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Advocates say it's time for a technological leap forward

Students Brennan Nordstrom, Eric Landmark and Anthony Carruth work on the Hill Grocery House. The students in Matt Olson's construction trades class at Montevideo High School are building the home with the aim to make it 50 percent more energy efficient than the traditional Habitat for Humanity house. Submitted

MONTEVIDEO -- When it's 20 below and winter winds howl, Minnesotans turn to Stone Age technology to stay warm.

They add more fuel to the fire.

There's a better option: Build homes that take advantage of the power of the sun and don't let a calorie of heat escape from the inside, whether that heat is radiated by its occupants or the appliances they use.

It's being done in Germany, where passive solar construction has led to homes that can be heated on the coldest of days with about as much electricity as is needed to operate a couple of hand-held hair dryers.

Matt Olson's students might be building homes just as energy-efficient on the frozen plains of western Minnesota, if two advocates of passive solar design can persuade Minnesotans to make the technological leap forward.

"This is a very holistic thinking about building that's not being adapted here at all,'' said Tim Eian, founder of TE Studio Ltd. of Minneapolis. He spoke to students Tuesday in Olson's construction trades class at the Montevideo High School. Eian is a native of Münster, Germany, and his work is focused on passive solar design.

He was joined by Joe Gransee-Bowman, who is also a sustainable architect and passive solar advocate. He helped lead the University of Minnesota's solar icon house project.

The two spent part of their day teaching Olson's students about passive solar design and what it might mean for those seeking careers in the construction industry. "It's an opportunity to put yourself in the front of the market, on the front edge of that curve,'' said Bowman.

They also hosted separate sessions with business and construction trades people in the Montevideo area.

Bowman and Eian told the students that they operate from the paradigm that energy costs are only going to increase, and that many energy-wasteful practices of today will become prohibitively expensive.

They also believe that costs for construction materials will continue to rise. Homes and businesses should be designed so that we can avoid the waste of materials so common with many construction practices today. And, materials should be chosen and used to get the longest possible lives from them, according to the two.

Better to plan for this future now, said Eian, adding: "before we have to start looking for things fast.''

Passive solar design sets a standard of designing homes to use 90 percent less energy.

It may cost more to build a passive solar home to reach that goal, but they save their owners real money in the long run. The initial costs of any type of construction "pale in comparison'' with the long-term costs of maintenance and energy consumption, explained Eian.

The two architects told the students about a wide variety of solar thermal and solar voltaic systems available today, but emphasized that their approach really isn't about putting big, black panels on rooftops.

Most of all, passive solar is about designing the building envelope to make homes that are as airtight and super-insulated as practical. Equally important is the need to design a home for the site to take full advantage of the natural attributes, in particular the solar power available.

And believe it or not, the sun has lots to offer in this land of 10,000 over-stoked furnaces. Minnesota ranks high among the states for its solar potential.

When it comes to solar potential, Minnesota is on a par with Fort Lauderdale, Fla., they said.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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