Building the NewenHouse Kit Home: Earning Passive House Certification

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Sonya 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.   

Big news. We received our Passive House Certification the first week in November 2011! This means our home’s heating and cooling demand strives to be 90 percent more energy-efficient than other homes. BRE in London certified our home, and the plaque arrived the day before the International Passive House Day Tour we held on November 12th. Scientists agree that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050 to stabilize climate change. If we’re going to take responsibility for reducing our energy footprint and prepare for the future, it’s critical to leap frog our building efficiency standards. No longer is 25 percent or 50 percent more efficient good enough–80 percent to 90 percent more energy-efficient is what’s needed.

Sonya holds her home’s Passive House Certification plaque. Photo Courtesy Ellen Roney and Joe Sokal.

Ellen Roney and Joe Sokal of the Division of Wisconsin State Facilities toured the home during International Passive House Days and took this picture of me with the plaque. You’ll notice a swing behind me–that’s one my favorite features of our home. It hangs in the middle of our living area and provides countless smiles (especially for the neighbor kids), along with stress relief and indoor exercise during Wisconsin winters. 

At the 6th annual U.S. Passive House Conference in DC this year, I learned from a keynote speaker that in Europe many countries are establishing regulations requiring all new homes be built to Passive House standards by the year 2015 and beyond. At the conference, I was also reminded about the added difficulty in achieving a Passive House certification in a cold climate with a small home, so Carly Coulson (the Passive House consultant) and I are particularly pleased to demonstrate this achievement with the NewenHouse prototype. For the Passive House enthusiasts reading this blog, the heating degree days in Viroqua, Wisconsin, are 7795. 

We’re the 25th home to be Passive House-certified in the U.S., and the second home in Wisconsin to be Passive House-certified, after Tim Delhey Eian’s “House in the Woods” in Hudson, Wisconsin. Congratulations to Tim.  

The NewenHouse prototype also received the highest Energy Star Home rating in Wisconsin. We’re the first home to achieve a level 4 rating.

The NewenHouse living area and home office. Photo Courtesy Sonya Newenhouse.

For the past couple of weeks our focus has been on landscaping and preparing our yard for winter. We rototilled the site, planted two small areas with grass seed, and spread three pick-up loads of free horse and alpaca manure to fertilize the soil in the locations where we plan to plant an edible landscape next spring. My sister Astrid, a horticulturist, gave Bjorn (our roommate) and me tips on planting cover crops of rye and buckwheat to reduce the amount of weeds next spring and add more nutrients to the soil. Our lot is about 44-feet-by-135 feet deep and will have room for a large garden. 

The east side of the home, with a breezeway and detached porch to the north. Next spring Sonya plans to plant vegetation above the east entry porch. Photo Courtesy Sonya Newenhouse. 

We just finished the site prep when it snowed for the first time in early November. The outside temperature dropped to 24 degrees. That night the thermostat went down to 67 degrees, the lowest it had gotten without supplemental heat. This was the also the first time we used our backup electric hot water heater after three consecutive cloudy days. For three months we’ve only been using the solar hot water system to heat our shower, dish and laundry water. We unplugged the backup after one day and will keep a log on how many days we need to use it. Cecil, a weather geek, loves to check the solar hot water temperature at least twice a day. This past Thanksgiving weekend we turned two (650 watts total) of our four electric radiant heaters on for the first time as our home indoor temperature dropped to 60 degrees after a week without sunshine. There are no drafts, so the house does not feel as cold as 60 degrees might. We had the heat on for two days and the sun finally broke through the clouds on day three, so I turned the heat off. That night (November 28th) the outside temperature dipped to 28 degrees, and the next day the house warmed up from 65 degrees in the am to 76 degrees by noon. I have never before followed the sun as much as I do now. 

We’ll keep you posted on how this house functions during winter. In the meantime, you’re welcome to attend our next NewenHouse OpenHouse, Friday December 23 from 4 to 6 p.m. I’d also like to thank the 70 people that attended the OpenHouse this past Thanksgiving weekend.

If you’re in the area and would like a tour, we’re also happy to give personal tours. Just email or call at or (608) 220-8029 (cell).

Need Help? Call 1-800-234-3368