Carbon Zero Home: Attempting to Leave the Dickensian Era

Sean McLoughlin leads a Carbon Zero Home effort to improve energy efficiency of existing Minneapolis homes. Why it is difficult to do the right thing...

IMG_2658-300x277As a child of ‘hippy’ parents, Sean McLoughlin grew up living off-grid in the mountains of Taos, New Mexico. The fall was spent compiling the wood pile that heated their house for the winter. As they waited for spring, and the wood dwindled, use of each log became a conscious choice. Did they really need it?

Today, McLoughlin – a licensed General Contractor with a small remodeling company — uses his skills in construction, his belief in the market economy, and his passion around sustainable energy use to create what he intends to become a new model in affordable, environmentally sound housing.

As founder of the non-profit Carbon Zero Home (CZH), he is working toward building smarter housing stock that generates its own power and provides Minneapolis residents the opportunity to have a more tangible and personal connection with energy use.

For example, someone he knows closely – who knows about his lifelong interest in reducing our carbon footprint – overheard him talking about our reliance on coal. She was taken aback. Didn’t coal use end around the era of Charles Dickens?

Because we’re no longer shoveling it into the furnaces of our basements or trains, he realizes, we are divorced from understanding just how much we rely on centralized fossil-fuel energy sources – that are, in fact, coal burning plants. We turn on a light switch in our home, and all we know about energy use starts there.

“Energy is a fundamental part of our life, and we know nothing about it,” he says.

[In a similar vein, Timothy DenHerder-Thomas of Cooperative Energy Future, at an early MPLS Green forum, explained it this way: if we were all made to bring out a bag of coal to the garbage bin each week like we do our trash, we might have a better understanding of how much we are personally sending into the atmosphere every day.]

Largely for politically entrenched economic reasons, McLoughlin believes, we have relied on only two primary sources of energy – coal and natural gas – for too long. He is optimistic that the current climate talks in Paris will help lead to the “solution” – a transition that moves us from fossil fuels to renewables, step by step by step.

As he wrote in a blog as the climate talks opened, “What Paris could deliver is further means of reducing the cost of renewable energy, and this is significant because we are approaching a tipping point. ‘Grid parity’ is the term we energy nerds use for what we see on the horizon.

“Al Gore compares grid parity to the difference between 32 degrees Fahrenheit and 33, when what is frozen becomes liquid. When the cost of renewable energy drops below the cost of fossil fuel-supplied energy (and this is already happening in many places in the world), the market will tip in the direction of the transition. This could lead to a rapidly accelerating transition.“

McLoughlin believes it is the marketplace that will lead the transition, not necessarily government. He believes dysfunction tends to exist at the city level – including our own. “The market can make corrections in ways that government cannot.”

An Example of City Policy as Obstacle

As McLoughlin and other local architects and housing builders/designers will discuss at the December 14 “Sustainable We” forum – third in the monthly series of interconnected topics – city policy can stand in the way of making bigger steps toward the energy changes we need in housing stock if Minneapolis is to meet its 2030 Climate Action Plan goals.

Each of the panelists will open up the group discussion with stories of roadblocks they see in our effort to become a greener city. Although each of them also sees reasons for optimism, they each have strong views about what we could be doing better – as a city, and as individual residents – in our pursuit of a cleaner, more energy efficient society.

Carbon Zero Home projectIn McLoughlin’s case, his non-profit was awarded in June the contract to rehabilitate a century-old “Brick House” project in the Hawthorne EcoVillage. It took three months to get the signed contract. After multiple issues at the city level, he hopes to finally have a building permit to work on the property this month – five months after he first attempted to get it.

A 25-year veteran in the construction industry, he compares remodeling a kitchen or bath to taking a sailboat out for the day. “I’d compare a property rehab that involves city, state, and federal money to sailing a freighter across the ocean. There’s a lot more planning. There’s a lot more dependence on others. There’s a pace that can lull a person to sleep. It’s been a big reminder of why I chose to work for myself. “

One of the biggest hold-ups involved asbestos. The City of Minneapolis sold the house to Project for Pride in Living, which contracted with CZH to perform the rehab, with the stipulation that a permit be pulled as a condition of sale. However, in a true Catch-22, the city also required the asbestos to be removed before the permit could be issued.

“PPL was understandably uncomfortable spending money on a house they didn’t own, and so around the mulberry bush we went– at least a dozen times, per my count– before everyone agreed to what would happen first,” McLoughlin reports.

He understands why the Catch-22 exists. For safety reasons, asbestos needs to be removed before any other works occurs. “During the foreclosure crisis, a lot of property was sold to developers and contractors who left the asbestos in place and put houses back on the market in unsafe condition. They were shaving costs. The city’s only means to insure asbestos abatement happens is to withhold the permit.”

In the end, PPL was required to spend more than $6,000 to remove the asbestos. “More than necessary, in my opinion,” McLoughlin says. “We will also spend a lot money removing the lead paint from inside the house. I am licensed by the EPA to remove lead, but HUD requires a state license — which requires a hefty investment to obtain — so the lead will be abated by others.”

Who benefits in the industry from having expensive lead and asbestos work done? Certainly it is needed for home owners from a safety standpoint – in that, at least, policy has succeeded in making progress – but developing affordable housing around environmentally unsafe properties is an expensive process.

As many house designers have told MPLS Green, there are not a lot of incentives to truly invest in improving our existing housing stock with more energy efficient, environmentally sound retrofits.

“It’s one of the great ironies of Affordable Housing,” McLoughlin says. “The same [rehab] work costs more than it does in an upscale neighborhood. Well-intentioned people trying to solve a large problem get bogged down in rule-making, bureaucracy, and protecting their own interests.”

The complications involved in “simple” housing projects like this one, McLoughlin says, “are a microcosm of the complications involved in the global project of transitioning to clean energy.”

The Overall Picture

The passionate people who will launch the conversation at the “Sustainable We” forum December 14th at Fulton Brewery all feel both frustration and hope.

As we explore throughout the forum series, there is no One Bright Shining Solution. For example, for every buttoned up energy-efficient home an owner buys, we also can introduce dangerous toxins and mold issues if not built conscientiously. These group discussions are designed to ultimately help more residents understand ‘what we don’t know about what we don’t know,’ and lead to some consensus about what we can do now to make smarter choices.

McLoughlin says, “We still don’t understand how bad [our climate change issues] are going to be. But we are at least finally starting to acknowledge that we have a problem.”

His optimism is in the marketplace to help change happen more quickly. The costs of solar energy are dropping, he notes, like personal computers and cell phones did. “Remember how hard it was for many of us to give up the landline phone?” McLoughlin told MPLS Green. “And look where we are now.”