“I treat my house as my lab,” says St. Anthony Park resident Lucas Alm, and his Brompton Street bungalow is a visual encyclopedia of the energy-saving techniques to which Alm is professionally dedicated in his work as an architect and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Minnesota.
At this time of year, what’s most noticeable about Alm’s 1920s-era bungalow is the dark brown, biodegradable, nontoxic siding that covers several inches of poly-urethane spray foam and extruded polystyrene insulation.
That, combined with “amazing R-value” insulation under the roof, double-glazed windows, a partial solar heating system, a high-tech Triangle Tube condensing boiler, a wood stove and state-of-the-art energy-efficient household appliances, keep Alm’s NSP bills for his 1400-square-foot house down in the $80 to $100 range during the coldest months of the year.
In the summer, the energy bills fall even lower – sometimes down to as little as $40 a month. That’s when the house’s façade changes, too, as the green roof over the front porch and the garage comes into season.
“There’s all kinds of stuff growing up there,” says Alm, noting that he and his family go out regularly to harvest the roof-top herbs that rise amid native grasses and sedum.
Alm has transformed the interior of his house into a sunny, free-form, open space accented with his grandparents’ Danish modern furniture from the 1950s. It’s a far cry from the small, box-like rooms of the classic bungalow, and the energy-saving measures are subtle and well-integrated as well. There’s a wood-burning stove, Velux skylights that open on hot summer nights and long-life LED bulbs installed in inaccessible ceiling areas.
The most important energy-saving measures, though, are invisible to the casual glance.
“It’s all in the walls and roof,” says Alm, referring to the all-important insulation. In retrofitting old houses like his, he says, “you want to control air flow. Older houses lose a lot of air around the windows.”
It’s a precept he learned the hard way. “I should have done more computer modeling of window treatments,” he says, noting that if he had it to do again, he would use triple-glazed windows rather than the double-glazed ones he installed.
Even with his current windows, Alm has created what he calls a “tight house,” with minimal heat loss. So tight, in fact, that without additional steps, it could create problems of interior air quality even as it reduces energy bills. That’s why down in the basement, along with the normal array of heating and laundry equipment, Alm has also installed something called a Venmar heat recovery ventilator to ensure that the interior spaces remain livable as well as energy-efficient.
Alm believes that any mistakes he makes on his own house end up benefiting his clients in the long run. Not only has he become a strong advocate of triple-glazing, but personal experience has also taught him to reconsider green roofs.
“I’ve been urging them on clients for years,” he says, “but they’re a lot of work. A green roof looks cool, but you have to go up and weed it.”
On the other hand, some elements used in his own retrofitting have led him to make unqualified recommendations to clients. “I love metal roofs,” he says, “and my siding is nontoxic, long-lasting, local white pine and it turned out great.”
Alm says that energy-conscious design has come a ways since the era of the earth house and geodesic dome in the 1970s.
“When you get that radical, it’s just not that comfortable,” he says. “There are certain styles of building and living that we’re comfortable with, a certain vernacular of living that we need to respect. But then we can increase energy efficiency.”
So where does a homeowner start? Timing is important.
“Right now there are all these great tax incentives because of the economic stimulus,” Alm says. “Think about energy when you make ordinary improvements. If you need to re-shingle your roof, insulate then.” The same goes for installing siding and replacing windows.
Many a homeowner might dream of an energy-conscious retrofit like Alm’s, but in the meantime, how do you shave a few dollars off the monthly NSP bills?
“The best first step is to work with an energy auditor,” Alm says, adding that the first thing an auditor likely will do is order a blower-door test, where a big fan is placed at the front door and the house is sealed in order to find out where the points of maximum air leakage are.
“It’s not the most sexy technique,” says Alm, “but it’s effective. You can’t see insulation, but it makes a difference.”
Alm, 38, says his house is only one piece in a personal goal of sustainable living. He credits “a very patient and tolerant spouse and child, who allow me to experiment.”
Sustainable living is hard in an urban setting, he acknowledges, “but if it’s too weird, it won’t work.” Alm bikes to work year-round and the family depends heavily on the produce of local farmers’ markets to supplement their home garden and fill the basement root cellar.
Alm thinks he came by his energy-conscious viewpoint naturally, growing up in Minneapolis as the son of parents with deeply held beliefs about the importance of living simply.
“My parents were hippies,” he says with a laugh. He pauses momentarily to consider a different descriptor, then decides to let that one stand. “You didn’t have to feel that you were giving things up. My parents said that it’s not about money, it’s about who you are.”
Who Alm is, at least in part, is a product of St. Anthony Park.
“We live in an amazing neighborhood,” he says. “I can work at home. I can walk everywhere. The ideal neighborhood should combine jobs, resources and transit, but it must also be an organic process.”