Want a Comfortable, Bright Home? Orient it Properly on Your Building Lot
When you’re ready to make important home-building decisions, it’s likely that you’ll be thinking about building materials, floor plans, fixtures, paint colors, landscaping, and kitchen details. But have you thought about the exact direction your home should face? Or the placement of windows, doors, and skylights to maximize the natural light your home allows in? What about considering wind and light as they relate to the heating and cooling of your home?
It could sound overwhelming to consider all of these elements in positioning of your home, but some simple planning and calculations could vastly improve the energy efficiency, lighting, and overall enjoyment of your new home. And when a home can last a lifetime, it’s an important planning exercise to be sure you’re benefitting from nature’s natural cooling and heating elements to maximize the livability of your home.
Besides setback from lot lines, postioning a home on a building lot should take into consideration solar orientation for heat and light as well as wind direction. This house in the Northeast US is oriented on an east-west axis and faces south. The garage is on the west, to mitigate heat inside the home from the hot afternoon sun in summer and block cold west winds in winter, and the living and dining rooms on the south benefit from solar heat gain in the winter (courtesy Google Maps).
What can good home orientation do?
Strategic orientation of your new-construction home can significantly reduce the need for expensive heating and cooling, which may not only save you money but improve the comfort of your home all year. A good placement plan considers the direction of the sun in both winter and summer, and the direction of the breeze to be used in your home’s cooling during hotter months. It’s something many people don’t consider, but if you have control over your home’s placement, especially for energy efficient house plans, this kind of planning can vastly improve the quality of life in your new home.
A center-hall Colonial home like this would benefit from facing south, especially in a colder climate. In the warm summer, the front porch shades the living areas from the high sun, and the upstairs bedrooms can have shades drawn. But in the winter, the sun, which is low in the sky, can penetrate the living-area and bedroom windows to warm the interior with supplementary solar heat (House Plan #198-1004).
Consider Your Climate
The strategy for your home’s orientation will rely heavily on the climate in which you’re building. You’ll need to consider the temperature ranges in your area, the level of humidity throughout the year, any extreme weather conditions, and adjacent buildings or landscapes that could interfere with your home’s exposure to light and wind.
Windows in a home designed as a passive solar house plan do mean extra heat gain and light, but in colder climates they can also mean cool air leaking into your home (especially those that are not south-facing). Yes, you can upgrade windows to be highly insulated (up to triple pane with gas filling the gaps), but windows are never truly airtight and insulated to the degree of a wall, so you’ll need to consider that when determining how many windows you’ll place in your home and where exactly you’ll place them.
Large expanses of south-facing glass is beneficial in northern/colder climates, as long as the windows are at least double-pane, preferably triple-pane, also preferably with argon or similar gas instead of air between the panes for extra insulation (House Plan #149-1874).
If for the majority of the year you’re worried about keeping heat out in a warm and humid climate, it’s smart to consider roof overhangs to provide shelter for your walls and keep heat out in a home with a solar orientation. You should also consider how many windows you want in the home, as they will always let in a little extra light and heat. Skylights can also bring in some extra light, but they are more difficult to shade and therefore could prove too warm, especially during hot summers.
Heating and Daylighting
When you’re ready to determine how you can best position your home to let in the most light during the day while also maintaining your temperature, you’ll need to look at how the sun moves throughout the day and year when designing your floor plan. Start by dividing your home into four quadrants.
This illustration demonstrates the paths the sun takes in different seasons. (Here, the long side of the house is facing south, often a preferred siting for light as well as solar gain.) It's obviousl why long overhangs over windows helps control the sun inside a house: in hot summer the sun is hgih in the sky, so the windows will be shaded but in cold winter, the sun is low and able to deliver its heat below any window overhang (courtesy Denim Homes).
When determining how to best utilize the morning sun, consider that it will be most dominant in east-facing rooms. Good rooms to expose to the east include your dining room or breakfast nook and kitchen, as this will give you good morning light and heating throughout the early part of the day. And in the evening when you’re making dinner and using heating appliances, you won’t be sweating from the evening sun beating in. For early risers, east-facing bedroom will allow them to rise with the sun.
Sunlight will always be strongest on the south wall of your home, which may be the best place for a living or family room that will be used throughout the day. In colder climates, including a dense material on the floor, such as stone or brick, can provide thermal mass for extra heat absorption – and warmth after the sun goes down.
Rooms to the north part of your home will have the least amount of natural light throughout the day. In your home design you should place the rooms that need the least amount of natural light. This could include bedrooms, bathrooms, utility rooms, a home theater, or closets.
Evening light will shine brightly through western-facing windows. If you like to watch the late afternoon news or early evening programs, your living or family room shouldn’t have a western exposure. The strong light could make it more difficult to view the television due to glare or shadows. But for those who like to sleep in, placing a bedroom to the west will allow for darker mornings. And for a deck or sun room where you like to entertain, a western exposure may be desirable.
Orienting this Country style ranch/farmhouse home to face north makes sense on a number of levels. The Great Room, including breakfast nook and kitchen, would face south for lot of light within the house all year. The garage would protect much of the house from cold westerly winter winds and hot summer afternoon sun, and the master suite is in a cozy spot for late morning sleep-ins (House Plan #142-1166).
Consider the Wind
Wind can also play a major role in the energy efficiency and enjoyment of your home. Wind directions vary depending on the season. Winds typically come from the southwest in summer and the northwest in winter. This will be especially important when it comes to patio and porch placement. Patios exposed to cooling breezes in the summertime will make for more enjoyable temperatures and fewer problems with insects.
In placing your windows with regard to wind, you should consider cross ventilation during the summer months where you can use wind to reduce the temperature in your home. Windblown air will enter the house through low windows and exit through high windows, so consider that in window placement and the direction of the wind during the different seasons. You can also place windows on two walls of a room to enable cross-ventilation. When considering wind, also keep the cold winter months in mind, expecially if you live in northern climes. Placing an attached garage on the western side of a house helps protect the home from the effects of the cold winds by providing a buffer for the living area on the other side of the garage.
The bedrooms on the left side of this floor plan of a Country style Craftsman home exhibit good design to catch cooling breezes in spring and early summer. Both bedroom 2 and bedroom 3 have windows on two adjacent walls, making it easier for wind to enter and exit, creating nighttime cross breezes (House Plan #141-1115).
We know how important your home-building decisions are, but don’t forget about how you can let nature work for you. Experience more comfortable room temperatures and ideal lighting. Use wind to enjoy your outdoor space year round. And let your late risers sleep in peace! With a little strategic planning you can make the best choices for your home and your family.