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SOLVIVA Home Sweet Home

After my home burned down, in February 1979, I started dreaming about a new home. It would be heated primarily with solar power, without overheating - with a large indoor garden producing fragrant flowers, oranges, lemons, sweet tomatoes, greens, herbs and who knows what else, year-round, and with a splash-all-you-want bathtub and shower in the middle of it - and it would have toilets that would not cause nitrogen pollution.

In 1981, my dream came true, and it turned out to far exceed my highest hopes. A number of concepts that apparently had never been done before, made it possible to substantially reduce pollution and cost of living, and it also just felt really good, and provided a strong sense of security and good karma.

Here follows some brief descriptions of these designs. For much more detailed information, check out the many detailed designs that describe the various Solviva systems.

The Solviva Comprehensive Solar Roof

This solar roof performs four important functions:

whole-house heating, cooling and air purification, and also water heating.

The air flows up through the air channels between the black metal roof and the clear glazing applied above it. This is so effective that it heats the air to 120ºF in just a few seconds, even if it's below zero outside. With slower air circulation, the air gets even hotter. With faster air circulation, the air gains less heat.

Solar-powered fans move this hot air down through ducts that lead to storage mass below the polished cement floor (1-2" triple-washed gravel, same as is used for septic leaching trenches). This mass absorbs the heat in the passing air, and thus cools the air, which then returns to the solar roof to be reheated. This air circulation continues for as long as the sun is shining. Then the heat-absorbing stone mass slowly releases the stored solar heat, thus helping to keep the house warm for many hours through the following night and day.

The water is heated in mats of SolarRoll that are laid on the same black metal roof, and a small thermostat-controlled pump slowly circulates the water to a 60-gallon pre-heating tank, and then back to the solar roof to gain more heat. At the end of a sunny day, the water in that tank is so warm that when it then continues into the electric water heater, not much energy is required to bring it up to 130ºF.

This roof design also serves as a highly effective whole-house cooling system which prevents the house from getting too hot. This is because there are continuous vents that open up along the entire roof ridge. Thus, the hotter the sun shines on this solar roof, the faster the hot air rushes up and out through those top vents. This causes such an updraft that it pulls in cooler air from the lower windows and vents, and through the whole house, thus keeping this solar home remarkably cool and comfortable, without any exhaust fans.

This phenomenon is known as the "solar chimney effect", and the concept has been tried in various ways since the 1970s, as attached tall narrow tower structures. They never took off because they proved to be too costly to build, too vulnerable in storms, and, because of their narrow solar exposure, were not very effective.

In the Solviva roof design, the solar chimney is the width of the whole solar roof, and it costs not a penny extra because it is simply a part of the roof. As always, much more info in my books.

My home turned out be so well solar-heated and insulated that I could safely go away for several weeks in the middle of the winter, without worrying about the furnace exploding or the pipes and plants freezing. This truly is freedom and security!

The divine air-purifying Solviva Indoor Garden

Lightweight, snug-fitting R-8 foam insulation panels are stored out of the way in a pocket below the windows, and lift up to cover the windows on cold nights. The garden produced a steady supply of salad greens. And in the middle of it all, a deep old splash-all-you-want bath tub and shower. Bliss!

This woodstove also heats water (1981)

This old Franklin stove is set in a fireproof hearth that stores the heat long after the fire is out.

An old truck radiator lies on top of the stove, and on top of that is 100' coil of copper pipe. Both are plumbed in a closed loop to the water heater on the floor above it. This heats the water to 120ºF in just a couple of hours, which greatly reduces electricity consumption. Funky but extremely effective. I installed a circulating pump, which turned out not be needed, because, with the water tank located above the heating system, the thermosiphon effect caused the water to circulate all on its own.

The Solviva Inside-Outhouse (1981)

This design uses a 20-gallon plastic barrel (much nicer and more comfortable than a 5-gallon bucket systems), and it is odor-free without exhaust fan. After use, open the step/lid, and cover your deposits by sprinkling in a scoop of "cover mix": compost + sawdust (not powdery or too course, not from cedar, mahogany or pressure-treated, and not peat moss, shavings, chips or leaves). It amazed me when I realized that all that's needed to prevent odors is just a thin dusting of this cover mix.

When 3/4 full, the barrel is moved outside and topped off with compost from a previous barrel, which after just a couple of weeks has been fully composted and rich with redworms and microcritters. Complete composting takes just a couple of weeks in summer, a bit longer in winter. No turning or aeration is needed because this job is perfomed by the redworms.

