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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

Heating, Cooling & Ventilation: The Natural Way

Mar 28, 2013 05:23PM ● By Marilee Burrell

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Our planet and its ecosystems have inherent designs that were engineered to sustain and fulfill the needs of all the life that inhabits them. So it makes sense that we can use natural elements—earth, air, fire and water—to create a comfortable, healthy balance within the ecosystem we call our home.

Passive solar heating makes the best use of the radiant heat of the sun though strategic placement and design of windows and skylights. The sun warms certain home surfaces containing thermal mass, like walls and floors made of stone, tile or brick, or even interior water containers and ponds. The heat is stored within the mass and released slowly, as radiant heat, over a period of time. Properly designed roof overhangs and the use of deciduous trees, trellises and vines will prevent overheating during the hotter seasons.

Solar hot water heating panels can supply a radiant floor heating system that is also looped into the walls of a masonry air-tight fireplace or a gas hot water heater as an additional heating source.      

A healthy home ecosystem also capitalizes on natural ventilation achieved through a few basic design principles. In warm weather, windows placed on two adjacent or opposite walls will promote ventilation within rooms. Cupolas, skylights or a clerestory with active windows boost the natural stack effect (hot air rising to create ventilation) and cooling, with reversible ceiling fans used to augment air flow. In cool weather, the fans can be used to circulate warm air that has accumulated at the ceiling back toward the floor.

A central fresh air ventilation system with a heat exchanger can be used during the winter to circulate outside air into a house with minimal ductwork and heat it to ambient room temperatures through a passive air exchanger system.

The earth maintains a year-round ambient temperature of 52 degrees three to four feet below the surface. Therefore a home, home addition or attached greenhouse can be bermed, or sunken, on one to three sides to take advantage of both thermal mass and passive solar principles. The structure’s thermal mass will maintain the earth’s cool temperature and keep the related interior environment cool, as well. A two-foot-deep crushed rock bed can also be created beneath the finished grade-level floors, with ductwork buried in the rock bed. This will pick up the ambient cool temperatures, which can then be circulated throughout the house.

Water, particularly running water, also acts as a natural coolant. A “waterwall,” waterfall or flow-form system can be created and augmented with a ceiling or free-standing fan that blows on the surface of the water.

All these building techniques rely on the simple principles of nature and physics. In the end, a truly sustainable house needs little more than what Mother Nature has provided, with a few added technological elements.

Lou Levy Construction is located in Carmel, NY. For more info, call 914.804.2120 or visit