Alumna Sonya Newenhouse holds the blueprint to green living
Winter/Spring 2013 | By Meghan Lepisto
When Sonya Newenhouse was 11, she dreamed of being a carpenter.
As a graduate student, she was determined to launch her own environmental consulting business.
Today, she’s fulfilled both of those visions and is literally building a greener future.
Her concept for a line of small, sustainable kit homes – aptly named NewenHouses – for those who want to live lightly on the Earth came to fruition in the fall of 2011 with the completion of a prototype in Viroqua, Wis., which she, her husband and their newly adopted 5-year-old son, Addisu, now call home.
Newenhouse, who earned a master’s degree (’92) and a Ph.D. (’97) in Land Resources from the Nelson Institute, designed the kit homes to be at least 50 percent smaller than the average new American home (which today measures approximately 2,400 square feet) and 90 percent more energy efficient. The homes will be available in one-, two- and three-bedroom sizes, at 600, 800 and 1,000 square feet, respectively.
But Newenhouse’s toolkit extends beyond green living – she is also the president of Community Car, a Madison-area car sharing organization that serves more than 1,300 members, and founder of the sustainability consulting company Madison Environmental Group, which provides engineering, building design, transportation, research and marketing services to a range of clients.
On campus, Madison Environmental Group recently served as green building consultants for construction of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, which this fall received a top sustainability award for its innovative and sustainable design, and Union South – both now LEED (Leadership and Environment Energy Design) gold certified buildings.
In 2011, after more than a decade at the helm, Newenhouse sold Madison Environmental Group to fellow Nelson Institute alumna Leah Samson-Samuel (ESC ’98), to allow Newenhouse to focus more on the launch of her sustainable kit homes. She discusses the concept behind these homes, along with advice for others with an entrepreneurial spirit, in this edited interview.
Where did your idea begin for the NewenHouse kit home?
Newenhouse: In order to answer that question I need to back up to Community Car. I started Community Car because I thought it was an effective way to tangibly address global warming and greenhouse gas emissions (29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Wisconsin come from transportation). But then I learned that the building sector also emits a lot of greenhouse gases and has a large environmental footprint. So I thought we need to get into the building sector more aggressively.
Here is where my passion comes in from when I was little. Basically, at [the age of] 46, I am fulfilling my childhood fantasy – I wanted to be a carpenter in a big way. Growing up in the 1970s, I was into the green homes of the decade; I wanted to build a little cabin at my parent’s farm. That never happened, but now I’m realizing my dreams in a bit different way.
I’m really combining something strategic, of offering a new product to customers who want to live simply and reduce their ecological footprint, but also having fun and providing something that I’ve always loved: houses, nesting, building and being creative in that way.
What are some of the features the kit homes will include?
What we’re providing are sustainable, super-insulated small kit homes, following the Sears Roebuck service model. Our largest house that we’ll sell will always be half the size of the average new American home.
If there’s only one thing you remember about this house, it’s that they’re so well built they do not require a furnace, even in Wisconsin winters. They only require 1,300 watts of electric heat – the equivalent of one hair dryer.
Our walls are 18 inches thick; it’s a double wall system with blown-in, dense-packed cellulose insulation. We have a very efficient, quiet, heat recovery ventilation unit. We have triple-glazed, insulated windows from Canada. We have more than two feet of insulation in the attic and one foot of insulation under the slab.
We have a detached three-season porch, which is attached to a storage room that has a root cellar underneath, so it really provides the opportunity for green living as well. This 270-square-foot stuga (meaning cabin in Swedish) also includes a guest loft and wood stove for winter visitors.
I’m trying to intersect three movements: the green building movement, the small home movement and the sustainable lifestyle movement. I think there’s a gap in the products out there for housing. There might be green homes, but they’re not smaller. Or there might be a green home that’s actually not so much designed for green living.
What has it been like to watch this vision become reality? Have you encountered any challenges you didn’t anticipate or that are unique to building a home like this?
I thought we would sell just like Sears Roebuck did: the lumber, the nails, everything you need to build this on your job site. But as I started the building process I realized that wasn’t very efficient and not very effective; it would be very difficult to store and access all of the materials during construction.
So rather, we’ll be selling everything you can’t buy at your local lumber yard – the specialty materials that make this a sustainable, energy efficient house. We’ll be selling, for example, the windows, the doors, the heat recovery ventilation unit, the handmade tile and the sustainable, custom-made kitchen cabinets. And of course the detailed construction documents and design, because it’s not difficult, it’s just a different way of living.
And then we’ll also sell, with the kit, our consulting services. So a homeowner could call us and we could have weekly or monthly phone calls just to help them along as they work with their contractors.
It was wonderful to be my own general contractor for this first home because I was putting myself in the shoes of my future customers.
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