Most engineers call it "integrated design", but green systems installers like to use the word "holistic" because it rings of holistic therapy, holistic medicine and other natural alternatives that work just as well as their traditional counterparts. But what is it?
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There are two parts to maximizing solar gain through windows: direct gain and indirect gain. The more obvious and common of the two is direct gain – using the sunlight that comes through the windows and heats the air and thermal mass in the home by falling directly on objects and walls.
Holistic or integrated home design is the art and science of creating homes which take full advantage of the natural resources available – notably light and heat – while providing a comfortable, pleasant living environment. Like all things, it has its advantages and disadvantages.
Two alternatives to standard windows are clerestory windows – those high-up windows that sit between two levels of external roofing – and skylights. They both have their uses in passive solar design, though you have to be careful with their effects on light and heating.
The ideal layout for a home built around passive solar concepts is a simple rectangle. Not only does this ensure that the long axis of the building gathers as much solar energy as possible (assuming it faces true south, of course), but it also limits the amount of summer heat gathered by the east- and west-facing sides.
"Thermal mass" is all the stuff inside your home which the sun can heat: it includes everything from the walls and floor to furnishings to special construction materials designed to absorb and retain warmth. When you talk to professional installers, it is unlikely they will include minor incidentals in their definition of the term - they're mostly concerned with dedicated mass such as concrete slabs and Trombe walls.