Severe Winter Reminds Us Why We Need Passive Solar Design

Green Building

Severe Winter Reminds Us Why We Need Passive Solar Design

Taos, New Mexico, a popular ski resort and home to one of the oldest continuously inhabited communities in the country (Taos Pueblo) is in the midst of a brutal winter that culminated this past weekend when a regional gas shortage hindered service to the small southwestern community. This posed a major safety concern as many residents did not have any other means to heat their homes.

I can relate to such a threat. This past week’s ice storm sent me packing for my brother’s house, where his wood stove could keep my 6-month daughter from freezing in the event that the electrical grid went down for several days.
According to a story posted this morning by the New Mexico Daily Lobo, residents of the local solar-powered Greater World Earthship Community opened-up their homes for area residents to take refuge.

So, what is an “earthship”?

An earthship is a compact, earth-bermed dwelling composed primarily of thermally-massive natural material. These structures use direct solar radiation to heat their interiors (often equipped with a fireplace for auxiliary heat) and solar panels to produce electricity (being off-the-grid does not mean you shouldn’t be able to access Facebook).

One of the "earthships" at the Greater World Earthship Community in Taos, New Mexico.

I am familiar with the Taos community of earthships. I actually stayed in one during a formidable winter storm in February of 2008. If not for the non-refundable advance payment, I probably would have played it safe and stayed at a Days Inn in Santa Fe. But adventure awaited. Though I had studied passive solar heating in Las Vegas for three years, I had never stayed in a passive solar structure overnight during a severe winter storm. The skeptic in me questioned if the structure was “thermally charged” enough to retain heat throughout the night.

It was already snowing when we arrived in Taos. Not only was the earthship community well outside of town, but each dwelling looked to be a few hundred yards apart. Also, a preceding pattern of severely cold weather had depleted the stock of firewood. As I placed the last log in the fireplace around 11:00 PM, I thought to myself, “I might actually freeze to death in my sleep tonight.” Kristen, unaware of the dubious firewood situation, was blissfully asleep. I figured I should not wake her.

To my delight, we woke up to abundant sunshine the next morning. Not only was our earthship’s interior temperature tolerable, it was comfortable! The earthen floor did not even feel cold to my bare feet!

That experience taught me a valuable lesson. Should we not be designing our homes to survive the most severe of winter weather patterns? I am not saying that passive solar strategies will keep a house at 70-degrees Fahrenheit during a blizzard, but they could keep a family from freezing if the electricity and/or natural gas supply is cutoff for several days. The severe winter weather from this past week is just the latest reminder of how truly dependent we have become on utility infrastructure.

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