Debra Rucker Coleman, Architect
FAQs
When planning to build a sun-inspired home, there can be hundreds of questions. If the question is not answered on the web site or in The Sun-Inspired House, please Contact Us. For questions that require research or complex answers, such as those that relate to a specific climate or to a particular house plan, please consider one of the Consulting Services.
General FAQs
Can you add smaller house plans?
Sun Plans often adds house plans to the web site after a home owner commissions the creation of one and the construction drawings are completed. Typically, this does not happen until the home owners have completed construction. Please see Reviews for what other small-house clients have had to say. It's more affordable than most people think.
Can you tell me when new plans are added?
Yes. Please sign up for the Sun Plans E-Newsletter to be notified of newly posted house plans. While not all custom designs are added to the website, approximately five to ten are added per year.
What is the best way to get the perfect sun-inspired home for me?
Most customers first look at the pre-designed plans. In that case, it is suggested that a list be made of requirements in terms of square footage, bedrooms per floor as well as the compass direction that the front of the home should face. This assumes that the land has been purchased which is recommended to assure that the design properly fits the site in terms of orientation. Then look at House Plans and search ones that are the closest to the requirements. (Be sure to look at TIPS on the House Plan page.) One may be found that works well or can be adapted slightly. If one design does not stand out, consider Create-A-SunPlan Services.
You can't go wrong starting with Create-A-SunPlan first since in the first stage the architect searches designs on and off the web site for ones that may fit the detailed wish list created with the Planning Package from Sun Plans. The Sun Plans' architect can help define the square footage needed which may be smaller than was first thought. A smaller home costs less to build and to operate
What are tips to choosing the perfect lot for a sun-inspired home?
The so-called "perfect lot" for a solar home would have as few restrictions as possible. A sunny south side is critical. Ideally, few trees would shade this south area in the winter, and there would be no tall mountains or buildings on the south that would shade the south wall of the house in winter.
Privacy is usually wanted on this south side, because of the many windows there, so look for land where a neighbor cannot build to the south or one where the house can be set further back to avoid this. The number of south windows makes land with great south views ideal also.
Land that slopes to the south should be selected for those home owners open to having living areas on more than one level, since placing extra bedrooms in a sunny lower level tucked into the hill will save more energy than the same spaces placed on a second floor.
If a large front porch is high on the list of must-haves, avoid land where the front of the home would face south as the porch would block solar gain. This applies to homes in the hot south as well. However, porches work very well on the east and west since they can also shade the house from the morning and afternoon sun in the summer.
Land that requires the front of the home to face north typically provides the greatest flexibility with porches. That allows for a wide front porch. Just don't forget that porches cost money too! Especially when creating a custom design, Sun Plans right sizes the porches (basically outdoor living areas) to fit the home owners budget and lifestyle as they do the right sizing of interior spaces.
Can you tell me the closest home to me so we can visit?
Due to client privacy, only the general location may be given. Also, the home owner may not be willing to show their home. As an architectural firm and not a building firm, Sun Plans does not have model homes nor agreements with home owners to require them to open up their house for tours. However, some home owners have shared photos along with comments and if so, both can be found on the house plans page. With those who engage Sun Plans in Create-A-SunPlan services, occasionally arrangement can be made for a private tour of a nearby home if there are enough similarities between the house constructed and the requirements of the new customer. Looking at a home that is unrelated in size, budget and energy priorities can be misleading. Those determinations can't be discovered until after the review and consulting stage of the architectural services.
Do you have any photos of plans that I am interested in?
Maybe. If so, they can be found on each house plan page. Sun Plans relies on the generosity of home owners for photos. They may be sent during construction or after they move in (sometimes years later after the decorating and landscaping is completed). Study Plans have been created of each design to allow a more detailed view of the design. The Study Plans are the same drawings communicated enough detail to the original client prior to them committing to building the house.
Can you give me the phone number or email address for the home owners?