Women loved this toilet, kids LOVED it - but most men were not so sure. I realized that only a small percentage of people would be willing to give up flush toilets.

So next, I decided to see if it would be possible to have a flush toilet that drained into a compost bin outside, instead of into a standard septic tank.  (As always, see Detailed Design).

The Solviva Composting Flush Toilet (1995)

YES, it sure was possible!! This standard low-flush toilet drains into an insulated composting chamber outside, right below the bathroom window. This "Brownfilter" is filled with aged wood chips (again, not from cedar, pressure-treated or other rot-resistant wood). It immediately became redworm heaven, and poop and toilet paper are gone within just a couple of hours. This first stage of the filter system removes roughly 50% of the nitrogen, and it then drains into a "Greenfilter" which removes 95-99% of the remaining nitrogen. (As always, see Detailed Design).

The Solviva Greywater Purification System (1981)

The above image on the left shows part of the Greenfilter for the Solviva Composting Flushtoilet system: a pokeberry bush that grew immense by absorbing the nitrogen, phosphorus and many other nutrients from the flush toilet, mostly from the urine. There were never any problems with odors, clog-ups, insects or any other nusiance or threat to public health.

The 2 images to the right show this amazingly simple and effective greywater purification system that receives and treats all greywater from sinks, dishwashing, laundry and bathrooms (not from the toilets). All it is a shallow depression filled with wood chips, into which the pipe drains. This is covered with hardware cloth to prevent animals digging, and topped with a thin layer of compost to prevent any odors. It costs almost nothing to set up, and there was never any problem with insects, odors, clogging up, or animals digging in it.

By contrast, the state requires standard septic systems even for just the greywater. Those systems cost $20-30,000, and they cause much more pollution than this simple and reliable system.

Below shows more plants thriving from the greywater irrigation.  (As always, see Detailed Design).


Imagine this SOLVIVA home on the coldest day of the year...

By 2011, I had been living in this home for 30 years. On that most brutally cold winter day the temperature dropped down to 7º F below zero. I barely made it up the driveway through the deep snow, and now I am crunching along the 150 foot long path that leads from the parking area to my home.

With squinting eyes I take in the brilliantly sunny landscape, with snow crystals like rainbow

diamonds. I am leaning against the brutal biting wind, pulling up my muffler to shield my face from the impact of icecycles shearing off from frozen tree branches. I have never regretted this distance between the car and my home, because, rain or shine, there is always some awe-inspiring Nature show going on. On this day, I stop for a moment to exchange greetings with a pair of cardinals and six little chickadees who are flitting between the feeder and the shelter of snow-laden shrubs. Yes, I know you guys are all grateful for a good snow cover in this extreme cold. So am I, because snow on the roof adds terrific insulation.

I reach the front porch with its sheltering roof, and note with satisfaction that, even though we are now well into the winter, most of the one cord of firewood that I stacked up on either side of the front door just before winter, is still there. I stomp the snow off my boots, open the front door, and step into the vestibule, where I shed my down coat and exchange my boots for slippers.

And then, I open the second door, and - Ahhhhh...

With relief I deeply breathe in the fragrant warmth of my home, and the beauty of the sun streaming in through climbing and cascading green leaves and red, orange, pink, blue and yellow flowers. Even though I have now lived in this house for 30 winters, I am still in awe every time I enter this paradise on a sunny cold winter day.

I still find it hard to believe that this is possible - that the sun’s energy, coming from 93 million miles away, radiating onto the solar roof and through the south windows, is enough to keep my home this warm and cozy even in such extreme cold - without any other heat source!

But there it is - you can't deny or argue with reality - it just is what it is - and everybody would agree. And yet it is so hard to believe - I understand that it's hard for others to believe.

What I don't understand is why all these proven concepts have not become more widespread.

Enchanting scents waft from jasmine and honeysuckle, sweet peas, pineapple sage and peppermint geranium, orange and lemon blossoms, and compost-rich living earth. Some of the branches and vines reach into the living room and kitchen, the weaving studio, and even upstairs. This indoor garden has no walls or doors separating it from the living areas, but is instead fully integrated with the whole house, except the bedrooms.

The tomatoes are still going strong three years after I planted them, with vines that stretch 30-plus feet along to the full-length skylight, with cluster after cluster of the sweetest, juiciest tomatoes you can imagine - in winter even better than in summer, perhaps because they develop more sugar as they ripen more slowly in winter.

