I met Tim Eian, owner of Northeast-based TE Studio, at a house demonstration event in St. Anthony Park, and appreciated his articulate, passionate viewpoints about home construction and renovation. I sat down with him for a few hours of conversation, about everything from innovative building materials to progressive politics, from frustrations to hopefulness.
Q: What mistakes do people make when renovating their home?
We tend not to look holistically at our homes. It’s important to take a step away from a component approach – not simply see our house as a series of interchangeable parts. Windows, doors, insulation. How do they interact? What changes to the original structure were made over its life and how do they fair? Each component functions as part of a system and it is critical to understand this dynamic before starting any project.
Attaining better long-term value with energy efficiency also requires diligence. This is not an area where the bottom dollar rules. This is a new idea for many people. If you want true long-term value, then it can’t also be cheaper to create. Not right now. If you have an experienced crew that has done this a few times, attended the right workshops – then there can be an economy of scale. But we’re doing new things one home at a time at the moment. When we sent the Apollo mission up into space, the goal was to do it right, not figure out how to do it for less.
Having said that, though, the savings from a holistic retrofit do pay back the investment in many ways. Even a one-off project is extremely rewarding to those who have done them, or are commissioning them.
I also recognize the difficulty we have in America right now. There is a heavily declining middle class. It’s hard enough to “do the thing” let alone do the right thing. And this is a global phenomenon. It’s what’s wrong with our society. We’ve been on a path of decline for so long that the drastic work we need to do – the struggling buildings we need to repair, the underperforming infrastructure we need to fix – is something we are having a hard time finding the money to do.
Q: It sounds like you don’t hold out much hope?
Oh, I’m totally optimistic. Every day my colleagues and I are setting new standards in building – or, trying to, given the current rules. The answers are already out there about how to build more efficient structures, design sustainable spaces, and create a better bang for our buck. The good news is, we don’t have to wait for some fusion reactor to be built.
There are two blockades – and they are the toughest hurdles:
- How do we make more people aware of what we should and could be doing, and,
- How do we deal with the economics of the current real estate development culture?
I believe it’s like Field of Dreams, though. Build it and they will come. We know how to do this. We need codes to catch up. It will eventually be cheaper, with economies of scale that level the playing field. And when we are allowed to raise the bar for everyone.
However, time is of the essence if we want to make a difference in regards to climate change. Improving building envelopes is climate action.
Q: What frustrates you about working to create sustainable buildings in Minneapolis?
The rule in building is that first you ask where you are. Second, you ask where you need to go. And only third do you ask, “how do we get there?”
I don’t think we are asking the right questions yet as a community.
For one, I think the building inspection staff is overwhelmed, and doesn’t always know what to do with the new energy efficiency designs, materials and structures we create. Unfortunately, I think builders who do the barest minimum – simply to reach existing code – have an easier time getting through the system than those of us who are trying to reduce the considerable carbon emissions coming from our buildings.
Time is money in this business. Yet the process of getting building plans through the review process is very drawn out for those of us using new techniques and materials.
- They don’t understand why we are doing things in a different way. The process stalls. We have to back up and explain a lot.
- And then, because permit fees are based on a percentage of total costs, clients who are investing upfront in more energy-efficient savings in the long term end up getting penalized because they are spending more to do it.
- After that, the buildings are appraised at a higher rate – because of the long-term improvements – and requiring higher property taxes. I’ve experienced that as both a professional, working on behalf of my clients, and as an owner of a former dentist office here in Northeast that I converted with Passive House components into a much more energy-efficient space.
Minneapolis used to offer an incentive program called “This Old House,” which would defer building improvements from tax valuation for a period of time. I advocate for a “This Inefficient House” program, which does the same with energy improvement measures.
Also, commercial buildings are currently expected to spend 20% of budget on features for the disabled, which is great. But that makes it hard to create an overall budget that also accommodates energy-efficiency goals. The more we spend on that, the more we spend on the ADA improvements as well.
