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North Hudson takes building 'green' to a new level

Photo by Randy Hanson Dr. Gary Konkol is looking forward to the completion of his three-level, 1,940-square-foot passive house. The sun's warmth coming through the large south- and west-facing windows will heat the thickly insulated home.

It's an understatement to say that Dr. Gary Konkol's new house isn't a cookie-cutter design.

The curious three-level, flat-roofed building under construction on Kirkwood Way North, just outside the North Hudson village limits, will be the most energy efficient home in the Midwest when it is completed this summer.

It will be the first certified "passive house" in Wisconsin - and one of 20 or fewer in all of the United States.

The term passive house is the trademark name for a type of German-engineered building that is so well insulated and airtight, it is warmed mostly by the sun.

Equipped with photovoltaic solar panels, Konkol's passive house is expected to generate more electricity than it uses and be carbon-neutral in energy consumption.

Konkol -- a 52-year-old general practitioner with the Allina Medical Clinic in Woodbury, Minn., -- knew instantly that he wanted to build a passive house when he came across a New York Times story about one in Germany in late 2008.

"This is what I'm looking for -- a house that is just as tight as can be; so tight it doesn't need a furnace," he recalls thinking.

Konkol has been environmentally aware from his youth, encouraged by the frugality and make-do mentality of parents who grew up during the Great Depression.

He and his late wife, Christine Lassa, had decided earlier in 2008 to build a new home. Christine was battling pelvic cancer and thought a change in environment would do them good.

The couple had interviewed three architects who each told them how "green" they were.

"I thought, you know, they're right. They're relatively green," Konkol recalls. "But this isn't what I have in mind. I have another level that I'd like to go to."

The passive house fit the bill

With concrete walls, extremely thick insulation and high-tech windows and doors, the house will be so airtight that little heat will escape or cold air invade it.

Concrete was poured into 11-inch wide insulated forms to build the walls. Another 11 inches of polystyrene insulation will go on the exterior of the house to give the walls an overall R-value of 70.

"It's really solid - basically, a concrete house," Konkol says.

There's a foot of high-density foam insulation under the footings and basement floor to keep the cold from traveling upward in the winter.

The German-made, triple-pane windows are expected to let in 64 percent more solar heat than they allow to escape.

Parts of the nearly floor-to-ceiling, south- and west-facing windows will be covered on sunny days in the summer to keep out excess heat. The windows can be opened in the warm months to provide air circulation.

A central air-to-air ventilation system will pre-heat the incoming air in the winter and pre-cool it in the summer. The system also will keep the temperature and humidity constant throughout the 1,940-square-foot home - from the basement family room to the second-floor master bedroom.

Each floor is about 650 square feet in area.

A small geothermal system will assist in warming the outside air when the temperature drops below zero.

Two in-floor electric heating mats are the only backups to the passive solar heat. The electric draw of the mats compares to that of two hair dryers.

Because the house is so airtight, anything emitting heat will help warm it, from the appliances to people.

The house also will have state-of-the-art, energy-saving and energy-producing features - including pre-set LED lights, photovoltaic solar panels that track the sun and a 40-square-foot hot water solar collector on the roof.

Sedum plants will grow on the membrane-covered roof of the attached garage to help control run-off of rainwater.

The house will have a rooftop patio, complete with a spigot for watering potted plants.

Konkol says the rooftop patio for stargazing was one of three criteria he had for the house when he decided to build. The others were to make the house as tall and as sustainable as he could.

"I think we got it," he adds.

The building materials and furnishings were selected for their natural and sustainable qualities.

The flooring will include Marmoleum - an all-natural product similar to linoleum.

The rectangular structure has a Spartan, almost industrial, appearance on the outside, Konkol admits.

But with the help of interior designer Christine Frisk of InUnison Design and others, the finished product will be "pretty spiffy" on both the interior and exterior, he adds.

A passive house is an integrated system, Konkol explains.

"Everything is interconnected and you can't just switch this for that," he says. "In fact, it's so complicated that there's a (computer) program that various elements are plugged into to make sure that it works."

He says the original design for his house, named the "Passive House in the Woods," had to be changed after engineers determined that it would create excessive condensation on the walls.

A Wisconsin prototype

"It was a revelation to me before we started building that this is really more of a prototype than I realized," he says.

A Web site,, is chronicling the construction and has gotten thousands of visits from people throughout the United States and abroad.

Konkol's hope is that his new home serves as a model passive house, encouraging the construction of more of them.

He's been invited to have it included in the annual Hudson Christmas Tour of Homes and is planning to accept the offer.

Passive houses were first built in Germany in the early 1970s in response to the Middle East oil embargo.

At the beginning of 2009, it was estimated that there were about 15,000 of them in the world, mostly in German-speaking countries and Scandinavia.

The New York Times story said the industry is thriving in Germany, and its popularity is spreading. About 40 passive houses are expected to be built in the United States this year.

One of the things holding back the construction of passive houses in the United States is the availability of building components.

A number of the components - including the high solar heat gain windows - have to be imported from Germany.

The eruption of the volcano in Iceland last month has delayed the shipment of the windows and doors for Konkol's house.

"As more of this happens, I think the product stream and technology for building them will be better," he says.

Konkol is hesitant to talk about the cost of the house of out fear of discouraging others from considering building one.

The components are more expensive than standard building materials and systems, he concedes.

"I'm putting more into it than I'll ever get out of it financially. But I'll get other things out of it," he says.

The team

After discovering passive houses in late 2008, Konkol ordered the book "Homes for a Changing Climate" from the Passive House Institute US at Urbana, Ill. The book led him to Tim Delhey Eian, an architect and certified passive house designer from Northeast Minneapolis.

Konkol recalls Eian's surprise when, in their first telephone conversation, he told Eian that he wanted to hire him.

"I didn't really relish the thought of having to be the one who was directing (the project) and telling them how I wanted to do it and where to look for resources," Konkol says, explaining his joy over finding a passive house expert nearby.

"Tim's passion for passive house is infectious," Konkol writes of Eian on the Passive House in the Woods Web site. "He has helped me assemble a team to build my house that has similarly become infected with this passion. Being surrounded by such enthusiasm has resulted in a fun planning and building environment that has greatly reduced the stress of this process."

Morr Construction of Shoreview, Minn., is doing the building. Energy Concepts of Hudson is designing the photovoltaic and thermal solar systems.

The project team also includes Frisk and her assistant Erin Heikkinen of InUnison Design, Minneapolis; Carol Chaffee of Chaffee Lighting, Minneapolis; and Twin Cities landscape architect Laurie McRostie.

Read the entire story in this weeks Hudson Star Observer.

Randy Hanson

Randy Hanson has reported for the Star-Observer since 1997. He came to Hudson after 11 years with the Inter-County Leader at Frederic, and eight years of teaching social studies. He’s a graduate of UW-Eau Claire.

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