Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Hawkman Tours a Passive House, and Wants One for the EcoVillage

Post and photos by the Hawthorne Hawkman

About a year and a half, maybe two years ago, a group called the MinneAppleSeed Coalition approached the Hawthorne neighborhood with a desire to build a passive solar house in the EcoVillage. The Hawthorne Neighborhood Council lent its support to the proposal, and everyone was thrilled about yet another kind of groundbreaking activity that would happen in our community.

Well, as it turned out, we had to focus on getting rid of crime first, and many MinneAppleSeed partners had another opportunity to build a similar house before ours. This house, in Hudson, WI, goes even beyond passive; it will produce as much as three times the amount of energy it consumes. I wouldn't even call it a passive house so much as a passive-aggressive house, which is one reason they'll sell well in Minnesota.

For extensive coverage, this house, its builder, and those involved in its creation have their own blog at But you can read more about my experience and how this relates to NoMi after the jump...

...The first pictures above are of course the house in its current state and some renderings of what it will look like once it's complete. It's kind of boxy and minimalist, but that's what the owner wanted. He's looking to emphasize the energy efficiency aspects and prefers low maintenance over a flashy structure.

Although there will be sources of solar power,

Much of the energy performance of this house is tied to the building envelope:

The building's walls are twenty-two inches thick, and made of layers of concrete and styrofoam. The initial reaction some people have is that styrofoam isn't very green. However, the standards used in this case don't deal so much with something being biodegradable. Instead, the focus is on the life cycle of the product; how much energy is negated by its implementation vs. how much energy is used in its production. In that regard, the building envelope is perhaps the highest-performing structure in the world.

It's also worth pointing out that the owner and builders are being very intentional about minimizing the building's effect on the surrounding landscape. Most new construction - especially projects in the exurbs - approaches landscaping by bulldozing over everything, then putting the house in, then creating the landscape the owner wants. But as one architect said, "Nature has a way of trying to get its area back." So this team is doing everything they can to build around the existing landscape.

Below, you can see what looks like a roof outcropping. However, that is merely how far out the wall will extend. Everything will be squared off once the envelope is complete.

What you see below with the pipes are actually areas where electrical sensors will be placed on the exterior. Along with a system on the roof, they will monitor when and how sunlight, wind, and other weather is affecting the house. Blinds will be automatically opened or closed depending on whether more or less sunlight is needed, and each window will have a manual override. There's even an iPhone app that can be used to monitor the energy performance of the house.

Nobody said anything about an orbiting satellite that can shoot lasers to instantly fry any potential home invaders, in-laws, or Sierra Club canvassers, but I think we're approaching that kind of technology here.

And here's what those windows will look like. There's a whole lot of technical reasons for why they're so thick and insulated, but what it boils down to is that the house is designed to utilize retention of energy (such as the sun coming through windows) rather than absorption/production (i.e. solar panels).

The doors are similarly insulated:

The ventilation system was also something rather novel. Instead of traditional ductwork, we have these series of corrugated pipes. These pipes have some kind of membrane that, through ventilation, transfers up to 82% of the home's energy back into itself during the winter. I'd really recommend you check out the house's official blog for a better explanation, because the best I can come up with is that the furnace is powered by dilithium crystals and anti-matter. Did I mention that the filters for the ventilation system are dishwasher-friendly? Well, they are.

The environmental features aren't the only extraordinary thing about this home, however. Just check out the amazing view:

In all fairness, it doesn't look like this all the time. Here's a more accurate representation:

Ho hum.

This house, and the technologies and philosophies behind it are truly groundbreaking. They both operate under the principle that the cheapest energy (kilowatt hour) is the one you do not use. With that as a foundation, the builders claim that even during the coldest days of winter, the worst-case scenario for heating a 1900-square-foot home will be equal to running two hair dryers at the same time.

Of course, the bigger challenge comes when we try to replicate homes like this in Minneapolis and elsewhere. Obviously we'll have cost to deal with, but let's not forget building codes. Several Minneapolis city inspectors and employees toured the house on a separate date and it's no surprise that they all had questions about how such a home would meet code here. And I have a tough time imagining a conversation where, during the final walk-through, the city inspector is satisfied with, "Don't worry, the heating system works exactly as needed. When it gets cold, I'll just turn on these two hair dryers here and the whole family will be warm and toasty."

While somewhat flippant, that comment isn't meant as a criticism of our inspectors either. They have a responsibility to uphold code and make sure homes in Minneapolis operate at a certain standard. But from the looks of it, green technology is developing at a much faster pace than our building codes may recognize. We'll have to cross that bridge when we bring a house like this to Hawthorne.


Patrick said...

Great positive post Hawkman. The EcoVillage could really use something like this.

That said, I didn't get your comment about the nice view. I don't see how it changed.

