A Great Success: Classic 1970s Passive Solar Home Turned Net Zero

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What exactly is a low-load home?  (Architect Richard Levine stands in front of the low-load, solar home he designed and built in the 1970s. Photo by Energy Vanguard)

I've been in Lexington, Kentucky this week at the Midwest Residential Energy Conference. It was great! (And I played nice - I didn't mention in any of my talks that I'm a Florida Gator.) One of the many highlights for me was getting to visit Richard "Dick" Levine's 1970s passive solar house. It's not like any other house I've seen, and I've seen other passive solar houses.

Your first question might be, Is that really a house? Yup. He chose the shape to maximize solar gain while minimizing the area of the building enclosure. It's a cube sliced on the diagonal, which you can see in part 1 of the video series below. (That part starts at about the 3:30 mark.)

The Raven Run Solar House

The creek that runs in the ravine near the house is called Raven Run, so the house is called the Raven Run Solar House. Here's a quick rundown of a few of the really cool features:

Solar collector for space heating. What you see in the photo above is not all windows dumping massive quantities of sunlight into the living space. Some of them are windows, and some are a special type of solar collector that he designed and patented. Each column of collector glazing has corrugated aluminum behind it, and as the air heats up, it rises naturally. The solar gain on those columns of air can provide up to a 100 degree Fahrenheit rise in temperature.

But he's doing more than just using the stack effect. He designed a system that uses a fan to move the hot air from the top of each column down to rock beds in the basement, where the heat gets stored. When it's cloudy, he can draw heat out of the rock beds for two weeks. It's a pretty sophisticated system. The photo below shows the original controller for it.

passive solar net zero house heat controller richard levine kentucky

Composting toilet. The house has had a Clivus Multrum composting toilet since the beginning. Having built and lived in a house with a composting toilet myself, I get it. Many people don't, however, especially if it means sitting over a big open hole straight to the tank in the basement. But think of all the water he's saved by never having to flush a toilet in his home for four decades!

passive solar net zero house composting toilet richard levine kentucky

The photo above shows the tank in the basement and the access door through which you remove the composted material.

Net zero energy. A few years ago, Levine installed photovoltaic modules on the studio adjacent to the house. Because of the cold winter this year, he hasn't been net zero in his energy balance between consumption and production over the past year, but he was for the two years before that.

passive solar net zero house photovoltaic modules richard levine kentucky

Other updates. Levine recently installed a heat pump water heater and a decade or so ago had a ground source heat pump put in. The latter was mainly to get cooling with dehumidification. He had relied on natural cooling for a long time but finally decided that the humidity issue warranted a mechanical air conditioning system.

I didn't get to spend a lot of time there, but it's really exciting to see that a classic passive solar house from the 1970s—and one of the earliest ones, at that—has not only survived, but it has served its purpose well and evolved gracefully over time.

Levine is a new board member for the Passive House Institute US (PHIUS), as am I, so I look forward to working with him. He brings a wealth of knowledge, experience, and ideas, which will help immensely as we take this movement further down the road to more sustainable buildings.

Other resources

CSC Design Studio page on the Raven Run Residence. CSC Design Studio is Levine's architecture firm in Kentucky.

Richard Levine's page on Wikipedia

Four-part video series on Levine and his work by kyGREEN.tv:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

 

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A Really Cool Net Zero Energy Home in the North Carolina Mountains

 

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Comments

Dennis Brachfeld

Made common sense 44 years ago makes common sense today, but common sense is not so common!

David Eakin

Very interesting article! I had not know about Richard Levine previously. The videos mention "super insulated" but I could find no construction details. Maybe it was just "super insulated" compared to the norms of that day, but not necessarily for today? Nor could I find any information on air tightness, air exchange, or window insulating methods (although the video did show movable interior shutters). It also appeared to me that the interior shots in the videos showed substantially more glazing than the 6%-8% of floor space recommended today. The intricate and massive stair system also showed Mr. Levine's architectural (VS conservationist) bent. But that's OK - it's his house. 
 
I'd like to see more similar articles on passive solar designs, especially with real-world commentary on living in such environments for an extended time.