We were sitting in the dining room of our small Minneapolis home, talking about how we were going to be able to stay now that we had three children. The usual options came up: moving to a larger house in the neighborhood, trying to find a lot to build on that was nearby, or just living with what we had. Fortunately, we liked living exactly where we were, and we had the means to expand. After a few days of half-hearted searching, we decided that adding on to our 75-year-old, 1,400-sq. ft. home was the best choice.
The problem was, we couldn't justify just adding on to our house without taking serious steps to improving its efficiency. In the winter our single-pane windows would frost up overnight, then drip water all over in the mornings. We had an old addition that was freezing in the winter and sweltering in the summer, requiring us to evacuate its rooms for parts of the year. The thin exterior walls were barely insulated, in some places almost literally freezing during the winter. Adding on was fine, but the rest of the home needed a makeover, too.
We found what we were looking for in Passive House construction, a building standard that's taken hold in Europe, but has barely touched North America. Passive house designers take insulation levels to radical new heights in their pursuit of energy efficiency, creating houses that use 10 percent of the heating and cooling energy of conventionally built houses. This was the kind of makeover we wanted.
Unfortunately, such a makeover isn't simply a matter of hiring a builder and telling them we want to turn our home into a Passive House. While Passive Houses are springing up all over the US in small numbers, almost all of them are new construction. We found out that in fact, there exactly zero houses in the US built to the Passive House retrofit standard, EnerPHit.
We're lucky enough to live in the same city as a Passive House architect, and brought him into the conversation. We met over the course of several months, refining our ideas of what we wanted, and expanding on level of efficiency we were looking for. Suddenly, our little addition was turning into a whole house remodel, and the costs began to mount.
We were forced to ask the question: what's green? We had visions of recycled glass countertops, salvaged wood floors and ultra-efficient appliances. These are all good things, but they're expensive. Ultimately, we had to decide where we were going to spend our money: in the house itself, or what went into the house.
There isn't much glamorous about R-50 walls and sub-slab insulation. No one comes over to your house to admire the two feet of cellulose in your attic. It took a real act of willpower to wrench ourselves from the magazine images of a green home and decide that if we really wanted a house that made a difference, we were going to have to put our money where it mattered.
Today, our house has been deconstructed to its bones. The addition is beginning to take shape, and we're running into the usual problems any major remodel encounters. It's a highwire act from start to finish and, like any major endeavor, hugely stressful. But when we're done, we know we'll have what truly counts for us: our home back, but this time, one of the most energy efficient remodels in the country.
Paul Brazelton, owner of the MinnePHit House, is a father and hobby chef with a passion for the planet. The MinnePHit House is an existing home in Minneapolis being retrofitted to EnerPHit standards, which is a new certification for older homes to make them far more energy efficient, closer to Passive House standards.