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.

  • Determining the site of a greenhouse and how it’s situated is critical to its long-term success. The Parmenters have been in the business of greenhouse design and installation for more than 15 years.
    Photo by Simon Giebler
  • The Parmenters' greenhouses are aesthetically pleasing as well as functional.
    Photo by Simon Giebler
  • Penn says grow a lot, go crazy and create a jungle of plants and an entire ecosystem.
    Photo by Simon Giebler
  • Proper venting is sometimes an afterthought when it comes to greenhouses, and that can’t be the case if you want four seasons of harvests.
    Photo by Simon Giebler
  • Ventilation and glazing the appropriate sides are two keys to greenhouse success.
    Photo by Simon Giebler
  • Water barrels are the thermal mass that stores the heat; the “batteries” of the structure.
    Photo by Simon Giebler
  • Penn and Cord moved onto their Colorado homestead in 1991.
    Photo by Simon Giebler
  • Sometime around 2000, Cord built this greenhouse, their first, for around $150, and although it has a few things technically wrong with it, Penn says it still grows food year-round.
    Photo by Simon Giebler

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 direction 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.

2/9/2020 11:45:37 AM

Great information. Are insects or other pests a factor in greenhouses? If so, how do you deal with them? Thanks again for all the information FYI - I am presently in the planning stages of constructing a greenhouse addition Jeff
5/7/2018 9:03:59 PM

I used the plans at WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG to build mine – I highly recommend you visit that website and check their plans out too. They are detailed and super easy to read and understand unlike several others I found online. The amount of plans there is mind-boggling… there’s like 16,000 plans or something like that for tons of different projects. Definitely enough to keep me busy with projects for many more years to come haha Go to WWW.EASYWOODWORK.ORG if you want some additional plans :)

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