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Why I’m building an energy-efficient house

The news broke last week that the world dumped 564 million tons of additional CO2 into the atmosphere in 2010. That is about 6 percent more than we released into the atmosphere in 2009.

So much for CO2 emission reduction efforts.

Dr. John Abraham
Dr. John Abraham

Human beings use the atmosphere as a public sewer, with no cost attached, yet. We dump into the sky 30 billion tons — 30 gigatons — of CO2 from fossil fuel burning each year. The number would be much higher if the calculation included deforestation and simple agricultural practices like plowing fields.

According to Dr. John Abraham, thermal scientist in the physics department of the University of St. Thomas: “This is really bad news. It means that the solutions available to solve this problem are going to be more costly. The good news is that we can solve this problem. The bad news is the longer we wait, the harder those solutions will be.”

The additional amount stuck into the sky in 2010 is greater than any single country’s total contribution, with the exception of China, the United States and India. It is a big jump and the jump puzzles and frightens scientists.

Countries producing most CO2 compared to rise in total emissions
Source: Dr. John Abraham
Countries producing most CO2 compared to rise in total emissions

I’ve been reporting on global warming for a long time, and sometimes my reporting comes off quite preachy. I recognize that. I also know that when people preach, they are expected to walk the talk of the sermon.

Former Vice President Al Gore got into trouble after “An Inconvenient Truth,” when it was reported that he lived in a 10,000-square foot, 20-room house with a yearly utility bill 15 times higher than most U.S. households.

Gore responded by saying he purchased “carbon off-sets” as a way to shrink his carbon footprint. People were right to cry foul, even though he invests in renewable fuels and pays extra to plant trees.

A new house
So, when I retired, my wife and I had saved enough money to build a home. We had never done that before. I know, I know. It is a terrible time to build a new home. I know it will never be worth what I’m putting into it. But I intend to live in it with my wife until our time comes. Payback and equity were not our first considerations.

Important to the two of us was that the house be as energy efficient as we could make it. It has been under construction for almost a year now, and we are told we can move in at the end of March. We’ll sell the house we raised our children in for about 40 percent of its 2007 value. My timing has always been a little off.

The new house, in Excelsior, is LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum certified, the highest rating attainable. It is Minnesota GreenStar Gold rated, that organization’s highest rating. It is now being rated for Greenpath, a program for energy-efficient design sponsored by the Builders Association of the Twin Cities (BATC).

Building a house that will consume a fraction of the fossil-fuel electricity and natural-gas heating is more expensive than a code-minimum house. There is the solar and geothermal and the triple-pane argon windows. There’s the post-consumer plastic pavers made from recycled materials, and roof shingles made of recycled tires, and wood floors that came from buildings and barns where the lumber was cut from the forest 100 years ago. We will retain rainwater in a cistern, rain-gardens and a water retention sink below the driveway.
Why in this economy would anyone spend more for a house than absolutely necessary? Some would suggest that I’m trying to avoid being shouted down while I stand preaching in the pulpit. Some could argue that I’m trying to avoid the dilemma of Al Gore and his embarrassment. Those may be benefits, but they are not the answer.

A stone sculpture
Outside my new home will be a stone sculpture. I’m not much of an art collector, but I will have a stack of granite in front of the house. The “art” is called an inukshuk. You say it “in-ook-shook.” The inukshuk will sit outside my front porch. You will have to see it when you approach on the sidewalk.

Sometimes the structures are just cairns, or stacks of rock, and sometimes they look at a distance like humans. They are seen on the tundra of the far north, put there by the native peoples of the Arctic. The Inuit have used them for tens of thousands of years, and if you ever get a chance to travel to far north Alaska or the Canadian Arctic, you will see them. The inukshuk is on the provincial flag of Nunavut in far north Canada, the land of the people we in the south used to call Eskimo.

An Inukshuk statue in Whistler, British Colombia.
REUTERS/Stefano Rellandini
An Inukshuk statue in Whistler, British Columbia.

Symbolism has always been important to humans. Our new house is kind of a symbol. The inukshuk is a symbol. One can ask the question: “Why a new energy efficient house?” Or one can ask: “Why an inukshuk in the front yard?”

The answer is the same. If you ask, next March, why I built the house, I will point to the inukshuk. If you ask about the inukshuk, I will point to the house.

