to account for each phase of the project I will most likely avoid timely, costly, or irreparable mistakes. Once I feel pretty comfortable with what I want to do, I make a sort of blue print of the job. I then derive an extensive materials list from the schematic and then start to do some creative thinking about what I will buy, what I can salvage from previous projects, how I can acquire used or free materials, and how “nice” do I want to see certain aspects of the cabin. For instance, I have an aversion to drywall. I know it is super cheap and gets the job done, but I don’t like to use too much of it. So, for my cabin, I decided to spend a little extra money for tongue and groove wood panels for the ceiling. I knew it would change the whole feel of the cabin for the better and was willing to pay the extra in this aspect of the project, especially because I knew I was already saving a lot in other areas because by using salvaged materials.
I find a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction in collecting, finding, and salvaging free or inexpensive building materials. For instance, there is a foam insulation company down the road from me that gives away its scraps. And this isn’t just old crappy stuff, it’s 6-8 inch R20-30 stuff! I am willing to invest some of my time to save a lot of money. Insulation, even fiberglass bat insulation, is expensive. I can’t remember the numbers now, but I needed to buy insulation for my cabin and could not accept how much it would cost to insulate it all around – in the walls, the floors and roof/attic. For a little extra work I was able to piece together the scraps I got for free and insulated the whole cabin – all for a tank of gas and a few hours of my time! Plus, the R factor was about 10 points higher than the stuff I would have bought!
Another example: There is a window installer near me that gives away the “old” windows they bring back from new installation jobs. Granted some windows aren’t the best, but if you are patient and collect these over time as I do, one can get some pretty nice windows. For my passive solar cabin, I picked up some perfect, double insulated 3X6 windows for free. But, I stopped there. I could have installed some other windows that were older and not as energy efficient, but I found another great source. I found a window outlet not far away that sold brand new windows that were just contractor leftovers. For a fraction of the price I was able to install new double hung windows because I thought outside the box and didn’t go directly to the store to buy them at full retail.
As good as I was at salvaging materials for this cabin, I still needed to buy quite a lot of materials from conventional retailers. I love Lowe’s and Home Depot, but tried to do most of my shopping at the local lumber/hardware stores in my town. Granted, they charge a little more, but I don’t mind paying more for the great service they provide, not to mention advice/knowledge they impart anytime I have a question or need help figuring out something. Plus, they are basically my neighbors and I like to know my money is going to help them live and work locally.
PHASE I – FOUNDATION
Now, we’re finally getting into the nitty gritty of how this cabin was built. Please check back in about a week and I promise I’ll have plenty of pictures and a pretty solid step-by-step of the building process……