The Actively Passive Home — New Construction Using Old Rules

Sheri Dixon
30 Min Read

“Wait.  You forgot to draw in the HVAC closet”, said the young man with the product in his hair, perusing my pencil-on-graph-paper rendition of the house with a condescending sparkle in his eyes.

Actively Passive Home construction plans

Our house.

My house.

The house I’d been drawing in my dreams, on napkins, and the backs of homework and grocery lists and reams of graph paper since I was about 5 years old.  That house.

So I was infinitely aware that there was no HVAC closet in my house plan, and the reason was simplicity itself.

There’s no central heat, venting, or air conditioning.

Because here’s something that’s been bugging me for a long time, ever since I started paying attention to people whining about how hot it is in summer and how cold it is in winter and the utility bills of either season breaking the bank to keep people at an inside-the-house comfortable 68-72 degrees.

It wasn’t always this way.

Here’s the part about “the old days”… just a heads up.

I remember back in the old days—in my case the 60’s and 70’s…NINETEEN 60’s and 70’s, y’all—summer was hot and we got all sweaty and melty even/especially at night when we’d toss and turn and flip the pillow over every 10 minutes in quest of “the cool side”.  Winter was cold and we got snotcicles and our eyeballs hurt if we were outside for more than 30 seconds.

My childhood home was built in the mid-’50s and was a tiny little ranch-style home plunked down on a 40 x 120-foot city lot and lined up with about a dozen other houses just like it.  The yard was short on trees except ‘way at the back lot line.  The houses had all pretty much the same layouts but tried valiantly to look all different with varying colors of brick and window trim.  Because the goal was to cram as many of these little boxes as possible within spitting distance of the neighborhood schools, they were essentially identical outside and inside and gave little thought or regard to where windows and doors were placed other than to be sure there were enough “egresses” to please the fire marshal.  Where did the sun rise and set?  Was there any natural flow of air through the rooms and from one room to another?  Who cared?  Because we now had the miracle of…

…The hallway thermostat.

The hallway thermostat makes the outside irrelevant to the inside, which is beyond awesome… until the electricity goes out.

There’s something very un-shelter-like about a box that has no ventilation (even those pet store boxes they put hamsters in have air holes poked into ‘em) but that’s exactly how houses have been built since the advent of mechanical central heating and cooling—as sealed boxes to keep all that (expensive) artificially heated and cooled air from escaping.

So if there’s no electricity or other power source, or even if you just want to open the windows to let some fresh air in, it goes…nowhere.  Because air needs to flow, as in “come in this window and go out this door”.  If a house is built without regard for airflow and is comprised of a maze of dead-end rooms the air starts to come in the windows, but quickly becomes depressed and just sulks around the sill.

And people say, “How did anyone LIVE without air conditioning???  It must’ve been HELL!!!”

Well, it’s hot, but it’s far from the paintings I’ve seen of Dante’s Inferno.

Because when I planned this house, I planned it to be a Shelter—a Home, somewhere that would, as much as possible for a structure located above ground, maintain a comfortable temperature with a minimum of artificial interference—not by being tightly wrapped up from the elements, but by placing and laying it out to take advantage of (gasp) Outside.

Of course, there are a number of books and articles on how to use the newest (spendiest) innovations to be “green and natural”.  We won’t go there, because honestly—we don’t have to.

The very first step is finding your property.  Within the limits of your desired/required location and your pocketbook, the possibilities are still daunting.  There are many books and articles written on how to find and buy just the right piece of land, but other than non-negotiable things like “must have water source”, “must not be on a nuclear waste dump” and “must be zoned for what we want to do” the only requirement is “does it FEEL like Home?”

We looked for years and at literally hundreds of properties with our “must-have/must-not-have” list engraved in our brains, but when we walked onto this morsel of the planet we knew we were Home, even though it lacked in one minor area—it’s smaller than we thought we’d “settle” for: 12 acres instead of 20—but it’s surrounded by hundreds of acres of wilderness that’ll never be built on, so we’re good—everything else is so much more than we’d hoped for.

The very next step is to figure out where the house is going to sit.  While popular opinion holds that the house should be:

a)     Where everyone from the road can see what a great house you have

b)    Where you have a great view of the surrounding area

c)     As closely and cheaply to the electric/water lines as possible

d)    Where the builder/zoning inspector tells you to put it

The reality should be:

a)     Where the prevailing breezes will flow through it

b)    Where it’s sheltered from the coldest winter winds and the hottest summer sun

c)     Where you feel safest—not “Doberman Pincher armed with a grenade” safe, but “wrapped in grandma’s quilt eating popcorn in front of a fireplace” safe.