The Inuit people and their culture already are the first casualties of global warming. It is possible in my lifetime that a whole culture could disappear. I don’t want that to happen. I’ve spent a lot of time with Inuit people, and they don’t put much CO2 into the atmosphere. But the CO2 we put in the atmosphere is changing their lives and, perhaps, spelling their doom.

I think about the Inuit, and the people in sub-Saharan Africa, and the islanders of Oceana, and I wonder if I’m hurting them. My mother always told me to take responsibility. I was never very good at it. But sometimes you can’t hide from it.

There is an axiom that you can’t control what other people do, but you can keep your side of the street clean. Someday, when I’m gone, I’d like the Inuit to know that I tried.

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Comments (18)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/15/2011 - 10:02 am.

    Good for you, Don. I’d like to see your house (and the inukshuk) when it’s finished. Make sure to post some pictures for us here. If I ever have the opportunity, I would like to do the same thing. Or at least modify a house that I own to have some of those features (particularly geothermal and solar).

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 11/15/2011 - 10:24 am.

    With all due respect, Don, you’re building this energy efficient house because you can afford to do so. I don’t begrudge you that; it’s the same thing many do as they enter retirement. I’d do it myself if I could and stay in my neighborhood. But, have you compared the energy cost of constructing the new home to that of staying in your current home and retrofitting? I’d love to read about such a comparison.

  3. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 11/15/2011 - 10:57 am.

    Great question. I’d like to read about that, too.

  4. Submitted by Joseph Skar on 11/15/2011 - 12:07 pm.

    I agree with James, how would it not be more energy efficient to purchase a used house and update it? Not that I care about CO2 but I would have to think that any carbon savings from operation of the home would never wipe out the CO2 needed to manufacture new roof, foundation, subfloor, joists, appliances, flooring, trim, doors, siding… Not mention the CO2 used by the heavy equipment needed to transport the materials then actually build a structure.

  5. Submitted by Lance Groth on 11/15/2011 - 12:18 pm.

    Congrats on the new house, Don. It sounds very cool. Had I the means, I would do something similar.

    Agree also that the question in #2 is good. Given that most people these days can’t afford to build new to those specs, retrofitting needs to be an important focus.

    Aside from reducing CO2 output, there is another good reason to do what you’re doing, and that is set oneself up for off-the-grid maximum self-sufficiency. Energy, water, food, etc. Not to sound too gloom & doomish, but as climate change gets going in earnest, and world financial system problems continue to unwind, and who knows what else may happen, a house that can function on its own will be a very good thing to have. I don’t think most people realize how vulnerable our electrical and communications grids are to EMP. A massive solar flare such as hit us in the 19th Century (it happened before, it will happen again), or a couple of nukes detonated 250 miles above North America, would knock us back into the early 19th Century in a single event. Hardening our systems should be a national priority, yet Congress dithers about important questions like reaffirming the “national motto.” Sigh.

    Anyway, very cool, keep us posted. Love the Inukshuk sculpture, too.

    Oh, and while the criticism of Gore’s house was valid at the time, in fairness to him, he has since retrofitted his house for maximum energy efficiency, similar to what you’re doing. Of course, the money isn’t a concern to him, and he should have done it without being prompted. Still, he has corrected the mistake.

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/15/2011 - 12:51 pm.

    Credit where credit is due; this smarmy tribute to himself has done what no leftist has done before…Don has left me speechless.

  7. Submitted by Lance Groth on 11/15/2011 - 02:39 pm.

    Re #6 – if only that were literally true.

    I’d ask if you got out of the wrong side of the bed today, but the comment is actually typical.

  8. Submitted by Ed Lehr on 11/15/2011 - 02:57 pm.

    Congratulations on your new home. Could you share your current average monthly electrical usage, your estimated new house average, and how much you intend to produce with solar?

    Will solar panels be visible from the street?

    Would you have been able to install solar on your current home?


  9. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 11/15/2011 - 03:46 pm.

    I’m with James Hamilton (#2) on this one. Were I wealthy enough, I’d love to do something similar, and get off the grid completely, but I’m not, and I can’t. I also think the issue James raises about comparative costs – in dollars, sure, but also in terms of environmental effects, including CO2 for both scenarios, is a fair one, and worth addressing at some future point not too far down the road. Most of what I’ve read in planning and development says “The greenest building is the one that’s already standing,” or words to that effect, so it’s hard not to draw the same conclusion as Joseph Skar (#4), though I do think CO2 is an issue. A comparison of the long-term savings of the most energy-efficient house you can build from scratch, including the energy and materials used to build it, transport materials, etc., versus the long-term savings of retrofitting for energy efficiency (almost certainly at substantial cost per square foot) your existing house, or at least a generic house of similar age and configuration, would be VERY instructive, I think, to folks of varying opinion regarding the environment.

