Passive Solar and Earth-Bermed Homes Have a Chance This Time Around

Some energy-saving ideas from the 1970s are much more viable now, thanks to new products and systems.
Jan 8, 2016 7:00 AM ET

Often, good ideas, simply because they've been around for a while, are assumed to be less effective, or even obsolete. But many of the energy-saving principles of the solar homes of the Carter era actually have the potential to work even better today. That's because insulating techniques, window glazings, and even window coverings have improved dramatically.

These techniques are not limited to new home construction. They apply whether you are starting from scratch on a new site, adding an addition, or dropping a modular home onto your lot.

Here's a look at three "Old School" technologies that make perfect sense for modern construction. For this article, we'll be looking primarily at cold-weather construction details, although some, such as earth berms and solar PV, have application in hot climates as well.

Earth Berm Upgrade

One of the problems with early attempts at partially buried, split or "bi-level" homes with livable basements was the near inevitability of moisture problems. The guideline has always been to steer water away from the basement, but new products offer a level of fail safe protection that wasn't there before. The old way was to simply slap a coat of asphalt on concrete below-grade walls, and install a sump hole in the concrete floor of the basement as a backup plan for any seepage. But modern products such as synthetic drainage mats are far more foolproof than a thin layer of asphalt that will degrade over time.