Building an Education on Sustainability

By Hannah Nixon

The word of the week is save, and local Andy Hill is emphatic about saving time, energy, and resources in the midst of building his new ultra-efficient retirement home located alongside Ely’s Trezona Trail.

As winter draws near, saving time becomes vital for Hill. As he and his crew begin to prioritize each day’s agenda in order to winterize the site, the progress becomes more apparent for passers-by. As the barn-red metal siding goes up, the property begins to appear more as a home and less as a construction zone. This week’s priority, though, was saving one of these agenda items for the facilitation of a classroom visit; On September 10th, the Great River Montessori School out of Saint Paul cascaded through Ely, piecing together birch bark canoes, making wild rice beads, and on their stop to Hill’s home, securing solar panels to racking systems. Facilitated through the Ely folk School, the goal of the 59 students’ trip was hands-on, experiential learning, with a focus on the natural elements.

For Hill, the focus of the time he had with a portion of the students was to make the connection between sustainable building and educational values. Hill provided the students with the opportunity to get their hands on the photovoltaic, or electricity-producing, solar panel. However, he also provided them an in-depth tutorial of his flat plate solar thermal hot water panel, designed to provide hot water rather than produce electricity. This type of panel is made up of a series of copper absorbers through which the water flows as it is converted from cold to hot temperatures. Hill explains that the absorbers are coated with a special black paint, “which adds to the energy they can grab from the sun. Copper loves to transfer heat.” One of these thermal panels, measuring in at 4ft by 10ft, will heat 80% of the domestic hot water per two occupants of a household. For Hill, though, saving on energy is only one category of sustainable design.

A second category begins the conversation about water consumption. While Hill plans to utilize the age-old tricks of low-flow showerheads and front-loader washing machines to minimize water usage, he deals a less familiar hand when proposing to capture and recycle the condensation from his high-efficiency gas appliances for flushing toilets. “This condensate produces an average of a gallon of water each day that would otherwise simply drain out through the sewer line,” says Hill. He plans to put the same practice to work with his used clothes washing machine water.

While many water consumption tactics can be universally applied, others are site-specific. For example, as compared to Hill’s previous home outside of city limits, he is now required to consider the differentiating chemical compounds of city water and the purposes for which it is being used. Similar as to how bait stores cannot sustain their live bait populations in city water, the water can also be harmful to irrigation efforts. To mitigate this disadvantage, Hill is stockpiling rain water through his gutter system, a popular and sustainable mechanism of water collection for outdoor use. “There’s a lot of advantage to the rain water that’s free,” says Hill. “There’s a formula that predicts the amount of rain water a certain square footage of roof will collect.” A quick Google search reveals that a home with 1000 square feet of collection surface will produce 550 gallons of rainwater for each inch of rain. Hill’s roof will come in at approximately 3000 square feet upon completion. In Ely, which receives an average of 30 inches of rain annually, Hill will collect a total of 49,500 gallons of water.

Taking economical plumbing to the next level, Hill shares that “in some states, laundromats can recycle clothes washing water to use again for the same purpose, after filtering out debris and dirt. Unfortunately, this isn’t permissible in the state of Minnesota.” However, Minnesota county governments do positively influence sustainable roofing practices, providing potential subsidies for rural home builders electing metal roofs over asphalt. “Asphalt loves to burn,” says Hill. In a region of wildfire threat, that matters. While metal roofs can be slightly more expensive, a homeowner may be eligible for a lower home insurance policy with this feature. In this choice, we can find a comforting relief in the assurance that the metal is more than a roof over our heads, but also a subtle protection for the flora and fauna that came before us. And while we must inevitably work with government standards and policy in building sustainable homes, Hill delivers the message- to both the group of students he hosted in his home and to the public- that the effort narrows down more finely to working with nature.