How Physical Orientation Impacts Commercial Building Design

Orientation is the positioning of a building in relation to the sun’s path during winter and summer. A well oriented commercial building can save a lot of money in reduced heating and cooling costs. This is especially beneficial with the ever-increasing fuel prices and the rising cost of electricity. By having orientation options for a building, you can reduce energy costs by up to 80%.  Another benefit is that there’s nothing more to incur with orientation, hence it being element of ‘passive solar’.

Why Architects Must Consider Orientation When Designing Commercial Buildings  

Building orientation plays a big role in energy performance and indoor comfort in commercial buildings. If done correctly, it not only makes the building more appealing, it will drastically reduce its reliance on heating and cooling systems and cut down on energy bills. This is why architects design commercial buildings that capture free heat in winter and release excess heat during summer.

The trick with orientation is to use shade to block excess sun’s rays from the building, but to do so moderately so that when the sun becomes scarce in winter it can still gain access into the building.  

The Impacts and Influences of Orientation  

It’s very important that you differentiate between solar orientation and magnetic orientation. A building should be oriented with respect to the sun and not to the magnetic north. The true magnetic North is up to 20 degrees further from where the solar North is. This variation can make all the difference between a passive solar design being effective or not.   

Correct Building Orientation  

The best orientation for passive solar benefit is east-west orientation with respect to the long axis of a building. However, this can be adjusted as much as 20 degrees with minimal impact on heat gain, while ensuring that the glass side of a building faces the direction of the sun.  

Features such as high walls and trees should also be taken into consideration during commercial building architecture. Ideally, you do not want them blocking the sun’s rays during winter. Therefore, tall walls and trees with high branches should be planted in the east or west of a building to provide shade in summer and let light in during winter.  

Placement of Commercial Spaces  

Of particular importance is that the commercial spaces most frequently used should be on the side of the building facing the sun. Similarly, the least used spaces should be on the less frequently used side of the building. By locating the frequently used rooms on one side, you can effectively block off a part of the building, thus reducing cooling and heating costs on that side. Additionally, the frequently used spaces will have access to natural light from the sun thereby reducing lighting costs. This is the main reason why passive solar buildings have anctive’ side and an inactive side’.

Also, passive commercial building design is rarely an open plan as this counteracts the whole concept behind maximizing solar energy.   

Passive Solar Design for the Whole Year  

Correct orientation should be beneficial during summer as well as during winter. However, most commercial buildings have upward, tilted or south-facing glass designed to catch as much sun as possible. While tilted glass does help to capture every bit of sun during winter, it also catches the same sun during summer creating an undesirable ripple effect. So architects strive to create a balance between heat gains during sun exposure and heat loss during cold weather.  


Correct building orientation is the key to reducing energy consumption and creating commercial buildings that are naturally comfortable to live in. Also by reducing energy consumption, you are not only conserving the environment but also sustaining a good lifestyle. It is something that every commercial building should adopt and fully utilize.

Alabama and Georgia businesses considering new commercial builds should talk to Bill Whittaker, Registered Architect to discuss ways to take advantage of low-cost and no-cost passive energy strategies.


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