Building the NewenHouse Kit Home: Moving In!

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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.

We’ve moved in and are enjoying living in the first NewenHouse. We were curious about what it would really feel like to experience this house and we have lots of news to report. Here’s a first floor view just prior to us moving in. The kitchen window faces north and the storage/three-season room. Beyond the north door is the 6-by-14-foot breezeway leading into the three-season porch and storage room.

Electricity: After a month we received our first electrical bill. We consumed 350 kWh and produced 384 kWh, receiving a credit on our bill. Our solar hot water installer, Full Spectrum Solar, suggested that we unplug the electrical water heater backup system and see how long we can last with using only the sun to heat our water. It’s been 73 days and we have not needed to plug in the backup electric water heater. We take showers every day, do multiple loads of laundry when the sun’s out, wash our dishes after every meal, and have yet to run out of hot water. There was only one day when we took a “Luke Skywalker shower” with lukewarm water. My guess is that in November when the string of shady days begins to descend on Wisconsin we will need to plug into the electrical grid.

Air exchange: This past Friday, October 21, the Alliance for Environmental Sustainabilityheld a tour here thanks to a Zehnder sponsorship. After the house tour we listened to presentations by our Green Rater, Laura Paprocki; the EMF (Electromagnetic Fields)consultant Spark Burmaster; and the Passive House consultant Carly Coulson. In the morning we conducted the final duct blaster test and reached .51 air changes per hour at 50 Pascals! So we passed the preformance measurement for Passive House certification which allows .6 air changes per hour. It’s harder to achieve this number with a small house as our air volume is much less than most homes. This number is thus particularly impressive. See Joe giving us the thumbs up below.

Heat Recovery Ventilation Unit (HRV): We balanced the HRV with the help of Joe Nagan, who is a leading energy expert in Wisconsin. It’s important to balance the air flow for optimum performance. Balancing the HRV took longer than expected, but now I understand the system much better and know how to change the filters and adjust the air flow if I need to. One of the filters was dirtier than I expected, but Carly explained that it was most likely due to the construction dust. The Zehnder HRV we installed from the Netherlands is so efficient the sound meter could not pick up an acoustical reading. When we first moved in we weren’t sure it was running because we didn’t hear it until I put my ear directly up to the unit. Cecil stood on a chair and put his hand to the fresh air diffuser and felt the air move. That was our low-tech way to know it was working. In a small house it’s especially important that your HRV is quiet. If it’s not you may be inclined to shut it off, thus making the unit completely ineffective and potentially harmful to your health. When we turn it on the highest setting (while we shower and cook) you can hear it faintly. Below Laura is balancing the HRV in our bedroom. Under this blue devise is a fresh air diffuser.

Jason La Fleur, the Alliance for Environmental Sustainability Tour organizer, and two of the Chicago group tour attendees spent the night and we had loads of fun staying up until 12:30am talking about energy-efficient, green-built homes. From our discussion I learned that the NewenHouse will be particularly suited to people who are concerned about their health. Below I’m standing next to Al (peeking), Jason and Pam. 

Noise: Alvin Meroz (a member of Passive House Alliance Chicago) and Pam Garetto were also impressed by how quiet the house is and had the idea that the home might be suitable for noisy areas, such as near a train track or airport. The 16-inch-thick walls, triple-pane windows and Energate triple-pane doors sure help reduce sound. 

Doors: Another comment that most people share when entering our home is how the doors feels like vault doors when you open and close them as they are so airtight and beefy. The doors are five inches thick, so when you open the 36-inch door, it only gives you 31 inches of clearance. I will change the design for the next home to include 40 inch doors. This will make it easier to move in furniture too. Lucky I have a few inches to spare in the floor plan to allow for this change. The doors are wood, have insulated frames, and a triple-closure mechanism. Thanks to H Window out of Ashland, Wisconsin, for giving us a discount on them for the prototype.

Our next NewenHouse OpenHouse is Friday, November 24, the day after Thanksgiving, from 4 to 6 pm. We’ll head to the Driftless Café for dinner afterwards. Please call or email if think you may attend: (608) 638-2012 or

Following are three videos of the NewenHouse prior to moving in furniture — a tour of the first floor, a tour of the second floor, and a tour of the three season porch and storage room.

Tour of the First Floor of the NewenHouse

Tour of the Second Floor of the NewenHouse:

Tour of Detached Porch/Storage Room of NewenHouse: