It looks red. But it's mostly green.
A new house in north Minneapolis, painted a stark red, is not only built to be green and energy efficient, but it generates its own energy. It's the Twin Cities' Habitat for Humanity's first "Net Zero" house -- complete with solar panels atop the roof for heating, cooling, and hot water.
Sarah Olson and her family moved in earlier this month and are learning how to live off Mother Nature's energy.
"I'm freezing," Olson said with a laugh, covered from head to toe and wearing a sweatshirt. The house is at 67 degrees. "Just trying to stay warm, I'm not used to it. But you don't want it warmer than 70."
Apartments are warmer, she said, and the new house is without carpet. But she's not complaining. The old apartment was too small and infested with bed bugs. Her family -- husband Abdi Mohamed and three children - finally has a stable, affordable home with space for kids to play, parks nearby and room to entertain.
She said she cried when she heard her family had been matched to the three-bedroom house.
"I was literally in tears," said Olson, a stay-at-home mom training to be a dental assistant. "With three kids in a two-bedroom apartment, with our rent going up every year, it was hard."
The house, part of the city's Hawthorne EcoVillage, sticks out on 31st Avenue North. It's taller than the others and the roof is steeper, positioned so the sunlight can reach the solar panels. There are also panels on the garage.
"Net Zero" means the house should generate at least as much energy as it uses throughout the year. The home is tied to the electricity grid for times when the sun isn't shining.
"We have to start thinking literally outside the box, looking at other sources of energy," she said. In the past, she would do things to save energy -- buy energy efficient light bulbs, wash clothes in cold water. "But this gives me a chance to live it," Olson said.
A COMMUNITY DESIGN
The house is one of Minneapolis' Green Homes North project -- with a goal build 100 energy-efficient, eco-friendly homes within five years. Designed by University of Minnesota architecture students, it's the first Habitat for Humanity Net Zero home in the area.
"We always build as efficiently as we can, but this is above and beyond what we normally do," said Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity spokesman Matt Haugen.
The cost to build the house, including materials, staff, warehouse, subcontracted and licensed labor, and permits, was $213,000, according to Haugen. Compare that to the Habitat for Humanity house next door -- which cost $160,000, he said.
It's insulated at least three times as much as a regular house, sealed extremely well to keep drafts out, and the windows are positioned strategically to bring in the most natural heat from the sun aside from the solar panels, said University of Minnesota architecture instructor Dan Handeen, one of the instructors who led students in designing the house.
"It wasn't an ideal site to do a solar design or Net Zero, but we were able to make it work," Handeen said of the challenges of getting solar energy to the house.
The house also has an energy recovery ventilator. It extracts heat from the stale air venting out of the tightly-sealed house then adds that warmth to the fresh air circulating in. "So we get fresh air, but we still get to keep that heat," Handeen said. "This is higher quality indoor air than most buildings, by far."
It was a challenge to incorporate both energy production and efficiency, and a comfortable, pleasant design, he said.
"That's a careful balancing act, especially as we get towards lower and lower use and higher and higher performance," Handeen said. "The big thing is it makes a lot of sense to reduce your energy use before you start adding alternative energy sources ... and the way we did that was first of all, making sure we had a lot of insulation."
"AN IMPACT ON PEOPLE'S LIVES"
The house provided a unique learning opportunity for his students, he said.
"Sustainability is a priority in architecture school, but this is one of the few instances where they really get to work on a project that's going to be built," Handeen said. "The academic program can be theoretical and kind of abstract. And this is nice, to be able to tie it back to things that are really going to have an impact on people's lives."
"You could design a house and build it, and a family could move in, but if you saddle them with a bunch of utility expenses, that's kind of disingenuous," he added.
Habitat for Humanity requires families that are matched to homes to have an income that is between 30 percent and 60 percent of the area median income -- in this case, $27,000 to $53,000 for a family of five. Families are required volunteer time to help Habitat with construction and other work, and pay back Habitat for Humanity's mortgage, interest-free.
Families select homes they are interested in, and wait to be matched, he said. "For the Net Zero home, we added an essay component," Haugen said. "We needed a family that was ready and willing to take on the extra responsibilities of getting to know how the house works."
Olson said she and her husband wrote about how the house would help them live more independently, and rely less on conventional energy sources.
Despite the energy efficiency, Olson said she still reminds the kids to turn off the lights when they leave the room.
They'll understand solar energy and the home's other benefits when they're older, she added. "I tell them it's going to be yours, take care of it now."