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Zero-Energy Housing

Jonathan MacNeil, Malinda Schaefer Zarske, Denise W. Carlson, TeachEngineering by the Integrated Teaching and Learning Program

Students investigate passive solar building design with a focus on heating. Insulation, window placement, thermal mass, surface colors, and site orientation are addressed in the background materials and design preparation. Students test their projects for thermal gains and losses during a simulated day and night then compare designs with other teams for suggestions for improvements.

Activity takes multiple (six to seven) 50-minute class periods. Additional materials are necessary.

Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

ngssSee how this Activity supports the Next Generation Science Standards»
Middle School: 5 Performance Expectations, 2 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 9 Cross Cutting Concepts, 9 Science and Engineering Practices
High School: 4 Performance Expectations, 5 Disciplinary Core Ideas, 11 Cross Cutting Concepts, 11 Science and Engineering Practices

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

About Teaching the Guiding Principle
Other materials addressing GPe
About Teaching the Guiding Principle
Other materials addressing GPg
Sunlight warms the planet
About Teaching Principle 1
Other materials addressing 1a

Energy Literacy

Humans transfer and transform energy from the environment into forms useful for human endeavors.
Other materials addressing:
4.1 Humans transfer and transform energy.
One way to manage energy resources is through conservation.
Other materials addressing:
6.2 Conserving energy.
Behavior and design affect the amount of energy used by human society.
Other materials addressing:
6.6 Behavior and design.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:B) Designing investigations
Other materials addressing:
B) Designing investigations.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
Other materials addressing:
C) Collecting information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
Other materials addressing:
D) Technology.

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Students may use materials they find instead of purchasing listed materials.
  • Hardware stores will likely provide the necessary materials for free when used in an educational environment.

About the Science

  • Comments from expert scientist: The resource integrates engineering and math concepts, together with a broad sustainability-oriented introduction, in a hands-on activity.
  • Activity shows three examples of model homes that were built for solar efficiency (cliff homes, caves, and mound homes) and shows set-up for clarity.
  • Activity addresses engineering, mathematics, and solar energy science concepts.
  • Excellent background material provided.

About the Pedagogy

  • Open-ended inquiry based activity that uses teamwork, class discussions and a hands-on project that will address diverse learning styles.
  • Opportunity for creative and divergent thinking students to excel.
  • Appropriate for kinesthetic learners.
  • Worksheets and data sheet are excellent.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • Large amount of materials must be gathered ahead of time, but options for substituting items abound.

Next Generation Science Standards See how this Activity supports:

Middle School

Performance Expectations: 5

MS-ETS1-1: Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

MS-ETS1-2: Evaluate competing design solutions using a systematic process to determine how well they meet the criteria and constraints of the problem.

MS-ETS1-3: Analyze data from tests to determine similarities and differences among several design solutions to identify the best characteristics of each that can be combined into a new solution to better meet the criteria for success.

MS-ETS1-4: Develop a model to generate data for iterative testing and modification of a proposed object, tool, or process such that an optimal design can be achieved.

MS-ESS3-3: Apply scientific principles to design a method for monitoring and minimizing a human impact on the environment.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 2

MS-ESS3.C2:Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise.

Engineering, Technology, and Applications of Science:

Cross Cutting Concepts: 9

Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Structure and Function, Patterns, Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity

MS-C4.2: Models can be used to represent systems and their interactions—such as inputs, processes and outputs—and energy, matter, and information flows within systems.

MS-C4.3:Models are limited in that they only represent certain aspects of the system under study.

MS-C5.2: Within a natural or designed system, the transfer of energy drives the motion and/or cycling of matter.

MS-C5.3:Energy may take different forms (e.g. energy in fields, thermal energy, energy of motion).

MS-C5.4:The transfer of energy can be tracked as energy flows through a designed or natural system.

MS-C6.2:Structures can be designed to serve particular functions by taking into account properties of different materials, and how materials can be shaped and used.

MS-C1.4:Graphs, charts, and images can be used to identify patterns in data.

MS-C2.2:Cause and effect relationships may be used to predict phenomena in natural or designed systems.

MS-C3.2: The observed function of natural and designed systems may change with scale.

Science and Engineering Practices: 9

Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information, Asking Questions and Defining Problems

MS-P2.7:Develop and/or use a model to generate data to test ideas about phenomena in natural or designed systems, including those representing inputs and outputs, and those at unobservable scales.

MS-P3.5:Collect data about the performance of a proposed object, tool, process or system under a range of conditions.

MS-P4.8:Analyze data to define an optimal operational range for a proposed object, tool, process or system that best meets criteria for success.

MS-P5.4:Apply mathematical concepts and/or processes (e.g., ratio, rate, percent, basic operations, simple algebra) to scientific and engineering questions and problems.

MS-P6.7:Undertake a design project, engaging in the design cycle, to construct and/or implement a solution that meets specific design criteria and constraints

MS-P6.8:Optimize performance of a design by prioritizing criteria, making tradeoffs, testing, revising, and re- testing.