  10. Submitted by Dave Thul on 11/15/2011 - 09:59 pm.

    But will it all really be Mr Shelby’s money used to build this house?

    Solar and geothermal systems are subsidized by the state and federal government in the form of generous tax credits. Energy Star appliances qualify for rebates from the federal government, utility companies are required to offer incentives for energy efficient appliances and weatherization. And many cities in Minnesota offer free or discounted rain barrels and water garden help.

    Perhaps Don could keep track of all of these areas where his house will have been directly subsidized by government and add that to a future story.

  11. Submitted by Don Shelby on 11/15/2011 - 10:59 pm.

    I will put together the figures you are looking for. A bit of information I can talk about in a non-specific way. Remodeling to LEED, GreenStar standards of the current house would require a near deconstruction of the existing house. Because I live in a woods I would have to take down a half dozen trees to make way for the solar applications. Some of the blocking trees are on neighbors property. There are life-cycle savings of remodeling, and GreenStar and LEED both have programs for remodeling. Peter Lytel, of Live Green, Live Smart did that by turning a 1950’s rambler into a LEED Plantinum home in Minnetonka. It cost 1.3 million. Before he died, he said he’d learned enough in the process to cut that price in half.
    The measurements used for comparing life cycle costs of remodeling compared to new construction is closely monitored by both LEED and GreenStar. Products in the home must be manufactured within 500 miles of the project. The CO2 emitted during construction is factored against CO2 reductions over the estimated life of the house. I will have hard numbers for you in a month. I would encourage anyone to consider whatever energy saving measures in existing homes, from insulation and efficient windows to efficient heating and cooling systems, and LED lighting, as the budget allows. I don’d have the figures before me, but I’m sure that remodeling existing structures have an immediate positive effect on life-cycle CO2. The lifetime savings of CO2, in this particular house, far exceed the CO2 produced in construction. We watched that very closely. I’ll have a much more cogent analysis, soon.
    As far as Mr. Swift is concerned, what part put you to sleep? May I ask, Mr Swift, what you have done to keep your side of the street clean?

  12. Submitted by nancy kohlsaat on 11/15/2011 - 11:34 pm.

    Hey let’s keep it simple.
    Don Shelby and his wife are building an energy efficient house.
    They’re stepping forward and doing what they think is morally and environmentally right.
    They’re thinking of other people thousands of miles away.
    What wonderful citizens and human beings to do so.
    Who cares if they have more money than someone else and can afford to build it?
    They’re also making a difference. They have empathy. They’re being responsible.
    I wish people would set their egos aside and lighten up.
    The world would be a better place if they did.
    P.S. The inukshuk sculpture is an artistic, creative and thoughtful way to pull it all together. It will be beautiful!

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 11/16/2011 - 11:10 am.

    Don, I said speechless, not insensable…no naps were involved during my incredulity.

    My family’s “green” habits are dictated by common sense and financial practicality, Don, psuedo-science is not budgeted for in my home, nor is smarmy self-aggrandizement.

    As others have noted, not everyone is in a position to build a (let me guess, 20k ft.sq.? 25? 30?) monument to ego in Excelsior, and not everyone runs in the sorts of circles where that kind of excersize is appreciated.

    I will tell you that I found your humble explaination for the use of “barn wood” *highly* amusing. *Sigh*, there’s just something in the patina of 100 year old wood that adds to the ambiance of a Great Room that can’t be faked, isn’t there, Don?

    Of course that explains the cost – bet your floors will be absolutely beautiful.

  14. Submitted by Don Shelby on 11/16/2011 - 11:42 am.

    David, #10 comment.
    I availed myself of the offered rebates for the geo-thermal and the solar. They are in the form of tax credits. In making such credits available to everyone wishing to use new energy savings technology, the Congress recognized, as well as some utilities, that thee is a public policy interest in conservation of resources. The more we save, the longer it will be available during the period of time that it takes for a market economy to develop, forcing prices down and putting these applications within everyone’s reach. The first VHS machine I bought cost 1400 dollars. I needed one for work. You can’t find a VHS machine for more than $60 today, and who would want one, except to dub to a newer technology. The free market can work. Sometimes it needs a nudge. Canada hands out checks to citizens who install geothermal technology. Conservation is a critical part of the future. An oil man told me once that if we conserve 25 million barrels of oil, it is exactly the same as discovering a new source of 25 million barrels of oil. The added benefit of conservation is that we keep emissions down which scientists have concluded are causing global problems and will only get worse.

