Building the NewenHouse Kit Home: Inspiration from the Passive House Conference


Sonya NewenhouseSonya Newenhouse, Ph.D. is an eco-entrepreneur who enjoys providing practical and creative solutions to help individuals and organizations live and manage green. Her firm, Madison Environmental Group, provides LEED green building and sustainability consulting services. She is also founder and president of Community Car, a car sharing organization in Madison Wisconsin. Currently she is developing NewenHouse, a business that will provide super-insulated sustainable kit homes.  

We started construction on Halloween Day and the next week I flew to Portland, Oregon, to attend the annual Passive House conference. Last year I attended the conference in Urbana, Illinois, with Dina Corigliano, the architect who I hired for the design of our first NewenHouse.  Last year the attendance was a grassroots builder science crowd of about 180 people. This year more than 350 passionate participants attended. I was torn to leave the building site but am so grateful for all of the knowledge I gained from fellow Passive House enthusiasts.

Carly Coulson (an architect from Duluth, Minnesota, and the Passive House consultant I hired for this project) and I fully absorbed the three day weekend experience. By the end of the second day, I was so inspired I asked Carly how we could rework the design to become Passive House certified. When we began the design process for the NewenHouse kit home the certification was new in the U.S., and I had not yet met any pioneers who had built Passive House homes. Our design was close, but not good enough. In Wisconsin it’s difficult to become certified as the guidelines used in the Passive House Planning Program energy model (PHPP) come from Germany, which is significantly warmer than Wisconsin.

Rue-Evans Passive House 
Passive House conference participants tour Sarah Evans and Stuart Rue's new Passive House in Salem Oregon. Photo by Sonya Newenhouse. 

Carly had four recommendations for how to change the design to reach the energy model numbers you need to qualify. She suggested we change the window glass to a higher R-value, increase the size of the windows on the south side to let the sun heat the home in winter, make the shape of the interior envelope a cube to reduce the surface area to volume ratio, and add even more insulation in the attic. (Click here to learn more about surface area to volume ratios.) I called my husband Cecil from the conference and asked if he minded making our living/dining room 132 square feet smaller so we could accommodate a cube shape.  He said, “Let’s go for it”. What a guy.

Originally I wanted the first NewenHouse to be under 1,000 square feet—to practice what we preach and live in a smaller space. We live with a roommate, Bjorn, and designed the house for three people sharing 968 square feet which equals 322 square feet per person of living space, smaller than the recommended 500 square feet per person for many Passive House designs. During the design phase, the square footage crept up to 1,100 square feet plus attic storage. Now, instead of extra storage for stuff, we’ll store insulation in our attic, which will have an R-value of 100 (about 24 inches of cellulose—recycled newspaper). Currently I have an attic I don’t use. More space means more stuff, and I’m trying so hard to simplify my life. This weekend, in fact, we’re going through our dishes and pots and pans to make room for wedding gifts. I’m inspired to downsize further and reduce the amount of our household’s dishes and kitchenware. We love to entertain and I come from a family who uses multiple sets of dishes so this will be more of a challenge than most realize.

Passive House homeowners Sarah and Stuart share their story on building a Passive House in Salem, Oregon. Video by Sonya Newenhouse. 

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