For a couple of minutes every two days I become a fairy godmother, pollinating each fully open tomato flower by touching it with my magic wand (a watercolor brush taped to an extension stick), ping... ping... ping... A day or two later the flowers wither, but instead of falling off, the way they would if not pollinated, the base of each flower fatten into a tiny green tomato, grow larger and larger, turn yellow, then orange, then red, shiny, sweet and juicy. Yum!

I take three steps down into the garden, then across the warm concrete floor and along the stepping stones set in a carpet of baby-tears, to the deep old claw-foot bathtub in the west corner. It is surrounded by a bird of paradise plant with five flower clusters in full plumage, an enormous Monstera deliciosa with several ripening fruits, a large hibiscus with a dozen red blossoms, and a stand of heavenly scented flowering ginger, and tomatoes within reach. Next to the tub is the salad garden, pouring forth a continuous cornucopia of succulent greens and herbs.

I turn on the hot water, sprinkle in my favorite bath salts and oils, and pick a handful of peppermint geranium, rosemary and sage, tossing them in too. I peel off most of my clothes in response to the solar warmth and putter around a bit, snipping a withered flower here, twisting up a vine there, picking a bouquet of flowers and ferns for the kitchen table. Next I harvest 10 different varieties of red and green lettuces, plus arugula, mustards, kale, lemony French sorrel, red veined chard, radicchio, mizuna, tah tsai, watercress, parsley, dill, fennel, and crunchy radishes and carrots. I give them a quick rinse and shake, and seal them into a plastic bag and put them in the refrigerator.

When the tub is full and I have gathered my phone, tape recorder and a cup of peppermint tea to be within easy reach, I get in and slowly - sink - into - bliss... Mozart’s C major piano concerto joins with the birds singing and lunching at the feeder right outside the window. My body is afloat, slowly rising and falling as I inhale and exhale deeply. My mind is free as I release tensions from toes and fingers to chin and brow. I enter a state of peace and fulfillment. This house is heated by the sun. This water is heated by the sun. This is stunningly, unbelievably good - and it actually is for real.

(...One of my golden memories is being in this tub one blizzardy Christmas

with two of my little grandchildren, blowing bubbles and splashing water all around....)

I finish off with a shower, rainbows arching through the mist, diamond water droplets refreshing the surrounding plants. I leave the hot water in the tub to slowly give off its warmth during the upcoming cold night, and dry off with a sun6warmed towel. I step up to the kitchen and take the bag of salad out of the fridge, put a handful of crisp greens on a plate, top it off with my favorite dressing and a few tasty nasturtium, borage and fennel flowers, and then step back into the garden and sink into the sun-warmed lounge chair. Here I bask in comfort, just a couple of feet away from the cold raging on the other side of the window panes.

What a blessing it is to be munching on these greens that grew from tiny seeds right in my home, in a harmonious blend of water, soil, compost and sunlight, without any toxic substances whatsoever. They now release a symphony of exquisite flavors and health-enhancing vitamins, minerals, enzymes and active vibrant life force.

This inside garden provides many moments of love, joy and calm. But, growing veggies and greens is definitely more work than plants like geraniums, maidenhair ferns, lobelia, or honeysuckle.

I love living with the plants, and tending to their needs, fully aware of the magic of the mutually beneficial exchange of vibes and gasses that we share. The plants are enriched by the CO2 I exhale, and I am enriched by the oxygen exhaled by the plants.

People say:You must be having to spend half your time just caring for this indoor home garden!” The fact is that it takes no more than 30 minutes a week. Once or twice a year I spend a couple of hours pruning back and repotting some of the plants and enriching the soil with compost and rock powders.

People ask: “Don’t insects fly and crawl all over the house?” No, insects are smart, they much prefer the garden area. However, a few shy, slender daddy-longlegs-type spiders roam discreetly around the house, but they actually do me a great favor by controlling the wool moths which would otherwise devastate the wool yarn, sweaters and weavings in my studio. These spiders do nothing worse than leave a few webs in the ceiling and a some shriveled husks of insects that they have captured and eaten. I doubt the living quarters of my home have more insects than any other country house with wood beams and paneling.