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

There's a rather good-looking woman in the first photo, is all.

Patrick 2 said...

Excellent Hawkman I especially appreciate your candid recognition that due to the way Minneapolis handles their building codes and inspections many smart things that would prop up a neighborhood are not likley to happen. And i'll state that is my interpretation and opinion and not necessairly what you meant.

Anonymous said...

This home... looks like a green bunker.

Dyna, Parade Junkie! said...

Good luck getting a building permit for such an energy efficent home in Minneapolis...

la_vie_en_rose said...

Actually, I don't think it looks that badly. Just a modern style, which obviously isn't for everyone.

How much will these homes cost? I've always been interested in a green house that produces its own energy.

Anonymous said...

If they painted that thing brown you'd have John Hoff calling it a Keith Reitman building.

Pond-dragon said...

Great to have this level of open-minded progressive investigation and appreciation in NoMi. There are NoMi contractors with this type of vision that have converted NoMi homes to a higher std. of Green and energy efficiency. These types of Green investments allowed us to add ~ 800 Sq ft of attic space as livable and more or less hold our energy consumption bill constant. The ideas and major work came from a NoMi contractor,TLC 12 years ago. I'm sure AM and a number of others are at this level as well.

Anonymous said...

Looks institutional. Stupid boxes with no sale!

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

I have to say, I'm not a big fan of the exterior look of this particular house myself. However, it's a good 45-minute drive away, so I won't be affected by it anyway.

The passive solar house we're exploring in the EcoVillage won't have the same boxy look to it though. However, it also likely won't be an energy producer.

In terms of cost, I don't know offhand what this house cost, but I know it's not cheap. Part of that surely has to do with the real estate in this part of Hudson, but the economic model likely isn't here yet to do these without funding or donations that offset losses on the front end.

Hans said...

I wonder if Minneapolis could create exemptions for certain parts of the building code if it can be verified that the design of a house meets a certain level of efficiency.

For instance this house has NO windows on the north walls... which would immediately disqualify it for Minneapolis. Also, the plumbing system does not have a traditional vent to the outdoors (I have no idea how this is possible but clearly it works).

It doesn't make sense to scrap the section of code that requires north facing windows and plumbing vents. Traditional homes still need these things... but if a new house is going to produce more energy than it uses, it is really in the city's best interest to allow some modifications. As I see it, the current code protects low income renters from living in really crappy houses, and prevents dont-care-about-north investors from throwing up pole barns and calling them housing.

Deanne said...

Exemptions to the building code? Are you serious or just trolling? Maybe Mr. Slummy and Keith Reitman could just issue their own permits. Then they wouldn't be troubled by those awful building inspectors who insist on minimum standards for habitable structures.

Tim Eian said...

For those of you debating code compliance, there really aren't any big challenges with this design and current codes in WI and MN. We designed the home to reflect the owner's aesthetic vision. The design is not entirely tied to the fact that it is an incredibly efficient building. At this point during construction, many of the exterior details are missing—making it look less refined than it will be once complete.

This project:

Thanks for he post Hawthorne Hawkman!

Dyna, Parade Junkie! said...

BTW, I've got a post up on mpls-issues list about Minneapolis' over zealous interpretation of building code and how it's preventing rehab and new construction. I even offer Minneapolis a deal- relax their code enforcement to Minnesota standards so I can rehab my house for under $50,000 or let me build a new one for less than $100,000 and I'll do it.

Anonymous said...


You have no clue what Code compliance is if you think it has anything to do with minimum standards. It is today's new construction standards. There is nary a house in North Minneapolis that would pass a complete code compliance inspection. First of all you need simple things like a bath fan and a certain amount of window light in a room. Egress and fire escapes. Breakers and not fuses. Pressure tested plumbing....the list goes on and on. You have no clue. Anyone who goes through a complete code compliance certification deserves a medal....and here you guys would probably bitch about it. How naive.

As far as this "passive House" although it is a nice idea for the suburbs, it is not a like or similar structure to its neighbors. I hear so much bitching about something that has a brown facade. Here this example is a 1960's green lego box that matches nothing in Minneapolis, oh except for the shape of the 400 bar perhaps

Fed Up In NOMI said...

I think a house like this would be a waste of money in NOMI. It obviously is costly to build so you'd want to do it in an area likley to appreciate and where the home would not be riddled by bullets or peed on by neighbors.

Deanne said...

Eight o two or should I say slum enabler,

Whining about the building codes isn't doing this neighborhood any good. And by making it easier for the Mr. Slummy's of the world to operate you are making NoMi a slumlord's paradise. If they can get by with houses that don't have enough windows, have outdated plumbing and electrical, don't have enough egresses and are otherwise out of compliance then we are getting in the way of the revitalizers.