  15. Submitted by Don Shelby on 11/16/2011 - 11:57 am.

    I couldn’t blame you for making such an assumption. The house is a two bedroom, 2600 square foot house.
    And, when you can cite some science that shows the cause of observed warming is not due to CO2, then I will publish it, put it forward to Nature and Science, and nominate you for the Nobel Prize in Science. I can make that claim because there is not science published that has done that. Not even deniers suggest such a thing. The only argument is over climate sensitivity, but you should know that because even Anthony Watts knows that. When you can show that current knowledge of physics and chemistry is pseudo-science, I will also report that. In the meantime, I can’t tell whether you are looking for a debate, or to simply show off by insulting me and calling me names. If you are looking for me, you can reach me here. I respond in uncharacteristic ways to insults. If you want to criticize, do so as a gentleman.

  16. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/21/2011 - 09:16 pm.

    “And, when you can cite some science that shows the cause of observed warming is not due to CO2, then I will publish it.”

    Instead of asking for proof of what CO2 is not doing, you could cite some science that shows what CO2 is doing. Remember, just because two things are correlated, they are not necessarily in a causative relationship. I get up each morning before the sun; that is a correlation. I don’t claim a causal relation.

  17. Submitted by Steve Rose on 11/22/2011 - 07:55 am.

    I dug up something I read on the temperature/CO2 topic several years ago in Science Magazine (March 2003).

    Report Title:

    Timing of Atmospheric CO2 and Antarctic Temperature Changes Across Termination III


    The analysis of air bubbles from ice cores has yielded a precise record of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, but the timing of changes in these gases with respect to temperature is not accurately known because of uncertainty in the gas age–ice age difference. We have measured the isotopic composition of argon in air bubbles in the Vostok core during Termination III (∼240,000 years before the present). This record most likely reflects the temperature and accumulation change, although the mechanism remains unclear. The sequence of events during Termination III suggests that the CO2 increase lagged Antarctic deglacial warming by 800 ± 200 years and preceded the Northern Hemisphere deglaciation.

    Bottom Line:

    CO2 increase lagged warming.

  18. Submitted by Raymond Pruban on 05/22/2012 - 09:23 am.

    Building Green Doesn’t Have to Be Expensive

    My name is Raymond Pruban and my company, Amaris Custom Homes, builds Affordable Custom-Built Green-Homes in the wider Twin Cities market. I am glad to see someone like Don with the ability to get the word out try to bring this issue to the forefront.

    The truth is, it is really easy and affordable to cut the energy consumed of every new home by 50% with very little cost. When you cut the energy consumed on a home (forever by the way) you automatically cut CO2 too (no matter what your position may be on this issue). The user benefits from lower energy bills and that is where the rubber meets the road for most Americans. On average our homes are 45-55% more energy efficient than a MN code built home and that translates into monthly savings. What could you do with say $100.00-$150.00 extra per month?

    The other indisputable fact is our country is still growing fairly rapidly and there is a yearly need for hundreds of thousands of new housing units each year (and that yearly demand is not going away any time soon). For 2012, the estimate is 680,000 new single family homes. If you decide to a green retro fit that is an awesome option, but if you are building one of those 680,000 new homes, why not build it energy efficient (at a minimum)?

    There is a myth out there that building green costs more money and unfortunately Don’s home hasn’t really helped that notion, but let’s not forget that Don’s home would be out of range financially for most people even without the green features. The truth is, building green doesn’t have to be more expensive and Amaris Custom Homes proves that every day. There is a practical side to building green, people just need to be open to the idea.

    We have shown that it is possible to build market rate housing for everyday folks that are more energy and water efficient, safer, healthier, more durable and more comfortable all for about the same price you’d pay another quality custom home builder. Given the option to gain these features for about the same price along with a beautiful home, what is not to like?

    Thanks Don for your efforts to bring this to the forefront. Love to have a cup of coffee some day!

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