And people ask: “Doesn’t mold form everywhere because of the humidity from the indoor garden?“ No, because the air circulation in the whole house is excellent due to the solar heating system and the strategic placement of ducts and vents that move warm air down and around. Also, when the woodstove is going, it acts as both an air circulator and dehumidifier.

The extra humidity in the house in winter is actually a great benefit. In normal buildings the air is too dry during the heating season, which can lead to respiratory problems and illness, dry skin and cracked lips, static electricity, and cracks in furniture and floors. People with asthma and allergies comment with great relief that they can breathe more freely in my house. People’s eyeglasses do fog up for a minute when they come in from the cold, but that's not much of a problem.

Once in a while, there is a loud “peep - peep” - this is my little tree frog, only about an inch long, who has been living in my home for years. Many times I have tried to sneak up ever so carefully to see him, but I swear he can hear my heartbeat, for he stops peeping as soon as I approach, and when he is quiet it is almost impossible to find him in among the leaves.

But sometimes I see him on the edge of the bathtub, or on a leaf by the bannister - or on a branch, like a tiny little monkey. One cold winter evening, as I sat reading under the lamp next to the garden, I had the distinct feeling that someone to my left was watching me. I slowly turned my head, and there on a branch with a bright red hibiscus flower, about 12 inches from my face, sat my little housemate, looking me straight in the eye. We were in full eye contact for what seemed like an eternity, until my twisted neck got so sore that I had straighten my head.

One time something hopped onto my leg, and I instinctively immediately slapped it away without even looking to see what it was - then I looked, and to my horror I saw it was my little frog friend, one leg askew. I picked him up ever so gently, and he just sat there in my hand, panting, looking me straight in the eye. I was sobbing, pleading that his leg would be ok. We were locked in intense eye contact. At that moment he was the most important person in my life - he had hopped on to my leg - had I dealt him a mortal blow? I touched his leg lightly, and was immensely relieved when he suddenly flipped his tiny twisted leg into normal position. I placed my hand close to his favorite plants, and after a long while he jumped off my hand - and we both lived happily ever after.

As I stand in the kitchen, close to one of the solar heat ducts, I can just barely hear the hum of one of the two DC fans that move the hot air from the solar roof into storage in the block foundation, insulated on the outside. Let me re-emphasize here two facts that still amaze me: 1 - that even on this bitter cold day, 7ºF below zero, this Solviva solar roof is heating the air that courses through it to 120º in less than 4 seconds, and 2 - that the two fans that are moving this heat into storage at the combined rate of roughly 600 cubic feet per minute, are both powered by only one 200-watt PV photovoltaic panel, without any batteries, fuses, sensors, controls, or back-up power. The sun shines: the roof heats up and the fans go on - a cloud comes: the roof cools and fans stop. Like magic!


I lived in my Solviva solar home for 36 years, without any oil or propane gas. I had a woodstove, but rarely used it. Instead my heat source was that big old nuclear furnace up there some 95 million miles away (I love to imagine the distances out there!).

Even without any heating at all, my home rarely fell below 55ºF, and even during the worst conditions, with wind chill factor to 20ºF below zero, the temperaure in my home did not fall below 50ºF. Therefore my pipes would never freeze or burst. And through the coldest cold and the hottest heat, my indoor garden just kept thriving. Every winter I went away for as long as 3 weeks, without any backup heat, and without turning off the water or draining the plumbing. Imagine the freedom and security that this entails.

By contrast, when the temperatures dip down below zero Fahrenheit, the water pipes in many homes freeze and burst. A great deal of money and time has to be spent on plumbing, sheetrocking, painting, new carpeting and trash disposal. Depression spreads like a clammy smog as people see their dreams of a warm winter vacation evaporate: savings have to instead be spent on all the repairs, on top of the thousands for heating fuel - and not daring to save money by turning down the thermostat, for fear of more freeze ups.

And what really surprises me is the fact that - in spite of having written two books about it, with detailed designs and how-to information, and shown and explained it to hundreds, including architects, engineers and builders - this simple, reliable, extremely energy-efficient and cost-effective solar roof heating system has not been widely adopted. In fact, I do not know of a single application of this system, beyond my own. The big question is of course: Why? In my opinion, here lies a great business opportunity.

Obviously this solar heating system could be even more effective if it were manufactured as modular components, and applied by professional builders. Don’t forget that I got these stunning results without any prior schooling in architecture or engineering - I didn't even got to college.

I just have my many years of intuition, hands-on experimenting, experience and research, and living with the glorious results of it all.


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