Sun Plans confidentiality policies do not permit this. Sun Plans' home owners who wish to share do so by sending photos and information, but we do not post their last names nor location. The climate zone in which the home may not be the same as where a customer plans to build so the recommendations for level of insulation, for instance, may be different. Custom Energy Specs available with Construction Prints and CAD files make particular recommendations for each location. Since Sun Plans is typically not hired to provide services during construction, it may not be known to what extent the plans were followed. If the home owner made changes or did not hire a third party home energy rater to oversee and test the home for instance, the home may not be performing as well as expected through no fault of Sun Plans. Occasionally, after Sun Plans gets to know a customer and their house needs (after the Review and Consulting Services), contact information for nearby clients can be provided if that client gives permission.
Why does plan "XXX" house plan have the "XXX" feature?
The variations on this question have been endless! Every Sun Plan originated from a custom client who may have requested unusual spaces and features. Unique solutions often evolve as an option when considering the hundreds features to be considered when designing a home.
Can I just call the architect instead of going through one of the Consulting Services?
While it is encouraged to call Sun Plans with simple questions, most concerns are most thoroughly addressed with Contact Us since in the form the customer is requested to provide some basic information that the architect needs to do prior to providing an appropriate response. If a good response cannot be provided by email, the architect may then request that the customer give Sun Plans a call.
Plus, with more detailed concerns, without previous knowledge of the climate, lifestyle, budget and schedule, advice given might be inappropriate or misleading. Speaking with the architect directly is generally reserved for those who have already engaged Sun Plans in Consulting Services after she has reviewed the detailed information submitted.
Using the analogy of a doctor's office visit, it is in the customer's best interest to fill out forms and provide a lot of information prior to getting good advice. Mostly likely a doctor would not accept a call from a non-patient.
Can I have a local draftsman copy and make changes to one of your designs?
Sorry, no. It is not allowed by Sun Plans nor the US Copyright Office:
"Only the owner of copyright in a work has the right to prepare, or to authorize someone else to create, a new version of that work. Accordingly, you cannot claim copyright to another's work, no matter how much you change it, unless you have the owner's consent."
CAD Files are the only Sun Plans drawings that come with a copyright release to allow for modifying the design. The CAD Files can be imported into many types of software and then modified or traced. And since CAD Files come with PDF files, those can be printed and traced by those design professionals that draw by hand.
Not only is it morally wrong to copy someone else's work (think cheating in grade school), but also illegal with fines that can exceed the cost of the home.
Sun Plans does not "making a killing" off of selling designs that have already been paid for once by the original client. It takes a tremendous amount of time to market a design by posting and hosting it on the web site, providing customer service, prepare Custom Energy Specs and often update a design for each order of Construction Prints and CAD Files.
Can my builder construct one of your homes without buying Construction Prins or CAD files?
No. Since a set of plans is needed, someone will have to draw it. (See above response on copying restrictions.) The information on the web site and in the Study Plans is very limited and does not contain information for construction. The Review Sets are stamped Not for Construction across every sheet with red letters.
How can I tell which plans are designed for UD - Universal Design?
Universal Design can be very subjective as can designing for wheelchair use. It is important to avoid a one-size-fits-all mindset. Each client for whom the original home was designed differed in their requests for specific UD features so consequently each plan is variable in those regards. Sun Plans strives to integrate as many UD principles as possible in each plan until it conflicts with something else that the client wants. With wheelchair adaptations, the square footage often needs to be increased. Most Sun Plans already have the primarily UD elements of a first floor master bedroom along with wider halls and doors. With Create-A-SunPlan, the home owners specific needs are addressed. With Adapt-A-SunPlan, it can be easy to add specific UD features. Some clients go through a UD checklist and list the things that are important to them. The Conservation Showhome client wanted many UD features including both an elevator and extra wide straight staircase.
Can you tell me where to find roof slopes? My subdivision guidelines have minimums.
Roof slopes are shown on the Review Set or Construction Prints as is the building height which is sometimes restricted. A builder can estimate slope from web site drawings. Roof slope is a relatively minor item to change. A builder may be able to adjust the roof slope as a "field change" if acceptable to the architectural review board of the subdivision. If not, it is not time-intensive to change the roof slope on the drawings, although that would vary from plan to plan. Usually, a roof slope can be increased with few implications, although the overhang length may need to shorten slightly. On a truss-framed roof, the attic gets larger. On a stick-framed roof such as 1.5-story plans, the second floor square footage may increase.
My favorite plan is no longer listed. Can I still purchase it?
