Michael Larsen and Linda Nelson call a sunny morning in the winter “a waffle day,” because it means they can tap into the electricity their home generates to power the waffle iron. If the sky is cloudy, they’ll conserve kilowatts and wash laundry on another day. “We’re always aware of weather and extra bursts of sun,” said Nelson.
That’s because the couple’s daily comforts — including a hot morning shower — depend on the sun.
Larsen and Nelson live in a net-zero-energy home that they built almost a year ago, on 62 acres near Winona, Minn. Their little solar-powered house on the prairie produces all the energy it uses. Solar electric panels generate power to run everything from lights to the couple’s cappuccino machine. A solar thermal array heats rainwater they collect in a huge cistern to use for bathing and cooking. To save gallons of water, the pair installed a simple composting toilet. And to keep the 1,700-square-foot house toasty warm on sub-freezing days, Larsen builds a fire inside a masonry heater stoked with wood he harvested and chopped himself.
“We act like the plants and animals outside,” said Larsen. “Their behavior changes with the weather.”
Just a few years ago, Larsen and Nelson were content urbanites living in south Minneapolis. But their desire to see the Big Dipper and have a stronger connection to nature propelled them to buy the rolling acreage in 2004.
They were walking home from a winter church program that explored the value of darkness when the idea took root. “I told Mike I didn’t want to live where I couldn’t see the night sky and the stars,” said Nelson.”We decided to start looking for land in the country.”
A month later, they bought their prairie land in southeastern Minnesota and started spending their weekends camped at the top of a ridge overlooking Whitewater State Park. Their first mission was to “heal the land” and gradually restore 40 acres of prairie by tearing out invasive trees and shrubs, cutting the grasses down and sowing native plant seeds.
By 2009, Larsen and Nelson were ready to turn their weekend visits into a permanent life-changing move. Larsen was planning to retire from Medtronic and was itching for a lifestyle that engaged him with the land, he said. “I wanted to do activities that would engage my heart, not my pocketbook, like chopping the wood that heats our house.” Nelson, a psychologist, drives to the Twin Cities for appointments.
The couple researched how to build an energy-efficient sustainable home by attending Green Expos and Twin Cities Solar Energy tours. They connected with architect Paul Neseth of Locus Architecture in Minneapolis, who shared their down-to-earth ideals. “We brought Paul a Mary Oliver poem at our first meeting to show what matters to us and our values,” said Nelson, in a reference to the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who draws on nature for inspiration.
Neseth’s response was to design a contemporary-style home that combines prairie architectural elements with updated materials, such as a long-lasting and recyclable steel-hipped roof.
The compact two-bedroom structure, clad in white cedar from northern Minnesota, is primarily one-level with a two-story tower rising up on one end. The front entrance faces north, and the rear living areas, with a bank of seven windows, face south to take advantage of passive solar heat. Highly insulated 2-feet-thick walls give the interiors depth and create deep window sills. The masonry heater warms the open kitchen, living room and dining room, which flow from one to the other. Sleek concrete floors are heated by tubes hooked up to the solar panels.
The two-story tower is a favorite getaway space for reading and doing yoga. “We call the tower’s open porch ‘the perch,’ and it’s the best place to see the sunrise,” said Nelson. Larsen brings his laptop up there — there’s Wi-Fi on the prairie — to write his blog (http://rahdur.blogspot.com) and a book about living off the grid.
Going completely off the grid, unconnected to any public utility, wasn’t initially part of their plan. The decision evolved as they reflected on the life they wanted — and the attraction of zero utility bills (except for the $60 a year they spend on propane for the kitchen stove).
“For us, conservation wasn’t about giving up amenities,” said Larsen, who gets excited when the cistern fills up after a heavy rain. “It was about being connected to nature and gaining a better lifestyle.”
Neseth said Locus hopes to build more net-zero homes. “More people are crafting homes based on unique lifestyles and using new technologies that don’t harm the planet,” he said.
After moving from the city to the country, Nelson admits she misses their church friends, her favorite bakeries and Clancey’s Meats & Fish.
But they are only a two-hour drive from Minneapolis. And Nelson got her wish to gaze at the night sky. “In summer, we lay on the prairie grass and can see stars all around us for miles,” she said.