Find that spot.  Camp on that spot during all seasons before building (I know… you want your house NOW, but you’ll be living in it forever and if built right it’ll be a lot harder to move your house to make adjustments than a tent).

One word of caution (brought to you by my friend George, whose wisdom in these things is borderline spooky)—if you have an absolute favorite spot on your property—where the view is just right or the spirits whisper to you from a babbling brook—DO NOT BUILD THE HOUSE THERE.  Put up a gazebo, a fire pit, a yurt, a treehouse, but nothing as substantial as a full-scale home no matter how small—once you make that much of a stir in your favorite spot…it won’t be the same spot again—ever.

While you’re camping, move the tent, table, camp chairs around—see where the sun is in your eyes during morning coffee and where the best seat is to catch the warmth of a sunset.  Imagine doing dishes or taking a shower—what do you want to be looking at?  Start pegging out your house with stakes and string—even if nothing is on paper yet, because we’re going to use 2 criteria to shape the entire project:

1.  The house and nature blending together to create comfort—completely site-specific

2.  The house and your family blending together to create comfort—for your family specifically

So you’ve got the invisible house sitting where it’s going to go. Now make a list in your head of what YOUR family wants and needs—as a whole and individually.

Some people love the maze effect and privacy of many small rooms. Our family, not so much, so our house is essentially three big rooms: two side by side cabins and a dog trot (explained below—no worries). Inside those spaces are divided by half walls and Dutch doors (which go a long way to aiding and abetting airflow). The only full walls/doors are in the bathrooms and closets.

Think about the types of structures your family feels the most comfortable in, and build accordingly. Ask each family member to think of one thing they’d most want in a space of their own and as much as the laws of physics and your budget allow—do it.

I know this is morphing into a “how to design your floor plan” thing from a “heating and cooling naturally” thing, but they all must work together to work at all—if the floor plan is wrong, the house won’t be comfortable without a lot of mechanical interference, but if the floor plan looks only at efficiency the family won’t be comfortable due to lack of privacy.

If the thought of designing and/or building your own home makes you break out in hives, any blueprint will work once altered to accommodate what our goals are—and here’s an important fact to know, remember and recite to yourself upon rising each morning on the homestead—it’s YOUR house.

There were more than a few times when the builder/electrician/plumber told me, “That won’t work here”, and expected That to be That.  No need to be snotty, but ask, “Why?” and wait until the answer makes sense to YOU. Most of the time in most of the cases, the answer will boil down to, “We don’t usually do it that way”.

That’s when you smile sweetly and sincerely and purr “Well, you are now, Bubba… ain’t life a grand adventure?  Here, have a warm brownie and a cuppa fresh coffee.”

As my template, I used old house plans and actual old houses I’ve known, loved, and lived in, paying special attention to log cabins as that’s my “ultimate mental comfort” structure, and the medium we were building with. I took note of how they were/are laid out with respect to light and ventilation and prevailing winds and all those quaint old-timey things people paid attention to back in the day.

As I planned for year-round comfort, I knew one thing—ventilation is key.

Not “how many attic vents or ductwork type vents or soffit vents” but actual non-restricted airflow from end to end and crossways.

And I kept coming back to a style known down here as a “dog trot”. Originally they were done for financial reasons; the builder (also known as the “homeowner”) acquired a piece of property and put up a very modest square cabin. One room. As time and finances permitted and the addition of a wife and/or children dictated, another square was built next to but not attached to the first. The third step was to roof over the 2 cabins, giving access from one to the other without getting sunburned (9 months of the year) or wet (3 months of the year except for this year, which would be 15 minutes of the year).

A happy accidental result in this configuration was the awesome wind tunnel effect of the dogtrot area—making it very popular on hot summer days and nights—shaded and windy beats the stuffing out of closed up and stifling.

So I loved the idea of a dogtrot, loved that it’s a style indigenous to this area of the country, and absolutely adored the totally whimsical descriptive name—I mean…seriously.

Many folks actually lived in the dog trot during the summer, but since our house was going to be small, I knew I’d want year-round livability to our dog trot area, so I planned it with opening and screened windows and doors barely containing it—I can literally watch 2 hummingbirds chase each other from the feeder outside one end window all the way across the width of the dog trot area through the windows without missing more than a few beats of their wings.