Sun Plans periodically phases out plans if there has been no interest shown in it for several years. However, interested customers can Contact Us with the name of the house plan and request a price.
Can I get a discount on design if I bring in my sketches?
Customers often provide sketches and drawings as a way to communicate ideas in addition to their wish list. Sun Plans will look at them after they have completed the review of the written information so as to not prejudice floor plan options too soon. Architects are trained in creating floor plans and the Sun Plans architect specializes in right-sizing floor plans. The Sun Plans fees are kept affordable based on the home owner being an interactive part of the process. It would never be ruled out to not give a discount based on something the customer provided, but it should not be expected.
Solar & Energy
Can you designate which plans work best in either a hot or cold climate?
It is not simple to assign a hot or cold climate designation since that would be a complex task with many exceptions. Passive solar house plans from Sun Plans could work in a hot or cold climate. However, those plans with higher percentages of south glass would perform better in cold climates without recommended changes to the design, and those with lower percentages of south glass would work better in hot climates without recommended changes. However, when the Custom Energy Specs are prepared, any changes for the climate are recommended and some can be done as simple "field changes" by the builder such as adjusting insulation values. From the Review Set a builder experienced in constructing low-energy, high-performance homes can often tell if additional changes will need to be made.
While it can be difficult to add south glass to some plans since there may not be any additional south wall available in which to add windows, it is easy to reduce south glass. With Adapt-A-SunPlan services, the architect can tell if climate-related changes are necessary. Energy and climate-related changes such as south glass and overhang changes are typically very easy to make in relation to floor plan or exterior design changes. And even if Sun Plans does not make the changes, the Custom Energy Specs available with Construction Prints and CAD files include recommendations for making any adjustments in overhang length, south glass or insulation. If, in the unusual case that a design would be ordered that Sun Plans feels could not be adapted to the proposed climate, it would be advised, but that has never happened.
Why are some of your plans designed to sit at a 45 degree angle to the sun?
Those plans were designed for clients whose lots made it impossible to site a house with a long east-west axis fit on the site, or were clients whose view to the southeast or southwest was so great that it exceeded the value that they placed on passive solar. There is some energy compromise in terms of less solar gain and possible afternoon overheating in the summer.
Can your house plans be built to zero net energy with PV collectors?
Sun Plans are very adaptable to meeting the standards of the net zero energy houses including the Zero Energy Ready Home program by DOE. Net-Zero homes. If PV incentives are high in a state, then some home owners choose more PV and less insulation, but Sun Plans recommends more insulation as a first step. Most Sun Plans' clients plan on going to zero net energy at some point either with the initial build or in the future, so the plans already come with above average attention to energy detailing and most designs have a roof area ready to hold many south-facing solar panels. Alternatively, many clients prefer the panels to be pole mounted so that they are more accessible or if their roof is a bit complex. When the customer advises Sun Plans that they desire a zero net energy home initially, the Custom Energy Specs are prepared with a little higher insulation values.
Are Sun Plans designed to meet the Passive House standards?
Not as a rule since not every homeowner desires it, but some customers have chosen to build to the Passive House standards. Sun Plans are adaptable to meeting the standards of the German-originated Passive House (AKA Passivhaus) standards that have been introduced into the U.S. and Canada. For a home to be certified as a Passive House, a local Passive House verifier must be involved locally. If a customer advises Sun Plans of their intentions after the order is placed for Construction Prints or CAD Files, Sun Plans can recommend the appropriate R-values required. The actual Certification for the Passive House (should that be desired) would need to be performed by a Certified Passive House Professional locally and Sun Plans would be glad to work alongside them. CAD Files, or the Adapt-A-SunPlan or Create-A-SunPlan Services could make obtaining Passive House certification easier.
Do your plans suggest radiant floor heating?
Radiant floor heating or any other auxiliary heating system for that matter, is determined by the local heating subcontractor along with the owner although Sun Plans can often make general recommendations through the custom services. Radiant heat design is very climate-specific and mainly for cold climates. Although the Custom Energy Specs address radiant heat, the design of the system, or of any other specific heating system, is done by HVAC professionals. In the residential construction industry, the heating and cooling systems are typically designed by the HVAC subcontractor. Codes require them to perform a heating and cooling load analysis, usually in the form of Manual J. (With custom services, Sun Plans can help find and recommend an HVAC design professional with low-load, high-performance experience.)