Frankly, I think every residential dwelling in NoMi should be subject to a code compliance inspection. That way people who want to move in to buy houses would know that not only is there property up to snuff, but so are their neighbor's.

Dyna, Parade Junkie! said...

Deane, if we had that kind of "zero tolerance" code enforcement in NOMI our vacancy rate would rise from 50% to 100%!. I have no problem with IBC and the Minnesota code. The problem is Minneapolis strange and unique additions to the code and their creative interpretations of the state and IBC codes. For example, Minneapolis requirement that my home's foundation be repaired with poured concrete rather than concrete blocks. That triples the cost and is a deal killer. We have a similar problem with Minneapolis obsession with pressure testing of plumbing- replace a toilet and they test the whole system and it fails because old cast iron drain pipe is porous. They're testing systems under pressure they never normally see so they fail. It's another Minneapolis "gotcha", and another reason why abandonment is often the only viable thing you can do with Minneapolis property.

Anonymous said...

Good post Jeff. I like you're writing. It's obvious you do your leg work to put together well written informative posts. Thanks for keeping things positive.

The Hawthorne Hawkman said...

Tim is one of the lead designers on this house, and will be a key partner when we build something similar in the EcoVillage. So if he says there aren't going to be major hurdles with the building design and codes, I believe it. Tim, anything else that was incorrect or incomplete here, feel free to suggest changes.

There's a key difference between any potential exemptions or variances a house like this would need and "Mr. Slummy." We would openly seek those exemptions and work with the city and community before building anything.

Hans said...

I just want to emphasize that it is quite possible to design a passive house that would look just every other house on the block.

A lot of people are instantly turned off by the look of this "box" but you have to realize this particular buyer picked this design. A great variety of facades could have been built around this structure.

Hans said...


Are you saying that if I replace my toilet the city is going to come out and pressure test my whole plumbing system. If this is true I am amazed and dumbfounded.

My assumption would be that if I was pulling a permit to add a bath or make a major change to my bathroom they would make me comply with new construction code... but parts of the house that aren't being worked on shouldn't be subject to code compliance. (Replacement of a defective toilet doesn't require a permit... right??)

I understand your concerns but is it really THAT bad?

Kevin said...

Possibly this house "as is" wouldn't be a great fit for our neighborhood, but I think we have to get over this notion that every house we build has to look like every other house on the block. For one thing, if you really look at all the older homes in our neighborhood, it's a complete mish-mash of styles. That's part of the charm and what sets us apart from the 'burbs.

Let's carry that theme forward. We can build different styles of housing - even contemporary housing - which may not look like the other homes on the block, but still compliments them.

Of course the only thing we really want to avoid are the crappy styles from out in the 'burbs. Those folks couldn't design something aesthetically pleasing if their lives depended on it. Maybe a bit of a generalization, but more true than not.

Dyna, Parade Junkie! said...

Hans, it really is that bad. Quite often when a house has been abandonned, plumbing fixtures have been damaged or stolen. Normally, you'd do a visual inspection of the rest of the system and if it looked OK and didn't leak you'd just replace the missing or damaged fixture. But Minneapolis insists on pressure testing the whole system. Thus replacing a toilet in Minneapolis often ends up becoming a whole house replumbing. Most folks get around this problem by simply not pulling a permit and the city is none the wiser. But if your house had been previously condemned or boarded and vacant, you have to pay the city for a code compliance inspection before they'll let you start rehabbing. Thus the city knows everything that needs fixing and them some, and the cost of rehab often quickly exceeds the value of the home after rehabbing.

Hans said...


So you are only talking about houses that have been previously condemned or boarded and vacant. That is a very different situation indeed.

Some very bad things happen in a large portion of houses that end up vacant and I can see why the city wants to know that EVERYTHING is up to snuff... too bad the policy prevents some good people from improving their situations. Who sets and enforces the code for mpls?

When I bought my house for ~$60k there was no city inspection of any kind.

Johnny Northside! said...


You are incorrect. I looked up your house online and there was indeed a Truth In Housing inspection done by United Properties. Look it up online. If you don't know how, I'll show you when I see you again...maybe at tonight's barbeque!

Hans said...

I was aware of the Truth in Housing inspection but I didn't know those were done by the city. Good to know...

I assumed the city would not have allowed the sale considering certain.... uh... "features" of my property. I guess the inspectors are MUCH more relaxed when the property hasn't been previously condemned or vacant.

Lucky me...

Ranty said...

Actually, the truth in housing inspection is not done by the city, but rather by a licensed, approved evaluator who is often also a regular home inspector of the type you could hire for a buyers inspection.