Taking full advantage of the ventilation, however, meant that our living area needed to be one big room instead of 3 separate ones. Not a problem for us—as stated before, we love open spaces. We put the kitchen in the middle (because the kitchen is the heart and command center of the home) with a counter between the kitchen and dining area and a freestanding fireplace between the kitchen and living room.

Each of the cabin “sides” has one big room divided by a half wall and a bathroom.  Our side is our bedroom and Ward’s library

And the other side is Alec’s bedroom (including a “perch”—he clamors on top of his bathroom ceiling via his top bunk; he’s got a mattress, pillows, books, and stuff up there) and a study area.

The half walls allow for unrestricted airflow, and the ability to have two distinct yet small areas while maintaining the appearance of space.

Crosswise ventilation—check.

There are wrap-around porches—all the way around.  I wanted easy access to these areas so every single room opens onto a porch (except the bathrooms and pantry).  When the crew was building the house the foreman said to me, “Maam?  We build a lot of these houses and most of them are bigger than this one but we’ve NEVER put this many doors in a house”.   Nine.  We have nine doors in a 1,498 sq. ft. house.  I figure hey—we don’t have to use ‘em all, but they’re there if we want to.  The only downside is that now I feel trapped in “front and back door” houses…

The old house we moved out of was built in 1890 and had 12-foot ceilings to let the heat rise up in the summer without cooking the occupants living on the floor.  Keeping that in mind, we insulated under the roof decking, then just followed the pitch of the roof for our interior ceiling—it peaks at 14 feet down the center down to a bit over 7 feet at the lowest point of the porches.

There are opening windows in the gables to allow the hot air to escape and not a single wall that goes floor to ceiling so the wind blows cooler air in one end of the house and hotter air out the other.  There are ceiling fans in the center of each of the 3 sections to keep the air moving at all times.

Our heat is either wood from freestanding wood burners,

One on each end of the house, or propane from ventless thermostat-controlled wall heaters—one also on each end of the house.  Since both wood and propane heat surfaces instead of air very little is lost to rising up to the ceiling.

In the winter sun comes streaming in through the windows and skylights on the east side of the house to heat the tile kitchen counters and cement floor.

OK.  Weird.  But how does it actually WORK?

I’d planned and studied and watched it all go together all during a perfect autumn and excitedly thought, “I can’t wait to see how the house behaves in really really cold and really really hot weather!”

Beware of what you ask.

We moved into the house, literally amid and around electricians and contractors, on January 4th, which was a typical winter day here in East Texas—lows in the 40s, highs in the high 50’s to low 60’s.

Within a month we were smack dab in the center of the worst winter anyone could remember—weeks of highs below freezing and nights in the teens.  Point of reference: I’ve been here since the winter of ’93 and can remember exactly 3 times it dropped into the teens before last year.

It was a freaking Winter Wonderland.

And here we were: log home with zero insulation other than the logs themselves and what was between the roof decking and the ceiling boards.  No central heat.  No heater at all in the center of the house (the fireplace is mostly for ambiance; it’s a highly insulated insert) or the bathrooms—just those suspiciously inadequate-looking wall heaters that have a temperature range of 1 through 5, and the 2 tiny wood heaters.  We decided since we had no stocked wood yet, we’d go with propane only for the first year.

We turned the little heaters to 2 and waited, fingers crossed.

Warm.  It was warm.  Not just in front of the heaters… everywhere.  The bedrooms were warm.  The bathrooms were warm.  The center of the house—with full log walls separating it from the bedroom sides—was warm.  The cement floor?  Warm.  The cement floor right under the ceiling fan in the kitchen, as far from the heaters as you can get? Almost too warm.

Well into the cold snap I walked up to Ward one night and said, “Feel these” and I placed my hands on his face.  Shocked almost to fear he asked, “Honey?  Are you OK???” Because, my hands?  Warm.  Never ever, ever in my life have I had warm hands in the winter until we moved into a house with no central heat.

We never did use any setting above 2, and we went through less propane to heat our house than our friend Joe did in his camper setting 50ft away.

“Aha”, thought I.  “So the house performed beautifully in the winter, but this is TEXAS—our REAL test will be summer”.

I admit it.  The entire state of Texas suffered from the hottest summer on record: over 75 days exceeding 100 degrees, because I wanted to know how my house would act in the face of summer weather.

‘Course we didn’t know that in the beginning.

We eagerly installed a thermometer in the center of the house, and one on the north side of the porch outside, we armed ourselves with window box fans and waited for the mercury to rise.

Boy howdy.

