DIY Principles for a Passive Solar Greenhouse

Build your own passive solar greenhouse using tips and advice from a builder with decades of greenhouse construction experience.


| January/February 2016


For 15 years now, I’ve had food year-round,” says Penn Parmenter. Standing in expansive productive gardens of her 8,000-foot-elevation Westcliffe, Colorado, homestead, we’re talking about the 6 feet of topsoil endemic to the fertile Wet Mountain Valley. We’re talking about high-elevation heirloom tomatoes, corn and squash, and we’re talking about passive solar greenhouses.

Penn and her husband, Cord Parmenter, moved onto this land on Christmas Eve 1991, with nothing but a camper and a woodstove. Here they’ve raised three sons and an ample four-season food supply in and around a makeshift 800-square-foot home.

That first spring, they built a raised garden bed. And then another. Eventually they’d built dozens of garden beds, an iron forging business (Cord’s) and a seed business (Penn’s). They never did get around to building a proper house. “We built a tiny addition around our camper, and then we tacked this little bedroom off the back.” Twenty-four years later she says, “This is supposed to be our little temporary house.”

Over the years they added two 100-percent passive solar greenhouses from which grew a greenhouse design and installation business. They’d read Bill Yanda and Rick Fisher’s, The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse, but had lent the book to someone. So when Cord built their first greenhouse of salvaged materials for $150, he did so from memory. He got many things right, got some wrong (“we didn’t even finish it out exactly and it didn’t have all the water it needed to have,” says Penn, “and it still grew food year-round and has been going over 15 years!”), and learned a whole lot in the process. By now, Cord has designed and installed more than a dozen greenhouses, and the Parmenters teach greenhouse design from Denver to Pueblo – and even in Wyoming and Florida.

GRIT has pulled together the Parmenter’s basic principles to set you on the path toward zero-energy-input, year-round food production just about anywhere.

Location and orientation

As you identify the greenhouse location, consider square-footage, sun orientation and building codes. “This is a real building with a real foundation,” says Penn. “Speak to your county. Find out if it’s an agricultural building, what square-footage you can build without a permit, which kinds of foundations have to be engineered and which ones don’t.” If you plan to have electricity or water, it will have to be inspected.





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