Passive Solar Home Has No Furnace and Uses 90% Less Electricity to Heat than Regular Home

A doctor’s passion for sustainability inspired him to build what may be the most energy-efficient home in the world.

passive solar house

Dr. Gary Konkol’s new house has lots of cool modern features. But the coolest, most modern thing about it might be the feature it lacks: a furnace.

This will be Konkol’s first winter in the house, but he’s not worried about keeping warm. “I make more energy than I need,” he said. “Even on the coldest, cloudiest day in January, I’ll use the equivalent of two handheld hair dryers.”

His house, which sits on a wooded cul-de-sac in North Hudson, Wis., looks starkly contemporary next to its traditional suburban neighbors. But beneath the surface, it’s truly radical: the first certified passive solar house in Wisconsin and one of fewer than a dozen nationwide.

“Gary’s house is a milestone,” said Tim Eian, of TE Studio of Minneapolis, the certified-passive-house consultant Konkol worked with on his project. “Being energy-positive in a northern climate in the U.S. is pretty unusual.”

Konkol didn’t set out to build a prototype. He just wanted to see how green he could go. “I wanted it as energy-efficient as possible,” he said. “I didn’t realize at the time how cutting-edge it was.”

Dr. Konkol’s Green Upbringing

A family physician who practices in Woodbury, Konkol has long been interested in sustainability. “My parents were both raised on a farm,” he said, and they always grew food and recycled. As a college student in Stevens Point, Wis., Konkol joined People Against Pollution.

His late wife, Christine Lassa, also grew up on a farm, and shared his belief that new construction was unnecessary, for them. But after her Stage 4 cancer was diagnosed, Lassa, a feng shui enthusiast, became convinced that their house was not contributing to her getting well. So they decided to build one that would.

Konkol interviewed “green” architects but couldn’t find one who seemed prepared to lead him as far as he wanted to go. “I felt I’d be teaching them what I wanted rather than the other way around,” he recalled. Then he read a newspaper article about solar house technology developed by the Passivhaus Institute in Germany, which ultimately led him to Eian.

“Most clients, when they first call, you agree to meet,” Eian recalled. “But Gary said, ‘You’re going to build a house for me.’ I said we should meet and chat, but Gary said, ‘I know what I want.'”

Working with Eian, they came up with a plan that combined Konkol’s passion for energy efficiency with Lassa’s interest in feng shui. But when she lost her cancer battle, Konkol lost interest in the project. But only for a while.

Eventually, “I decided to move ahead,” he said. “It was therapeutic, a distraction.” He and Eian reworked the plan to make it even more sustainable. The compact three-story structure, with a rooftop patio for stargazing, is engineered for maximum energy efficiency. It has photovoltaic panels on the roof, super-insulated concrete walls, tightly sealed triple-glazed windows that open in two directions, and sensor-controlled stainless-steel shades.

“The windows and shades are the heater and thermostat,” Eian said. They’re designed to “hide” in the 22-inch walls when not shielding the windows from the sun’s heat and glare.

Konkol was much more interested in the house’s function than its form. “I’m a utilitarian sort of guy,” he said. “I’m not one for design.” He planned to use most of his existing furniture, and wasn’t prepared to make dozens of decisions about finish materials. So Eian suggested he bring in an interior designer.

“Gary’s priorities were durability and low maintenance,” said Christine Frisk, principal with InUnison Design Inc. of Minneapolis. There are a lot of products that claim to be “green,” she said, but Konkol challenged her to find products that truly were. “The core of what he wanted was that every decision be responsible to the planet.”

Warming it up

Frisk had her own priority: to create a comfortable, livable nest inside that high-performance machine. “The image of passive solar houses is that they’re a little techy and engineered-looking, that they don’t have warmth,” she said. “You can build a beautiful house that gets off the grid.”

To warm the interior, Frisk incorporated such materials as Minnesota-mined granite countertops, locally fabricated cabinets made from a composite of wood scraps, bamboo floors (compressed and caramelized), low-VOC coatings, Marmoleum (a linseed-based flooring product), earthen plaster interior walls and oak harvested from Konkol’s lot for the window seat, baseboard and window ledges.

The quirky house is definitely avant garde for small-town Wisconsin, but no one tried to stop him from building it, Konkol said. “One neighbor did say, ‘I don’t care what people say,’ which I assume means people are saying things. I imagine I’ve ruffled some feathers.”

But the house also has won lots of fans. Konkol has opened his doors for numerous tours, and about 2,000 people have visited so far. “It’s so unique, it would be irresponsible of me not to tell people about it,” he said.

Building a passive solar house in the Upper Midwest is more expensive than comparable construction, partly because it’s a new technology here, and so many of the high-performance elements, such as the windows, had to be shipped from Europe. There, where passive solar construction has a longer track record, homeowners do see long-term return on investment, Eian said. “Over time, it becomes really exciting — a money saver. It insulates homeowners from the volatility of the energy market.”

Konkol doesn’t expect to reap financial benefits himself. “I will probably never realize the cost savings in energy use to equal the extra cost of building,” he said. So why do it? “It’s the right thing to do. I look at what’s happening to the planet. I had the opportunity to make my imprint smaller. And now I can share, so others can make their imprint smaller. They may not go as extreme as I did, but they can incorporate elements of it into their projects.”

Although Konkol’s wife isn’t around to share the new home, her influence is very much alive. “There’s still a lot of her living here,” he said. Lassa was a master gardener, and in the spring, Konkol plans to install a landscape that she would have appreciated, with a rain garden and native prairie plants. “There will be elements of permaculture — and no lawn,” he said.

In his sunny bedroom is a plumeria plant from Hawaii, one of his wife’s favorite places. (He and their two grown daughters scattered her ashes in Kauai early this year.) The plant nearly died in his rented home while the passive house was being built. Now it’s thriving. “I think it’ll like it here,” he said.

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