LA CRESCENT, Minn. — Tucked away in a hidden valley just outside La Crescent, Ed and Bobbi Walsh are building their dream home.
The couple from Wheaton, Ill., has spent weekends in the Coulee Region for the past 20 years, but about five years ago they began planning for their retirement in Minnesota. They wanted to preserve the historic, 355-acre farmstead they had grown to love over the decades, but they also wanted to build a modern, eco-friendly home to share with their children and grandchildren.
“Our overall goal was to be as sustainable as possible,” Ed Walsh said.
The Walshes connected with Marty and Tony Kirchner of Kirchner Custom Builders and architect Debra Kees to draw up plans for the futuristic farmhouse that they hope will be certified “gold” by Minnesota GreenStar — an eco-friendly residential building standards program that emphasizes healthy, durable, high-performance design.
“The Walshes’ commitment to the environment is second to none,” Marty Kirchner said. “I’ve never built a house for someone who has sustainability so high on the list of priorities.”
The Walsh home may look the part of a charming rural farmhouse, but a closer look reveals cutting-edge technology. A 30 kilowatt solar array, 16 feet wide and 300 feet long, provides a sustainable electricity source that will generate enough power to keep the Walshes off the grid.
“That’s not very common,” Marty Kirchner said of the solar array. “Especially one of this that size.”
The solar array also powers the home’s geothermal HVAC system. A series of seven vertical wells, each dug 100 feet deep, use the constant ground temperature to heat and cool the house. The heating system works through a series of water tubes within the floors, and the cooling system uses forced air that flows through a special radiator and fan. With the Earth providing natural insulation to keep the water at a constant, moderate temperature, it takes less energy to adjust the home temperature to a comfortable level compared to traditional HVAC, which works against the exterior air temperature to heat and cool a home.
It’s a recent innovation, but it’s becoming more common, Tony Kirchner said.
“About half the houses we build have geothermal,” he said.
The marriage of the solar array and the geothermal system has a multiplying effect at the Walsh property, helping achieve the goal of “net zero” — consuming less energy than it creates. And the eco-friendly integration carries through the design of the house.
Floor to ceiling, inside and out, the Walsh house is full of environmentally conscious details, but architect Debra Kees took great care to design a space that is beautiful and functional as well.
“I wanted to be sensitive to the aesthetic,” said Kees, who worked on the design for the Walsh property for more than a year before construction began.
The house has three bedrooms and two bathrooms, but it also features a home gym on the first floor and an office on the second that could be converted into additional bedrooms if the owners wish.
The siding is made of a cement-fiber composite that has the look and feel of wood but lasts much longer. The walls of the farmhouse themselves are built with an “advanced framing technique,” with interior and exterior spray foam insulation that is “at least 100 percent more efficient” than traditional framing techniques, Marty Kirchner said. All windows and doors are triple-pane glass, which dramatically reduces the amount of energy lost.
The home’s ductwork is sealed at every joint to prevent leaks — something that seems like a no-brainer, but it’s rarely done in residential buildings, Keys said. It’s standard practice in commercial buildings, but there is less regulation when it comes to building single-family homes.
“Hopefully, this is an evolution in how houses will be made,” she said.
In the living room and master bedroom, a series of folding glass “nano doors” open and stack to bring in fresh air in the summer and capture warming afternoon sunlight in the winter — without the need for an insulated curtain. Large windows throughout the house capitalize on natural light, and high ceilings give make the smaller bedrooms feel spacious.
Although not yet installed, all the appliances, plumbing and light fixtures will be as energy-efficient and water-reducing as possible. Even the paint on the walls is non-toxic and free of volatile organic compounds. Aesthetic details, like silver cables for staircase railings, sliding barn doors in the home gym and upstairs bathroom and a corrugated aluminum roof in the basement are a nod to the rustic farmhouse roots.
“This home is very high-impact, very detail oriented,” Tony Kirchner said. “There’s not a square inch that wasn’t designed and planned out.”
All the wood used to build the house was sustainably harvested from the lush woods that surround the property. Oak, birch, poplar and cottonwood trees were hauled using horses and rough-milled onsite with a portable sawmill before being transported to four local Amish craftsmen to be fine-milled.
For materials not taken directly from the property, the Kirchners looked to source the rest within a 500-mile radius. The plywood is from Hayward, Wis., the foam insulation is from Cornell, Wis., and the stonework on the porch is from the Biesanz quarry in Winona.
“We build local on a normal home, but we’ve never done anything this local,” Tony Kirchner said.
The only non-local components are the triple-pane windows, which were imported from Germany, but only because there was not a local option available.
Even the waste products had local impact. Leftover milled wood became the finishing touches of trim and molding inside, and leftover stone from the porch transformed into a handsome hearth for a rustic wood stove in the upstairs office.
Deconstructed materials from the original farmhouse — lights, cabinets, flooring, toilets and sinks — were repurposed by the Habitat for Humanity ReStore in La Crosse.
Green at heart
The Walshes’ commitment to sustainability goes beyond this building project. As a trial lawyer and retired social worker, respectively, Ed and Bobbi Walsh respectively share a desire to help others and the environment. For the past 18 years, they have worked with the Department of Natural Resources to complete 75 acres of reforestation on the nearby bluffs and worked with contractors over the past six years to re-seed the area with oak, cherry and walnut trees. They’ve also completed another 40 acres of prairie habitat restoration.
Their hope for the project, once it’s completed, is that it can be both an educational and an inspirational resource for people throughout the Coulee Region. Students from places like Western Technical College could observe the green building techniques firsthand, and people interested in completing a similar project could look to the Walsh property as an example of what is possible.
“This is an important area to preserve,” Bobbi Walsh said. “We want to be stewards of the land.”