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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Tibet, a Land of Contrasts

We found Tibet to be a land of contrasts, both in terms of how it is changing and how our views changed during our visit.

Our Tibetan guide told us about lamas, teachers, historic buildings, and religious writings, as well as the culture. Tibetans are warm and greet each other. Tibetan adults go up to Tibetan infants to smile, touch their cheeks, and get a smile back. Tibetans pray for other people and not for themselves. There is a wide variety of prayers and implementations like prayer wheels that are spun by hand or water from the hillside. Tibet has a small population, and there are many pilgrims.

There is increased immigration of Han people from the rest of China. We drove by new government buildings for ministries to mine the mineral wealth of Tibet. Tibet has more than 100 minerals and is perhaps one of the few sources of rare earth elements required for low-power lighting and hybrid auto engines. The English-speaking positions at our hotel were staffed by people with Han family names. Some of the serving/cooking staff were Tibetans — service oriented and always smiling.

Attached is a photo of the staircase leading to the Palace. It was built as a fort to protect the Dalai Lama and house the administration.

Stairs at Potala Palace
Stairs at Potala Palace

Our feelings about staying in Tibet completely changed during our stay. During our first night in Lhasa, we talked about leaving Tibet early due to altitude sickness. In the end, we worked through this and had a great last day at Potala Palace.

The other photo shows our departure from the Lhasa airport. Our guide gave us white scarves that Tibetans use to convey goodwill and compassion. By the end of our stay, we were touched by the culture of Tibet and had mixed feelings about leaving, in contrast with our initial thoughts of leaving early.

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Part of our criteria for prioritizing places to visit is the quality of the experience and the rate of change that might impact the experience. Tibet rates high with us for both factors. We second the advice we received — visit Tibet.

We have a much better appreciation for the Tibetan culture. The rate of construction in China is amazing. Parts of China have entered the 21 century, and the challenge is how fast the rest of China can catch up. Therefore, we see starker contrast in Tibet than the rest of China

Hitting the Wall in Lhasa

We hit the wall in Lhasa — headaches, fatigue, loss of appetite, and nausea. This is probably a combination of altitude sickness and not getting enough sleep. We’ve been jet-lagged, waking up in the middle of the night, and we woke up at 4:00 am twice for early morning flights to Xian and Lhasa. We skipped dinner our two nights in Lhasa.

But the primary issue is altitude sickness. We talked with another Bay Area couple on a tour of Tibet and Bhutan. They put us in touch with a member of their group who is a physician. He came to our table at breakfast and assured us that our symptoms are just altitude sickness, and not acute mountain sickness. He suggested diamox, which helps people acclimatize, and he gave us a bottle from another member of their tour. I took it immediately. We took it easy yesterday, making room for naps in the afternoon and before dinner, and we got 8 hours sleep last night. First time we slept through the night. We feel much better this morning. If we ever visit a high-altitude place again, we’ll be better prepared next time.
The picture shows Potala Palace from the roof of Jokhang Temple. We visit Potala Palace today and the sun is shining . Our guide is a Tibetan who grew up in Lhasa. He is very knowledgeable about Tibet and Buddhism. We have seen a variety of Tibetans and pilgrims.