Joe Orso

Columnist Joe Orso

When I first heard about Sonya Newenhouse’s sustainable house prototype built in Viroqua last year, I must admit I was skeptical.

We hear a lot about green businesses these days, but when we look more closely, they are often more committed to the dollar than people and the earth.

But within the first 10 minutes of visiting Newenhouse’s house last week, it became obvious that this venture is not only genuinely sustainable, but visionary.

“What motivates me to create this business is to create a house for the future, to reduce our energy needs in our living environments by 80 percent,” said Newenhouse, who will be launching her business with three house designs after living in this one a full year. “By the year 2050, scientists have said, we need to reduce energy consumption by 80 percent. So we need solutions to get there.”

The most impressive feature of the house is what it does without: a furnace.

With 18-inch walls filled with 16 inches of recycled newspaper insulation, with triple-pane windows, elegant glass doors that shut tight like vaults, and with sheething tape from Switzerland covering every seam in construction, the super-insulated home is airtight.

Oriented to the south, the home is heated by the natural warmth of the sun. It also has a backup electric heating system, powered by solar panels, which uses the equivalent energy of one hair dryer. But since January, Sonya, her husband and roommate haven’t used it. The heat from the sun pouring in through the windows was enough to keep the place at 63 degrees on a day when the outdoor air was 8 below zero.

Her first utility bill was an 80-cent credit.

The ingenuity of this house is not only how it is heated. Ask Newenhouse about any feature, any nook or cranny, and you will learn that each building decision attempts to keep negative impact on the environment to a minimum.

The shelves, trim and upstairs floors are made from ash sustainably harvested in Vernon County. With emerald ash borer disease coming to Wisconsin, she said, this could help create a market for the threatened trees, and reduce the need to harvest other species.

Windows on interior walls naturally light the place and reduce the need for electric lights. The interior doors, light fixtures, tub and other features are salvaged from Habitat ReStores in Wisconsin. The low-flow toilets use 0.8 gallons of water. An extremely quiet heat recovery ventilation system from Holland, the lungs of the house, continually brings in outside air while exhausting indoor air from the kitchen and bathrooms.

Newenhouse, who aptly describes herself as an eco-entrepreneur, is also founder and president of Community Car LLC in Madison, and just sold the Madison Environmental Group, a business she founded 13 years ago, to an employee.

In the next year, she plans to launch a business selling three house designs — a 500-square-foot one-bedroom, an 800-square-foot two-bedroom, and a 1,000-square-foot three-bedroom. An option for a detached stuga, Swedish for “cabin,” includes storage space, a root cellar, sleeping loft, sitting area and wood stove.

With her business, Newenhouse says she is trying to bring together three movements: the green building movement, the small house movement and the sustainable- or simple-living movement.

Indeed, she not only plans to sell the home as a kit, which will include the design, specialty building materials and consultation, but to provide buyers with an edible landscape plan, a green-living guide and membership to an on-line community.

The house is 90 percent more efficient in heating and cooling than the average new American home and at least 50 percent smaller, said Newenhouse. It has been named a Certified Passive House, only the second in Wisconsin, and she is working to get it certified LEED Platinum.

But she admits the home is not perfect. In the future, she’d like to build a model that has a composting toilet and uses no concrete or styrofoam in its construction.

“I want as many people to come into this house as possible,” she said. “Anyone who reads this can knock on my door and I’ll give them a tour. The whole point is to share and learn from each other, to take ideas from here and do them elsewhere.”

She also schedules tours, usually on the fourth Friday of the month. Her next tours are at 4 and 5 p.m. this Friday, March 23. On Earth Day, April 22, she’ll have an open house from noon to 4 p.m.

You can contact Newenhouse at 608-220-8029 or Sonya@madisonenvironmental.com. A link to her blog is on the a at madisonenvironmental.com. Or if you’re planning to drop in, which she says she welcomes, she lives at 422 Hickory St. in Viroqua.

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