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Reconstructing a 100-year-old House for the Next 100 Years of Climate Change

By Stewart Herman | Published: April 20, 2022

In 2014, I took students to the Peace Prize Forum in the Minneapolis Convention Center, to hear the Dalai Lama. Afterwards, I couldn’t resist temptation—I skipped to the annual building show two rooms down. There I stumbled upon “net-zero” – the idea of building a house so that it produces as much energy as it uses.  My wife Linda and I had been planning to relocate to Minneapolis in our retirement. In a flash I knew exactly what we would do: make our new nest net zero! 

We both are teachers and wanted to set an example. Minneapolis has an aging housing stock and we suspected that many 50- to 100- year-old houses were going to survive well into the era of climate change. We decided to rescue a typical old house on a typical lot in this chilly northern city. 

Our daughter found the perfect fixer-upper, a flimsy balloon structure from 1907 in the modest Whittier neighborhood. Marc Sloot of SALA Architects had his work cut out for him. All I cared about was achieving net zero, while Linda insisted that the house be attractive and comfortable to live in as well. To meet both aims, a ’total gut rehab’ (stripping the house down to the studs) was needed. And we found that net-zero construction is remarkably comfortable to live in. But that gets ahead of the story…

The project took three years. The most important step in achieving net zero is to seal and insulate the house from bottom to top, to buffer it from the heat of summer and the cold of winter. One subcontractor carefully sliced out just enough dirt to insert four inches of foam and foam sheets all the way down the foundation walls. On the first and second floors, more than seven inches of insulation and 43 new windows were installed. Finally, a new roof was built over the old swayback and filled with 10 inches of foam. The whole construction was sealed with a layer of 3M film and Tyvek sheeting. 

The next step towards net zero is to provide heat. One bright fall day, a red rig squeezed into our postage-stamp backyard and drilled four geothermal wells, each 250 feet deep and spaced 10 feet apart. The wells are invisible, being buried five feet underground, and should last indefinitely as they circulate glycol-enhanced water in a closed loop.

The final step was to obtain the electricity needed to run the geothermal system and power the house. We chose our house for its long, south-facing roof. We covered every inch of it—and the garage—with solar collectors, 54 in all. For five years, despite the vagaries of Minneapolis weather, they have produced more than enough electricity, including for our plug-in hybrid car.  And we have offset some 70 tons of carbon. 

That positive balance of energy has made my day, but I also became increasingly invested in beautifying the interior. I removed, stripped and stained all the original yellow-birch door and window trim. Then the finish carpenters reinstalled it, to be faithful to the original house. Phil Holtan, a master wood carver, ‘turned’ eight columns and newel posts from new birch to grace the first floor.

Practical questions needed to be addressed in a tasteful way. Heating ducts in our fixer upper ran up through the closets. Marc cleverly suggested lowering the nine-foot ceilings by a foot around the perimeter of each room on the first floor. These ‘soffits’ left space for a lovely arched, dome-like ‘cove’ in the center of each ceiling. The soffits not only reflect light in a most pleasant way, but contain (and hide) all the wiring, plumbing and heating ducts. The neighboring kitchen was stretched to a galley almost 20 feet long, with ample cabinets and efficient electric appliances. 

Rather than import new materials, we recycled what we could. With the help of Bauer Bros, the venerable warehouse of house parts in Minneapolis, I harvested maple flooring from three houses under demolition or reconstruction. The planks ranged in age from 20 to 100 years but looked as if they were all cut from the same tree once sanded and varnished.  Best of all, they were pre-shrunk.  

As a result of all these efforts, the finished interior exudes a warm glow, especially pleasing on winter days. As construction wound down, I called the gas company and instructed them to cut our gas line. Not surprisingly, they resisted. Frankly it was an act of faith on my part to insist. After all, I had no experience of drawing heat out of the earth. But our “ground source heat pump” has provided more than enough heating and cooling for five years, with hardly a hiccup.

But what can Linda and I say in our role as teachers? Well, not so much luck. We moved in by early 2017 and immediately opened the house to visitors, hosting 1400 people before the pandemic shut us down. While many were enthusiastic, only two or three visitors subsequently started their own projects, to my disappointment. I think I know why. Our project was hugely expensive. It took three years from start to finish. It required almost all my time.  Indeed, I could not have done it before retiring from teaching. I had a steep and long learning curve to understand and help steer what was happening, and that was full-time work. These are costs in money and time that not everyone can bear. 

But some of us can … and that will be the subject of the third and final blogpost.

For further information on this project, check out this article on buildwithrise.com or more techinical details on nesea.org

About the Author

Stewart Herman, seated in front of a construction sign advertising LEED FOR HOMES

Stewart Herman has divided his life between teaching, raising a family, writing, traveling, and advocacy for solar energy. He taught religious ethics for almost three decades at Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, after having spent half a dozen years writing books and articles on energy and environmental matters in New York City. Until recently he was an avid trekker—honoring the earth through the low impact of his footsteps, whether on his own in places like Crete or Ladakh, or with students in China, Jordan and the Sinai.  

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