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Passive Solar
Designing Decades of Low Maintenance Beauty

by Amelia Smith

Ralph Friedman and Debbie Milne have lived in their Pilot Hill house since it was built over thirty years ago. The core of the house is a modestly-sized Vineyard-modern structure, designed by architect Ben Moore. A few years after it was built, Architect Jamie Weisman of Terrain Architects designed a multipurpose passive solar greenhouse on the original structure’s south wall.

The walkway from the house’s parking area winds through mature plantings on its way to the greenhouse, which is the house’s main entryway. “We wanted a place to grow plants, bring the greenery inside, and have an entry space that creates warmth when you come in,” Debbie says. The downstairs floor of the greenhouse is brick, with sand underneath. “Debbie and I laid the brick ourselves,” Ralph says. “We had a semi-circular brick patio in back, and we decided to use that brick in a different way.” The floors, brick downstairs and wooden slats upstairs, can handle mud and snow tracked in from outdoors and the spray from the watering hose.

“Weget a lot of use out of the greenhouse,” Ralph says. There are comfortable seats among the greenery, sometimes a swing. A massive jade plant sits in one sunny corner, and a Bird of Paradise blooms twice a year. “The plants definitely like the place,” Debbie says. Upstairs, Ralph has benches for propagating plants. “I usually start my pepper seeds in March and my tomato seeds in early April,” he says. The greenhouse, along with a cold frame, allows him to get the most out of his intensive, compact vegetable garden.

Debbie uses the greenhouse’s second story as a walk-in closet and as a place to dry clothes in the winter. There are three load-bearing plexiglass windows set into the slatted floor which look down on the entry space below. “Those are theater,” Jamie says, and attributes that part of the design to Ralph, who he met through their involvement in local theater - Jamie designed sets and Ralph directed and did lighting design. At about that time, Jamie was also studying passive solar design.

“The passive solar from that time is still very valid, and you can have a cup of coffee in it,” Jamie says. “It has a humility and simplicity to it.” He explains how it reduces the cost of heating the house through simple solar energy principles. In summer, the sun is high in the sky, so its rays hit the vertical windows obliquely, reflecting off, while in the winter those vertical windows are better positioned to catch the sun’s
heat. “The building itself is simple,
but the conceptualization takes education,” says Jamie.

The wall and doors between the greenhouse and the rest of the living space also help make this passive solar energy work. On cold nights and cloudy winter days, the doors stay shut, keeping the main part of the house warm. In winter, even without supplemental heat, the greenhouse’s temperature never drops below the mid-40s. In summer, the windows stay open all the time, allowing hot air to rise and go out through the upper windows, assisted by a simple ceiling fan. A few years ago, Ralph replaced the original slider windows with custom-built awning windows. “I went up to the Stergis window factory in Walpole and talked to them about what I wanted,” Ralph says. The new windows were vinyl inside and out, to handle the moisture from the greenhouse, as well as outside.

Replacing those windows was the first major work on the space since it was built thirty years before. “Passive solar is like balloon tire bikes,” Jamie says. “It doesn’t require complicated operating instructions or service.” Jamie worries that with the recent focus on government-subsidized photovoltaic panels, younger designers have lost sight of this simpler uses of solar energy. “I went back to Ralph and Debbie’s house within the last ten years,” he says, “and it floored me how nice it was. Here you have this couple who have been in there for thirty years, and they love this thing.” It was designed to be, and remains, a habitable buffer between indoors and out. In winter, it’s full of greenery and sunshine, in summer, it’s full of fresh air and shade, and through the years and seasons, it enhances the life of the house in many ways.