Potala Palace as a Passive Solar Building

Potala Palace, the winter residence of the Dalai Lama, is located in Lhasa, at an altitude of 3,700 m (12,100 feet).  Lhasa is cold in the winter — the average high in January is 45 F, and the low is 16 F.

Potala Palace from the south

Perhaps Potala Palace is more than a breathtakingly beautiful building that was the residence of many Dalai Lamas.  Staying warm during the Tibetan winter is important. Let’s explore passive solar design in Potala Palace, a building completed more than 400 years ago, based on design elements from the Wikipedia article.

  • Placement of room-types, internal doors & walls, & equipment in the house.  Multiple levels are connected by staircases.  The Dalai Lama lived in an upper level, so that warm air would rise to the Dalai Lama’s residence.
  • Orienting the building to face the equator (or a few degrees to the East to capture the morning sun).  Potala Palace faces the equator, angled 5 to 10 degrees east, per google map in satellite mode.
  • Extending the building dimension along the east/west axis.  The building is several times longer than it is wide. The above photo shows the south exposure of Potala Palace.  Note how the Palace is long on the east/west axis.  In the White Palace photo, we see the east side of the upper part of the Palace.  It’s much narrower than the south side. Note that many more windows face south than east.
  • Adequately sizing windows to face the midday sun in the winter, and be shaded in the summer.  In the White Palace photo, note the ledges and curtains above the windows.
White Palace
  • Minimising windows on other sides, especially western windows.  Didn’t see the western side.  The north side of the Palace has relatively few windows, based on google map in the earth view.
  • Erecting correctly sized, latitude-specific roof overhangs.  See the shades and curtains for the windows.
  • Using the appropriate amount and type of insulation including radiant barriers and bulk insulation to minimise seasonal excessive heat gain or loss.  The Red Palace is red because the walls have a thick layer of red rush over stone walls.  The red rush is dark and absorbs solar energy as heat.  Potala Palace has thick stone walls.
  • Using thermal mass to store excess solar energy during the winter day.  Potala Palace is constructed of stone, providing lots of thermal mass.

I doubt that the Tibetans consulted a list of passive solar design elements when they built Potala Palace 400 years ago.  Nonetheless, it seems they got passive solar heating right.

Disclaimer: We aren’t solar energy professionals, so this post is more speculation than science.  We did read about passive solar energy design and and incorporate some elements into our home.  Potala Palace as a passive solar building seemed to fit. In any event, this post lists passive solar design elements and applies them to a specific building, illustrating how to apply design elements.


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I enjoy travel, art, food, photography, nature, California native plants, history, and yoga. I am a retired software engineer. The gravatar is a Nuttall's woodpecker that visited our backyard.

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