Not being used to central air helped… a lot.  In the old house, we had window units just in the bedrooms that were turned on mid-afternoon thru morning to facilitate sleeping—even with the high ceilings the house was an old Victorian “rabbit warren” layout so there was restricted airflow.  We were confident that the new place would behave better.

When the highs were in the 90’s and the lows in the 70’s we were very comfortable at night and had just a few hours of, “Step in front of my box fan and die” in the mid-afternoon, and the cement floor remained cool.  The house temperature stayed under 85.

Considering our roof (which is purposely the lightest color we could get for this very reason) is in full sun from mid-morning till late afternoon, we considered this a wild success.

But it kept rising.

After 2 weeks of continuous over 100 during the day and low 80’s at night, the cement floor warmed up.  The interior temperature was still under 90.

After 2 MONTHS of continuous over 100 during the day and low 80’s at night, the kitchen counters were hot to the touch…all the time and even where no sun ever hit them.  The interior temperature still never rose above 95, and those were the days the outside in the shade thermometer screamed 117.

Now, 95 seems downright toasty… unless you’re coming inside from where it’s 117.  And when it cools down to 80, you need a light sheet over you by morning.  There were only 2 nights that we were “can’t sleep cuz we’re melting” uncomfortable.

It’s called acclimatization—your body gets used to where you’re at.  The problem arises when people spend all day at an office or store where it’s 68 degrees and then go outside into 100.  They suffer.  Truly they do.  Not because they’re wimps, but because that’s what their body gets used to.  On the days we didn’t leave the farm, we did fine.  On the days we ran errands in a/c all day, it felt miserably hot when we got home.

Weather is a universally appealing topic so when people said on a daily basis, “Geez, it’s hot out… how did people LIVE without a/c?” and we answered with, “Actually it’s ok… we don’t have any”, we were regarded as having sprouted extra heads and perhaps a few tentacles.

We were called crazy.  We were pitied with horror.  Folks actually started going through their pockets to take up collections to BUY us window units.  No one could believe we were a/c-free…by choice.

So here we are at exactly one year in our home without an HVAC closet.

What would I do differently or change?

For the winter: absolutely nothing.  Winter was fabulous in this house.  We’ve got a good-sized woodpile and will try heating mostly with wood this year to see how that goes, and I’ve got the fireplace rocked up so they can run the pipe for the wood cookstove that sits up against its back.

Summertime?  I’m buying freaking window units.

Just kidding.

We actually didn’t finish up what we had planned to for the summertime—in the way of building loans we ran out of money before we ran out of things on The List.  Things we vow to have done before NEXT summer that were on that list:

Reasonably powerful fans in the top gable windows to push the hot air out of the house faster as it pulls in the cooler air from below; on the days with a good stiff breeze, this was done by Mom Nature, but most of this sweltering summer was deathly still as well.

Screening the 2 sections of porch that were built just for the purpose of using as sleeping and dining porches.  Along with the heat, we had a record drought.  Normally we’d have mosquitoes the size of hubcaps all summer, but this year—not a one.  So I slept out on the porch some and I proclaim it Good.

Getting screen doors all around—even though we have 20, yes 20 windows in this little house that are full open having 9 doorways open as well will make a world of difference.

The best part of no central air conditioning?  Our electric bill never went over $100, and I know most of that is from the 2 chest freezers and the refrigerator that had to work hard all summer long.  Point of reference: Joe’s little cabin that he built: 240 sq. ft. insulated the same as our walls and ceiling (his isn’t log, it’s wood siding) has a window unit.  During the hottest days, it only kept it in the 80s in the afternoon.  His electric bill was over $90 per month.

It goes without saying that if you wanted to invest in things like solar panels, wind turbines, small home hydro-electric set-ups, or geo-thermal your home could be warmer in the winter (although ours never dropped below 70 with the little propane heaters) and cooler in the summer, but that wasn’t my intent.

I wanted to see if a comfortable home could be built without using any (really spendy) new-fangled technology AND without conventional “gotta have” heating and cooling apparatuses that cost money to run and use a ton of resources that this planet is running short on.

If the electricity turned off tomorrow, we could still heat and cook with wood (which we have plenty of), and while it would be some sweatier without fans, the summer would be tolerable.  We have our own well, which we had dug to accommodate a hand pump (also on The List) as well as the electric pump, and our home is full of oil lamps, our closet filled with cases of oil.

Our freezers and refrigerator would be our only big problem, but we’re working on that.

Lighting.  Heating.  Cooling.  Food preparation.

A home that breathes with the seasons and shelters its humans in an actively passive old-fashioned way, is more than a house—it’s a member of the family.

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