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Working with the weather to design more efficient homes

Alexandra Pope, staff writer
December 4, 2011 — The easiest way to make a home energy efficient? Work with the weather.

Efficient home design? It's all in the details
Efficient home design? It's all in the details

It used to be that homes were built to work with the weather.

As fossil fuels became cheaper and more plentiful, that changed, and people came to rely on artificial means of controlling the climate inside their homes.

Now, with energy costs rising and people becoming more conscious of their impact on the environment, things have come full circle. More and more, homeowners are being encouraged to harness the power of the weather.

Avi Friedman, a professor at the McGill University School of Architecture, says home energy efficiency is all in the details.

“We tend to believe that the only way to create savings is by introducing fancy mechanical means,” he says. “But if one follows common-sense steps for how to orient the home, and how to build a roof, and how to proportionally place the windows, energy will be affected immensely.”

Homes should ideally be designed and constructed around the basic principle that warm air rises, Friedman explains.

The more angles and corners on the roof, the more opportunities there are for heat to escape, so perfect shapes are preferable.

An open-plan layout inside the home increases air flow from room to room. A simple ceiling fan at the top of the staircase will help distribute heat to the upper floor, and push warm air back down to the lower floor.

All these measures translate into savings for homeowners, who no longer have to crank their furnace to the highest setting to warm the space.

Windows can be placed to maximize passive solar gain
Windows can be placed to maximize passive solar gain

Passive solar gain

The orientation of a home on the landscape also impacts how well it is able to benefit from passive solar gain, or the natural heating ability of the sun.

Placing windows on the south side of the home will ensure it receives the maximum solar heat during the winter months, Friedman says. Longer roof eaves on that side will shade the home during the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky.

Landscaping can also play a role in passive solar gain. For example, planting deciduous trees in front of windows will provide shade during the hot summer months; in the winter when the trees are bare, the sun can shine right through.

Moving away from our dependence on fossil fuels may require people to get used to being a little warmer in the summer and a little cooler in the winter -- change Friedman expects will be met with some resistence.

“There is no change without changing, but we need to accept that tomorrow will be different than yesterday,” he says.

“Some visionary communities see ahead five or 10 years and they say, 'we'd rather do it now than be pushed to do it later.'”

“Energy can be saved,” he adds, ”and we can change gradually to build better homes, and in my opinion, a better planet.”

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