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net positive home

Net Positive Home in Saint Paul, Minnesota

By Camille LeFevreRise Writer
Jul 5, 2019

When Muffi and Tim Abrahamson moved to Saint Paul in 1989, they bought a large home on a double lot. They had always planned on building their own home on that lot, but Tim's busy remodeling business and Muffi's homeschooling of the couple's two children nixed that plan. Besides, the kids loved playing on the lot with its tree fort and sandbox. It was a popular gathering place for youngsters in the neighborhood.

When the kids grew up and moved out, the Abrahamson's revisited their dream of building a sustainable home. In 2016, they finished their new, low-impact, net-zero home on the adjacent lot and sold their former home.

net positive house siding
Photo Credit: ALM Design Studio

"It was good we waited," Muffi says. "Tim always wanted to build an energy-efficient home, and now the technology is available to reach net-zero." Moreover, Tim adds, "We realized if we sold the house and lot and moved elsewhere, someone would eventually build here and probably wouldn't construct an energy-efficient house. We also wanted the house to fit into the neighborhood, which we love and didn't want to leave."

During construction, Tim served as the general contractor. Both Abrahamson's designed the interior space and the home's exterior appearance. Their friend, architect Lucas Alm of ALM Design Studio in Saint Paul, designed the home's thermal envelope.

"Lucas and his team provided the energy modeling and the structural and thermal design," Tim says. "He also consulted with us on our design work and kept us from making mistakes. Combining solar panelssuper-thick insulation, and good design, the 2,079-square-foot house is a good neighbor that inspires others to think about sustainability. 

Passive and Active Solar Design

The home's design includes a simple rectangular form clad in cedar, with a metal gable roof and welcoming front porch, to blend into the neighborhood of traditional homes. While the City of Saint Paul requires 15 percent of glazing on the front of a new house, the Abrahamson's home faces north, and north-facing windows are usually minimized in passive houses, as they're net energy losers (in the northern hemisphere). The couple was able to acquire a variance. "We have 10 percent glazing, and the porch helped the front elevation feel welcoming to the street," Muffi says.

passive solar design
Photo Credit: ALM Design Studio

Most windows are at the back of the house, facing south, where a façade of nearly floor-to-ceiling windows captures passive solar heat gains. The windows look out onto two mature oak trees, which provide summer shade. “We sited and designed the house to draw in light in the winter,” Muffi says, “and when the sun is higher in summer, the oak trees keep the sun from overheating the house.”

A 7.57 kilowatt (kW) solar panel array on the garage roof is tied to the grid. The solar array acts as a mini power plant: In the spring, summer, and fall, it produces more energy than the house consumes; in the winter, the home consumes more energy than the array produces. Over a year, the house produces more energy than it consumes, making it net positive.

net positive solar panels
Photo Credit: ALM Design Studio

The house is heated and cooled by two air-source heat pumps. These heat pumps are ineffective when outside temperatures dip below -15F, so the couple uses 2,000-watt electric resistance heaters. The Abrahamson's can tilt, turn, and swing open the large windows for fresh air in more temperate months. Mini-splits provide additional heating and cooling when needed.

To ensure the structural rigidity of the south wall's large expanse of glass, a shear wall was installed: two shear panels at the corners connect to the footings with large steel rods and connect to a triple 20 inch LVL beam that runs between the first and second level windows.

The German, triple-glazed Tanner Windows, manufactured by Optiwin, is Passive House certified. "I try to impress upon people that, yes, transporting windows from Germany to Minnesota leaves a high-carbon footprint," Tim says. "But the windows are so superior. And the prices are about the same as premium domestic windows if you can share shipping with another homeowner."

Exceeding Passive House Standards

The couple adopted other concepts of Passive House construction in addition to high-performance windows, including super insulation and control of thermal bridges, heat recovery ventilation, and rigorous control of air leakage. Energy use for the house was modeled with the Passive House Planning Package. The home's peak heat load was reduced to 13.4 kBTU/hr, or by almost 60 percent compared to a similarly sized home that meets Minnesota's 2015 energy code. Annual energy use intensity (EUI) was calculated at 11.6 kBTU/sf per year. This is a savings of 77 percent compared to a similarly sized house built to (modeled at 51.1 kBTU/sf-yr). The grid-tied solar array reduced annual energy demand to 1.8 kBTU/sf-yr, or very nearly net-zero.

Wall, roof, and floor assemblies were super-insulated and made airtight. Dense-pack cellulose was blown into the stud cavities, and four inches of high-density type IX EPS was added in a continuous plane to the exterior to reduce thermal bridging through the studs. The construction crew built a service chase inboard of the stud wall using 2x2s, which were placed perpendicular to the studs and insulated with 1.5-inch mineral wool batts to reduce thermal bridging further. The wall assembly achieves a nominal R-value of approximately R-45 before accounting for the studs and other framings.

"An earlier generation of energy-efficient home builders believed in tight houses," Tim says, "but didn't provide the air exchange necessary to keep fresh air flowing to the living spaces." The Abrahamson home has a constant supply of fresh air brought into the house through a highly efficient heat recovery ventilator unit and dedicated piping. The result is a highly airtight house that exceeds Passive House standards.

Hot water is provided by two electric on-demand tankless water heaters. One is an auxiliary point-of-use unit that boosts the water temperature to the kitchen faucet and dishwasher. The central unit provides hot water for the bathrooms and the kitchen.

Flexible Interiors 

Inside, the home's first level is organized around single-floor living to meet the goal of aging in place (also referred to as "adaptable design"). A bedroom is located on the main floor, along with the bathroom/laundry/safe room. Because the house doesn't have a basement (which is nearly unheard of in Minnesota), the couple wanted a safe room to weather severe storms.

Generally, following FEMA guidelines, the room has additional structural reinforcement built into the walls and ceiling. FEMA safe room plans eliminate windows, but the homeowners installed a small window for daylight and views; they're currently working on a retractable metal shutter. A custom door with a steel plate was built and installed.

Upstairs, the loft has a bedroom and bath and an ample open living space in which Muffi paints. In the future, she says, a caretaker could live here, or a small kitchen could be installed and the second floor rented out, or two additional bedroom spaces could be enclosed for the home's next family.

engineered wood flooring
Photo Credit: ALM Design Studio

Clean and modern, the open interiors are punctuated with Muffi’s large colorful paintings. Engineered wood flooring was used throughout, except in wet or high traffic areas where ceramic tile and slate stone were used.

Only One Caveat

Tim says he would only have done only one thing differently during construction. In the winter, he can feel a slight chill at the perimeter of the floor. “We installed eight inches of EPS foam underneath the slab, which is built on ICF [insulated concrete form] blocks that are filled with concrete,” he explains. “At the edge of the slab, we have four inches of foam in line with the blocks up to the roof to create an uninterrupted thermal plane. Another four inches of EPS at the slab’s edge would have taken care of those chilly inches under bare feet.”

A Moral Imperative

Muffi says that she and Tim use and enjoy the entire house, “but could we have built a smaller home? I’m thinking about our responsibility to the greater world.”  Adds Tim, “In this global warming crisis, building this home was the right thing to do. It’s a moral imperative. Our children and grandchildren have to live in this world.”

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2022-01-19T04:12:20+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.