MS-P7.5:Evaluate competing design solutions based on jointly developed and agreed-upon design criteria.

MS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information (e.g. about a proposed object, tool, process, system) in writing and/or through oral presentations.

MS-P1.8:Define a design problem that can be solved through the development of an object, tool, process or system and includes multiple criteria and constraints, including scientific knowledge that may limit possible solutions.

High School

Performance Expectations: 4

HS-ESS3-4: Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.

HS-ETS1-1: Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.

HS-ETS1-2: Design a solution to a complex real-world problem by breaking it down into smaller, more manageable problems that can be solved through engineering.

HS-ETS1-3: Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

Disciplinary Core Ideas: 5

HS-ESS3.A2:All forms of energy production and other resource extraction have associated economic, social, environmental, and geopolitical costs and risks as well as benefits. New technologies and social regulations can change the balance of these factors.

HS-ESS3.C2:Scientists and engineers can make major contributions by developing technologies that produce less pollution and waste and that preclude ecosystem degradation.

HS-ETS1.A2:Humanity faces major global challenges today, such as the need for supplies of clean water and food or for energy sources that minimize pollution, which can be addressed through engineering. These global challenges also may have manifestations in local communities


HS-ETS1.C1:Criteria may need to be broken down into simpler ones that can be approached systematically, and decisions about the priority of certain criteria over others (trade-offs) may be needed

Cross Cutting Concepts: 11

Patterns, Cause and effect, Scale, Proportion and Quantity, Systems and System Models, Energy and Matter, Structure and Function, Stability and Change

HS-C1.3:Patterns of performance of designed systems can be analyzed and interpreted to reengineer and improve the system.

HS-C2.3:Systems can be designed to cause a desired effect.

HS-C3.5:Algebraic thinking is used to examine scientific data and predict the effect of a change in one variable on another (e.g., linear growth vs. exponential growth).

HS-C4.1:Systems can be designed to do specific tasks.

HS-C4.3:Models (e.g., physical, mathematical, computer models) can be used to simulate systems and interactions—including energy, matter, and information flows—within and between systems at different scales.

HS-C4.4:Models can be used to predict the behavior of a system, but these predictions have limited precision and reliability due to the assumptions and approximations inherent in models.

HS-C5.2:Changes of energy and matter in a system can be described in terms of energy and matter flows into, out of, and within that system.

HS-C5.3:Energy cannot be created or destroyed—only moves between one place and another place, between objects and/or fields, or between systems.

HS-C6.1:Investigating or designing new systems or structures requires a detailed examination of the properties of different materials, the structures of different components, and connections of components to reveal its function and/or solve a problem.

HS-C6.2:The functions and properties of natural and designed objects and systems can be inferred from their overall structure, the way their components are shaped and used, and the molecular substructures of its various materials.

HS-C7.4:Systems can be designed for greater or lesser stability.

Science and Engineering Practices: 11

Asking Questions and Defining Problems, Developing and Using Models, Planning and Carrying Out Investigations, Analyzing and Interpreting Data, Using Mathematics and Computational Thinking, Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions, Engaging in Argument from Evidence, Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information

HS-P1.8:Define a design problem that involves the development of a process or system with interacting components and criteria and constraints that may include social, technical, and/or environmental considerations. 


HS-P3.1:Plan an investigation or test a design individually and collaboratively to produce data to serve as the basis for evidence as part of building and revising models, supporting explanations for phenomena, or testing solutions to problems. Consider possible confounding variables or effects and evaluate the investigation’s design to ensure variables are controlled.

HS-P4.1:Analyze data using tools, technologies, and/or models (e.g., computational, mathematical) in order to make valid and reliable scientific claims or determine an optimal design solution.

HS-P4.5:Evaluate the impact of new data on a working explanation and/or model of a proposed process or system.

HS-P4.6: Analyze data to identify design features or characteristics of the components of a proposed process or system to optimize it relative to criteria for success.

HS-P5.3:Apply techniques of algebra and functions to represent and solve scientific and engineering problems.

HS-P6.5:Design, evaluate, and/or refine a solution to a complex real-world problem, based on scientific knowledge, student-generated sources of evidence, prioritized criteria, and tradeoff considerations.

HS-P7.1:Compare and evaluate competing arguments or design solutions in light of currently accepted explanations, new evidence, limitations (e.g., trade-offs), constraints, and ethical issues

HS-P7.6:Evaluate competing design solutions to a real-world problem based on scientific ideas and principles, empirical evidence, and/or logical arguments regarding relevant factors (e.g. economic, societal, environmental, ethical considerations).

HS-P8.5:Communicate scientific and/or technical information or ideas (e.g. about phenomena and/or the process of development and the design and performance of a proposed process or system) in multiple formats (i.e., orally, graphically, textually, mathematically).

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