The traditional greenhouse is likely the style that is most widely used throughout the country. Traditional style greenhouses, which commonly are built with glazing (the transparent material that lets light through) on all four walls and the roof, are among the least energy efficient. This is because the roof angle is not typically optimized for the sun angle and the glazing on the north side of the structure allows for significant heat loss without offering any appreciable solar gain (beneficial energy from the sun). This style of a greenhouse can be among the most simple to purchase pre-manufactured, sold as kits, constructed as a do-it-yourself project, and are easily situated on a level site or added onto an existing house or outbuilding, such as a barn.
A traditional greenhouse design can be modified to significantly improve its performance by elongating the southern roof face using a saltbox style roof instead of a traditional gable style roof, setting the south facing roof angle to an optimal slope for the winter sun angle (based on the latitude of your location), and replacing the glazing on the north side of the structure with insulated materials and/or thermal mass (such as concrete, stone or other masonry). Elongating the southern roof face increases the surface area of glazing to maximize the potential for sunlight to enter the greenhouse. Adjusting the roof angle to be perpendicular to the average winter sun angle improves the amount of sunlight that can pass through the roof material when it's needed in the coldest months of winter while causing less of the sunlight to pass through when it is not wanted during the hot summer months.
Replacing the typical glazing materials found on the north side roof and wall with materials that have good insulating properties will help to reduce unwanted heat loss during the night and over the winter. Dense masonry materials can even be added to the interior of these north facing surfaces to absorb sunlight during the day, storing it as heat energy, which is then released throughout the colder nighttime hours to help maintain the temperature of the space. Methods for providing supplemental heat in your greenhouse during the overcast days and cold nights of the winter months is another important consideration that I will address in a future article. As an additional improvement to the traditional greenhouse style, masonry knee walls can help with avoiding damage to low glazing areas, act as a passive solar heat sink, and offer ballistic protection.
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