Since the heating loads of passive solar homes are often very low due to the solar gain, more complicated heating systems such as Hydronic radiant heating, or even geothermal, may not always be cost effective. Many home owners are electing to have simpler systems to supplement the passive solar (that is often combined with wood) such as the mini-split heat pumps that are also available in cold-climate versions.
Where is the HVAC mechanical information on the Review Set?
The Review Set is the same as the Construction Prints. HVAC design vary greatly with the climate and client preferences so HVAC is not a part of pre-designed plans. It is standard in the house plan and home building industry to have the HVAC designed by the subcontractor. When creating a new design for a specific client and location, custom mechanical information can be included in the design. If that design is later added to the web site, Sun Plans often removes any custom notes about the HVAC so as to not mislead a future customer into thinking that what was acceptable to the original client is acceptable for another climate and different energy priorities. Some customers may desire Passivhaus performance while others may be happy with Energy Star minimum. In the case of some plans, the client may not have used a ducted HVAC system.
Small tight homes that are well-insulated can use a mini-split heat pump systems that have few to no HVAC ducts, but that can only be determined after the building heating and cooling load calculations are done. Sun Plans can recommend HVAC consultants to help the home owner's size, select systems appropriate to the climate and the particular energy priorities.
How is moisture controlled especially for cooling for your designs?
With the same methods used for any home. Moisture control is a part of every house. It is a building code requirement. The HVAC designer who is often the HVAC subcontractor is responsible for the heating and cooling of the home including moisture control. Energy Star homes have detailed requirements that go beyond building codes so that is why Energy Star performance is recommended as a minimum. Some home owners enjoy opening and closing windows to help with moisture removal during parts of the year, but that is very location-specific and some have allergies that require the house to be sealed much of the year.
What is a daylight cooling chimney?
In Sun Plans, daylight cooling chimneys are framed and insulated areas between truss-framed roofs. Most often they are found in one story homes that otherwise do not have a very large stack effect (distance between lowest and highest point inside the home) that aids passive cooling during the periods of the year when the windows can be open. It is a less expensive alternative to a full clerestory or atrium on the roof. The window(s) at the top allows daylight into the middle of the home and hot air out when the windows are open. These windows are best opened electronically; however, typically there is information in the drawings and/or specs to allow for placement of wall mounted fans (with insulated covers) high on the outside wall of the daylight cooling chimneys to aid in ventilation in lieu of operable windows. In homes with daylight basements which can have operable windows on both the basement and main floor, the daylight cooling chimney is less important if the doors are left open between the floors during passive cooling seasons.
What special adjustments do you make to accommodate solar panels?
For most designs, little to none. Sun Plans strives to design roofs to include a large area of south-facing roof area to allow for easy installation of solar panels on the roof. For custom designs, the roof can be optimized for the latitude, but often there are other structural and aesthetic concerns that also factor in. Some designs have south-facing dormers or other projections that can limit the number of solar panels, but that can be seen on the web site drawings. Homes with really low-loads (most likely with home owners very conscientious of energy use) may not need very many solar panels. A local PV consultant can work with you based on the PV equipment available locally.
Can you help me find magnetic declination for my area?
Geographical latitude and longitude is what one needs to determine the orientation for passive solar design; otherwise, the house could be oriented up to 20 degrees off (or more). Once latitude and longitude is known (this can be found in Google Earth for instance), it is much easier to find the magnetic declination. This link will help find magnetic declination by US Zip Code: http://www.ngdc.noaa.gov/geomag-web/#declination
For Canada: http://geomag.nrcan.gc.ca/apps/mdcal-eng.php
A compass's north needle points to magnetic north, not true north and Sun Plans homes should generally be oriented with the south wall facing true south although with Custom Energy Specs, often an orientation other than exactly true south is recommended. Exact orientation will vary based on the location, climate, particular house plan and client interior temperature preferences for various times of day. 45 degree angled plans must have the corner oriented exactly to true south, not magnetic south.
Builders and Building Codes
Can you help me find a builder?