Why not also require a minimum part of an improvement budget to be used on enhancing sustainability value? Both benefit the greater good and should therefore be treated equally.
It’s an old system, operating from an old paradigm. It’s terribly frustrating. I’ve talked to my Councilperson, and the building inspections department. And the compromise reached is that my plans will be reviewed more by management than regular staff. But… that’s a Band-Aid approach. I think we have to elevate the game significantly.
I know the City of Minneapolis has Climate Action Plan goals to reduce emissions by 2030. But I don’t think we’ll get there. Not even by 2050 at this rate.
I have been here in Minneapolis for 15 years [from native Germany] because I love the challenge of the seasons here. I like figuring out how to design the best buildings for comfort in these extreme ranges.
I love the Passive House standard that has been successful in Europe, even for this climate. But, I don’t claim it’s the only option. I think a lot of creative designers here are doing great things. GreenStar is a great comprehensive local program we use in our practice. I support anyone who goes beyond the basic practice to try to improve the status quo.
Not necessarily for the do-it-yourselfer, however. There is a lot of important building science that goes into our structures. And there is risk if you don’t do it right. Thermal bridging, for example, is an important piece – but hard to explain. And people attempting without understanding the science makes me nervous. These are simple solutions for energy efficiency that we know about scientifically, but they can be executed wrong – which gives these techniques a bad reputation.
I have successfully created certified Passive House buildings in Minneapolis and Bemidji, Minnesota, Hudson and LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and am now working on projects in Fridley, Golden Valley, Arden Hills and Minnetonka, as well as Massachusetts and Michigan. We did low-energy homes with Passive House components locally in Minneapolis and Northfield.
I love what my clients get out of it. How it changes their life. I have one client who can now grow exotic orchids, here! Some are using passive solar heat gains to grow fruit trees inside. They take selfies of themselves in t-shirts with a view out the window of how cold it is outside. I love moments like that.
And, I love coming to this office, which is retrofit with Passive House methodology and where it is always in the comfortable range. I pay the utility bills. So I know firsthand that it works.
Q: How does Passive House physically work?
It’s not just about lower consumption. It’s about an airtight envelope. Not having drafts, excessive dryness or moisture. Having the interior surface of our exterior walls within a couple of degrees of room temperature all year around means little to no radiant heat loss.
That’s how we lose our body comfort in “conventional” buildings, by the way. Our body warmth travels outward – it’s not just about temperature in the room. It’s about heat transfer to cold surfaces surrounding us. The elderly, and the young, are more sensitive than others, but ultimately everyone can experience a reduction of radiant heat loss.
Passive House is a massive improvement over the status quo, and something that is extremely pleasant.
But, not all places can perform at the same level. I had one client here in Northeast Minneapolis whose house couldn’t meet the passive solar heat gains needed to meet Passive House certification, because it was a very shaded property.
Nonetheless, using the standard still means over 80% less heating energy than “conventional” construction, and upward of 50% reduced energy footprint overall. Fueled the right away, it also means 90% reduction in carbon footprint—even under limited circumstances.
We did a research report for the governor of South Dakota that showed that the Passive House building energy standard would be a much more fiscally responsible option in that state. It reduces the life-cycle cost of state-owned real estate based on fiscal parameters set forth by the state.
My business partner is involved with the 2000-Watt Society — another strong standard — which provides real targets to enable actual change around our carbon footprint per capita.
Q: What do you like about the Passive House building energy standard?
I don’t consider myself a passive guru, but what I like is that there are quantifiable measurements of the energy flow through a building and agreement on how to quantify that. With rules and a framework of targets, it’s a nice way to help everyone get more efficient sooner. Creating targets is important. There are design tools to use.
And you see tangible benefits – a means for getting from A to B for ultimate sustainability, economics, comfort, lifestyle. Sometimes you fall short of the target, sometimes you are higher. The important part is that you are well above the standard we are accepting now for our buildings.