St. Paul Green Home Tour starts with the basics


When architect Lucas Alm and his wife set out to remodel their Saint Anthony Park home three years ago along “green” lines, their main goal, he says “was to use our house as a way to test a lot of ideas in my practice and with my clients…to answer the question ‘how do you take an old home and make it energy efficient?’” Today, the home abounds in innovative technology and design features. Alm speaks about them with such passion and purpose that sometimes ideas seem to want to tumble out of his head faster than words can form.

But at a neighborhood tour of his home on October 8, Alm grounded his message in some down-to-earth advice. When considering green remodeling, he said, “a lot of people think geothermal or solar right away, where really you should start with basic things, like insulation.” Alm recommended starting with an inexpensive home energy audit to understand what you really need and help you set realistic goals (see sidebar).

Home energy audit

Alm says “if you’re serious [about reducing energy use] have a home energy audit done” before remodeling. He also suggests having another one done after any work so you have a before/after comparison.

Power companies typically offer some kind of subsidized energy audit program. In the Twin Cities, Xcel Energy’s costs $35, takes about two hours, and this time of year can usually be completed within a week of the initial customer call, according to Xcel’s Tom Hoen. (

Links to other power company’s home (and business) audit programs can be found at Minnesota’s Energy Challenge (

SAP Backyard Talks

About 20 Saint Anthony Park neighbors attended the event at Alm’s home, the last in a series of ten neighborhood “Backyard Talks” sponsored by the Saint Anthony Park Community Council (SAPCC). The program was begun this year, says community organizer Renee Lepreau, with help from the St. Anthony Park Community Foundation and the Park Midway Bank. “We realized we had people right in the neighborhood who were experts, who could teach others what they already knew,” says Lepreau. Other topics ranged from bicycle commuting to backyard composting to LED (light-emitting diode) lighting for the home. Besides being an architect, Alm is adjunct faculty at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, where he is an adviser to the U’s 2009 Solar Decathlon project.

Alm’s Backyard Talk did, in fact, begin in the back yard, between house and garage. After giving an overview of the home project on Brompton Street—a storey-and-a-half 1926 bungalow the couple purchased three years ago, gutted, and completely remodeled on sustainable lines—he turned to particulars.


Choices about green remodeling fall into two broad categories, he said: energy use, and which materials to use. Alm pointed out that they tried to choose low impact, local materials in their remodeling, such as the durable rough sawn white pine cladding for the home exterior, from Wisconsin. But in a global economy, the local option is not always best. They decided to go with white oak flooring material—again, seeking durability—though it came from considerably farther away.

“It can be a conundrum,” Alm said. “You have to decide which is best for your project.”

Another tradeoff example is in insulation. Do you use an insulation that is petroleum-based and higher efficiency, or lower efficiency recycled or bio-based insulation? Based on life cycle cost, they opted to include petroleum-based insulation.

Regarding insulating and heating older homes “there are two things most homeowners could do to make a big difference,” Alm said. “First, seal up windows and make them airtight, for instance by sealing up the counterweight spaces most older windows have. And second, an often overlooked area is the rimjoists in the basement [where the first floor rests on the foundation]. Traditionally the thinking has been ‘insulate the attic’, and that is important, but partly I’ve been having to unlearn myths. The whole house has to be understood as one organism—you won’t gain maximum efficiency if you don’t look at the entire house. And there’s no question that’s hard in an existing house where you’re working on a budget.”

Vampires and the Hog

Many modern appliances draw electric power even when turned off; these electricity suckers are known as ‘vampires.’ Alm pointed out that small, inexpensive devices now exist to measure how much electricity a given appliance is drawing. One neighbor mentioned the “Kill A Watt,” made by P3 International, of New York City. You simply plug your appliance into the Kill A Watt, and it provides an energy draw readout. (The Kill A Watt can be purchased online—recent sales on Ebay have been as low as $12—or at some retail locations, including Radio Shack). Alm said these are useful for precise measurements, and to test how accurate an appliance’s rating claims are.

“Often the refrigerator is one of the least efficient energy users in a home. It’s a hog,” he said.

The solution? Carefully assess what you really need, and don’t purchase a model larger than that, and choose an efficient model, such as one with the U.S. government approved EnergyStar seal. This doesn’t need to be a complicated choice: the Alm’s refrigerator is a Kenmore that they purchased at Sears.

“For electricity, we use seven kilowatt-hours per day or less, which is quite good,” Alm said. “But a good solar house draws around four kwh, so we’re looking at ways of getting that down.” [Author’s note: by comparison, our house in St. Paul, of similar age and size, drew an average of almost 24 kwh per day over the last nine months. Check your monthly energy bill to see your average daily use]. The Alm household’s total energy bills per month range from a low of $60 in summer to a high of $100 in winter.

Other remarkable facts about the Alm home: Due to window and skylight abundance and placement, it needs no artificial lighting at all during daylight hours, year round. In the summer the house is kept cool not with air conditioning, but with the carefully placed skylights. They’ve found the skylights lose too much heat in winter, though, so this winter Alm will experiment with coverings similar to those that greenhouses use.

Visit Lucas Alm’s website at, including pictures of the Alm home exterior (labeled ‘backpack house’ at the website).

Paul Purman lives and writes from St. Paul’s Mounds Park neighborhood. Reach him at