At this time, a database of builders is not kept since not all home owners share builder data or their level of satisfaction; however, some very good builders have built one or more sun-inspired homes. Sun Plans is not a large company with houses in every county, so the chances of a builder being in the same county where the home owner will be building is very small. Sometimes builders will Contact Us and asked to be notified if there are any home owners that wish to build near them. Sun Plans likes that as it can be a win-win-win for all parties. Sun Plans can also research suitable builders in general as part of Services provided. Any experienced, open-minded builder is a good candidate. They need not have passive solar experience, but experience building homes to Energy Star, R-2000 (Canada) or other low-energy, high-performance homes standards.
Are your plans suitable for my location, without modifications?
Sun Plans' Custom Energy Specs that come with Construction Prints and CAD Files address the energy-related elements of the energy codes for the specific location where the home will be built. Sometimes modifications are recommended, but they are typically very minor.
For the structural elements, a local structural engineer (preferably with residential experience) should first review the plans for conformance to local conditions for factors like snow loads, earthquakes, high winds or unstable soils. Often a builder may already have a relationship with a structural engineer. The engineer may "red line" a set of Construction Prints, attach 8.5x11 specs, prepare additional supplementary drawings or modify CAD files from Sun Plans. Typically, some additional information will be added, but seldom does much need to change. As an additional service, Sun Plans can coordinate with the structural engineer and assist in evaluating any proposed changes for the home owner.
For general building codes, the Construction Prints or CAD Files may need minor modifications, but again, this is usually rather minor and done by the builder during construction. Building codes are continuously changing and may vary even between two nearby cities or between the city, the county and the state or province in Canada. Even if a plan was to be built in the same location as the original house was built, codes could have changed. Having a Review Set of plans checked by the local building inspector, builder and/or engineer for a preliminary check is a good way to get early feedback prior to purchasing Construction Prints or CAD Files. Sun Plans also updates plans every few years so final Construction Prints may vary from the Review Set.
Architectural design (or house plans) and structural engineering are just some of the professional fees that go into planning a home. Even with the other professional fees such as those by surveyors, soils engineers, landscape architects, interior designers and the home energy rater, Sun Plan's customer are still finding that the total for these fees is still less than that those of realtor should they be purchasing a home of the same size. This is true even when creating a new design.
How important is it that I have a builder with passive solar experience?
Lack of experience building a passive solar home is not a good a reason to turn away a builder, nor should a builder turn away from accepting a job for the same reason. Sun Plans designs are based on conventional construction methods. However, lack of understanding, education, or experience with construction of tight, well-insulated homes in general would be a reason to keep looking for another builder.
Builders and their subcontractors, especially the subcontractors who will be installing the heating system, also need to realize that low-energy, high-performance homes need much smaller heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. Builders should hire trained HVAC subcontractors, energy-consultants, or home energy raters that can assist with proper equipment sizing to avoid over-sizing for both heating and cooling. Sun Plans has an HVAC energy consultant that is available to consult with home owners, builders and their HVAC subcontractors, should there not be one near the building site.
Sun Plans recommends (at least with early contact by phone before they have seen the design) when interviewing builders to not mention "passive solar", but instead to focus on the desire for a low-energy, high-performance home. Some of the stark contemporary, overglazed homes of the 1970's are still what older builders may associate with passive solar and they may not want to build one of those. Once they realize that is a relatively normal home that happens to have the long axis oriented east-west and most of the windows on the south, it can be explained that those are the primary components of passive solar design. Designs with 8% or lower south glass don't even require thermal mass beyond what would normally go into a home.
Materials and Changes
Can you give me recommendations on things like insulation and overhangs?
Absolutely. Custom Energy Specs are a specialty of Sun Plans and part of the services provided with orders for Construction Prints, CAD Files and custom designs. Energy elements such as insulation, south glass, overhangs and any other energy-related concerns that the client may have are reviewed for each location and customer energy priorities. The recommendations also vary with each house design.
Can you adapt the XXX (insert any name) house plans walls and roof for SIPs?
The short answer is "Yes!" However, just because a change can be made, does not mean that it is recommended. The answer to this question has been widened to include changing the wall and/or roof systems from other types of construction too. For instances, walls types that Sun Plans designs with include SIPs, ICF (insulated concrete block, double 2x4 staggered studs, 12" framed walls, 2x6 with exterior insulation, and others! Roofs that Sun Plans designs with include SIPs, rafters (of either 2x or laminated lumber), and trusses.
