An inside look at three super-sustainable homes

  • Updated: May 24, 2014 - 2:00 PM

Homeowner Roxanne Nelson on the green roof of the EcoDEEP house in St. Paul. The 1940s Cape Cod house was expanded, remodeled and retrofitted with energy-saving materials and technology.

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Furnace-free

Dr. Gary Konkol just spent his fourth winter living in a home with no furnace. But even this year, that was no hardship.

“My house is more equipped to deal with [brutal winters] than most,” said the family physician, who practices in Woodbury.

Konkol’s Passive House in the Woods, just outside Hudson, Wis., was inspired by solar house technology developed by the Passivhaus Institute in Germany. He built it as a prototype in 2010, and it may be the most energy-efficient home in the Midwest. The house has thick — almost 2 feet — super-insulated walls, triple-glazed windows, solar panels and a photovoltaic system with dual-axis trackers that follow the sun vertically and horizontally for optimum solar energy output. The house produces more electricity than it uses.

“It’s a very comfortable house to live in,” Konkol said. His home has made him much more aware of weather and its rhythms, and he’s learned to live in sync with them. “If it’s cloudy in the winter, my house is cooler,” he said. “If it’s sunny, my house is really warm. It’s a good time to do laundry. Might as well be in harmony with the sun.”

Konkol also keeps in touch with nature by keeping bees and growing fruit, berries and vegetables. Two rain gardens control stormwater runoff.

His distinctive 2,000-square-foot house, a two-story walkout with a rooftop terrace, attracts a lot of attention. “People drive up to look at it,” he said. He’s happy to share it on tours and spread the word about passive-house design and furnace-free living.

“There aren’t too many certified passive houses, although it’s a growing movement,” he said. “My motivation for building it was to be energy-efficient. But I can’t just live here without letting people see it.”

‘Edgy’ farmhouse

Peter Vujovich dubbed his home the “Idea Farm.” It’s a year-round experiment where the owner of Vujovich Design Build tries out ideas, collects data and “separates hype from facts” about green building. The home, which he shares with his wife, Jill Lucas, is the second in the state to achieve the highest rating, Gold, through the MN Greenstar program, and it’s packed with cutting-edge green technology.

“There’s a lot of building science in the exterior envelope,” he said.

But beneath the high-tech systems and materials beats the heart of a simple farmhouse, with traditional forms and a cozy great room filled with reclaimed wood, some of it from the property, which originally was a tree farm.

“We like the idea of the farmhouse legacy here in Minnesota,” said Vujovich. Many houses built for extreme energy efficiency also are extremely contemporary in style, he noted. “Those are cool.” But some Minnesotans can’t relate to them or picture themselves living in them.

“This is a form of architecture that people can wrap their arms around,” he said. “But this is not like Grandma’s farmhouse. It’s an edgy farmhouse.”

Grandma wouldn’t know what to make of the micro-inverters on the barn’s solar array, or the unique “indoor garden shower.” But she’d feel right at home in the large outdoor vegetable garden, watered by a 12,000-gallon rain-recovery system.

“It’s a farm-to-table lifestyle,” Vujovich said. “We consume what we grow, and give it away to people we love.”

The Idea Farm is large, a 3,700-square-foot house plus a 1,000-square-foot carriage house that serves as a “mother-in-law apartment.” But the cost of operating it is low, according to Vujovich. “We’ve never had a gas bill more than $40 a month.”

High-efficiency remodel

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  • Passivhaus in Hudson, Wis.

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  • The Passive House in the Woods in Hudson, Wis., is a prototype inspired by technology developed at Germany’s Passivhaus Institute.

  • Kitchen inside Passivhaus, Hudson, Wis.

  • Peter Vujovich’s Idea Farm in Afton includes a house and carriage-house apartment inspired by traditional farmhouse architecture. The home was the second in the state to achieve the highest rating through the MN Greenstar program.

  • Afton, MN - JobNo_410 - 1009 October 2009 - MHOM Midwest Home: Peter and Jill Vujovich Owner, Vujovich Designer and Builder of his farm and home in rural Afton, MN Date: Thursday August 13, 2009 Photo by ¬© Greenspring Media/Todd Buchanan 2009 Technical Questions: tbuchanan@greenspring.com; Phone: 612-226-5154. Keywords: farm, horses, designer, architect, rural, - Folder: MHOM_1009_410_Vujovich_Idea_Farm

  • Afton, MN - JobNo_410 - 1009 October 2009 - MHOM Midwest Home: Peter and Jill Vujovich Owner, Vujovich Designer and Builder of his farm and home in rural Afton, MN Date: Thursday August 13, 2009 Photo by ¬© Greenspring Media/Todd Buchanan 2009 Technical Questions: tbuchanan@greenspring.com; Phone: 612-226-5154. Keywords: farm, horses, designer, architect, rural, - Folder: MHOM_1009_410_Vujovich_Idea_Farm

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