The city of Minneapolis requires point-of-sale inspection on all single family homes and duplexes. That means that when a listing company places a property on the MLS for sale, they must have already had this inspection done. There may or may not be "required repair" items on that inspection report, which is uploaded to the city property website by the evaluator when it's completed. (Also, a hard copy is supposed to be on the property at all times when it is being marketed.)

In order to close on the sale, there either needs to be a certificate of approval (that there were no "RR" items from the start OR that the seller fixed them and had them reinspected and signed off,) OR the buyer(s) can sign an acceptance of responsibility at closing, indicating that they themselves will correct the issues within 90 days of closing and have them reinspected.

Point of sale inspection rules and procedures vary from city to city, and indeed there are still some cities which do not have them at all. But this is basically how it goes in Mpls.

Patricia said...


I think you meant to use possessive "buyer's" and not plural "buyers". Thanks for working to improve your grammar. Posters on this blog are held to, and usually uphold a high ideal when it comes to the proper punctuation.

Anonymous said...


You are so obviously wrong it's hardly worth the time to type this message.

Patricia said...


I'm not sure I understand your message. Connie said:

"Actually, the truth in housing inspection is not done by the city, but rather by a licensed, approved evaluator who is often also a regular home inspector of the type you could hire for a buyers inspection."

Since the inspection is for the buyer I am fairly certain that one is suppossed to use the possessive form of the word, e.g. "buyer's". But if you have a different interpretation or are using a grammatical rule that I am unaware of please let me know. I'm always interested in improving the use of the language.

Ranty said...

Actually, I was planning to utilize the plural possessive "buyers'" but evidently I was typing too quickly and accidentally left off the apostrophe.

I presume that is the reason for your erroneous comma placement as well, Patricia.

Hopefully my error did not ruin your day.

Patricia said...


I still think "buyer's" better fits what you were saying, but I appreciate the clarification. Thanks and have a great day. Keep up your revitalizing. I look forward to the latest update on the $7,900.00 house.

Anonymous said...

So if a buyer makes a commitment to make such repairs within 90 days and then does not what should happen to that buyer? Should we be calling 311 on those homes?

Anonymous said...

Ahhh... well I was looking at "buyer(s)" which is correct. Now I see your point and you are O so right Patricia. Good job on catching that TYPO!


Just cuz John makes some snide grammar remarks every once in a while you feel the need to stoop to his level?

Why don't you contribute something relevant instead of merely calling the kettle black.

Patricia said...


I absolutely think you should call 311 on those people. The city has rules for a reason. Those rules are very important. People who don't follow them should be held to account. If you know of any properties like that post the info here. Like CM Samuels instructed, let's put a string of 311 calls together on that property and get them shut down.

Anonymous said...

"let's put a string of 311 calls together on that property and get them shut down."


Are you serious?

"Hello, Minneapolis 311"

"Uh yes, I'd like to report a problem property. My neighbor bought a house 90 days ago and my spidey sense is telling me that he hasn't completed all of the Repair/Replace orders on his house. Can you send someone out to shut this homeowner down?"

Anonymous said...

I don't think you really need a spidey sense as alot of these repairs deal with exterior conditions that affect the look and safety of the neighborhood. Even if you found out about the lack of a safety type repair internally it could adversely effect the neighborhood like fire, sewer etc.

Anonymous said...

anon 8:09...

The point I was trying to make is that you can't really "shut down" an owner/occupier. I'm sure you could piss them off, but the term "shut down" isn't relevant to someone who just wants to live in their own house. Patricia (7:21) is being a little ridiculous.

If they signed an agreement to fix the problems within 90 days of the purchase it would seem like the city already has their number... and 311 calls wouldn't change anything.

Patrick... Patricia. Coincidence?

Everybody's an expert! said...

"I don't think you really need a spidey sense as alot (sic) of these repairs deal with exterior conditions that affect the look and safety of the neighborhood."

Really? Have you studied TISH data trends across NoMi? Or are you just guessing?

TISH Master said...

Uh yes, I have. In face if you look at TISH data from the past 180 days you'll see that 15.6% deal with exterior conditions that further degrade the quality of the neighborhood.

Everybody's an expert! said...

TISH Master, You are full of shit.

Anonymous said...

so... 15.6% exterior = "alot" ?

what's the other 84.4%... interior?

meaning things you can't see from the outside of the house.

meaning you can't "shut down" shit.

why don't you save us some time and just rant your little rant. WHAT'S YOUR POINT?

My point is Passive Houses are pretty f'in cool.

Johnny Northside! said...

Spam post rejected about houses for sale in a foreign nation. Nice try, spammer.

Johnny Northside! said...

Got a spam comment as follows, with a link to a site for Venetian blinds.
Who told this house is bad. This is not bad.
To which I reply: who told this good place for spam. This is not.

Here's a topic for you, Chinese spammer: Jasmine Revolution. Discuss.