There is never a one size fits all answer as to whether or not a change is recommended as it depends upon many factors. The description for each house plan lists the general construction wall and roof systems of the particular plan. (The system varies based on the requests of the original home owner for whom the plan was created.)
The Custom Energy Specs that come with orders of Construction Prints or CAD Files will list several options that the walls can be changed to along with their recommended R-values for the climate of construction. That allows the builder to price several options for building the wall with the same R-value.
Roofs can be difficult to change from truss to rafters or SIPs and vice versa. While it can be easy to change a SIP roof to a rafter roof, the reverse may not be true since it depends upon the design roof loads of the area where the home will be constructed and the span capacities of the particular SIP manufacturer. For the best value in roof insulation (cost per R-value) for one story homes, Sun Plans typically recommends truss framed roofs with blown cellulose insulation over a tightly sealed ceiling since higher R-values can be achieved. Most of the one-story Sun Plans have trussed-framed roofs. Some of the two-story plans also do, but seldom does a 1.5 story house design have a truss roof system. Those designed would be more suitable for a SIP-framed roof if the spans were not too long.
Should my builder or Sun Plans change the exterior wall type to another method?
Whether or not walls need to be changed prior to creating Construction Prints varies and should be discussed with both the builder and building inspector. Sometimes a "field change" may be allowed by the inspector, then the builder agrees to work it out during construction, and the home owner takes the risk that they will like how the builder adapts the plan without prior approval from them on the drawings.
Other times the implications of the change can be such that it needs to be made in the drawings first. Any one of the parties (home owner, builder, inspector, structural engineer, energy rater, etc.) may be the one to initiate this request. This is especially the case when the proposed wall system is of a different thickness than the plans show. Will the house be expanded out or in, for instance if the wall thickness increases? Wrapping insulation on the exterior of structural walls may not increase the structural thickness of the wall that bears on the foundation, but it will then have other implications such as window installation.
Structural engineers also need to know about the change so that they can adequately adapt their recommendations and connections between the roof, wall and foundation.
Changing from one wall or building system to another is one of the most common reasons that home owners hire Sun Plans to adapt a plan for them. Rest assured that if during the review and consulting stage that the architect does not recommend the change, she will point this out along with alternatives. Often there is additional research is required of the particular wall system such as the R-value, and determining whether or not there is a qualified subcontractor is with the system. How experienced the builder's other subs are with working with a different wall system is very important as they need to be on board with any wall or roof system.
What is best type of exterior wall for passive solar - siding, brick or stucco?
The exterior wall materials (other than exterior insulation beneath the brick, siding or stucco) have little effect on the energy performance of the home. Because it is the most common type of construction, and therefore the method most familiar to builders, Sun Plans homes are mostly designed around the stud walls system for cost effectiveness.
However, some Sun Plans have with thicker stud walls, ICF (insulated concrete forms) SIPs (structural insulated panels), or other unusual types of exterior walls systems. Exterior wall type can be changed through the Adapt-A-SunPlan process.
Can you adapt a design for ICF (insulated concrete forms) and move the inside walls inside a little?
Although Sun Plans has experience changing outside walls to ICF and making adjustments for location, each plan is different and therefore must be evaluated individually. Those types of changes are about average in complexity. Changing walls inside al little can be a simple process. When the initial information is sent in to engage Sun Plans in Adapt-A-SunPlan consulting, the client should sketch out what they want or send us a list of ideas and Sun Plans will present some options for the bath layout.
Can we make changes ourselves or do we need for Sun Plans to make them for us?
There are several ways in which changes to a design can be accomplished:
  1. Sun Plans can make them through the Adapt-A-SunPlan services
  2. With the CAD Files from Sun Plan, a local design professional can make the changes.
  3. For simple changes, ask the builder to make the change as a "field change" which means that the home owners trust them to make the change without first seeing it on the drawings. Make sure this is ok with the building inspector as some will not allow field changes and require that changes (especially ones that are structural or change the shape of the home) be made on the drawings first.
FAQs