Future on a stick

With a last name like Anderson and a good Lutheran upbringing, it would seem improbable that I would have no standing traditions at “The Great Minnesota Get-Together,” but, in fact, I don’t. With the exception of visiting the morbidly obese pig and the “Birthing Barn” two years in a row because I had a friend in the veterinary program at the University of Minnesota, I can’t really count anything else as tradition. I’ve seen the butter heads and I think once, when I was little and my parents had tired of the guilt of depriving their only son of cheese curds and midway rides, I got to ride the big yellow wave slide. Once.

Despite my inconsistent history with the State Fair, I have merged with the grease-scented throngs the last two years with a singular destination in mind: the Eco-Experience Exhibit. Despite the real-world existence of the technology, somehow approaching the Eco-Experience building with its wind-power-generating “blade” and large photo-voltaic array is a little like approaching Oz in a “TIE Fighter.” Inside, the well-funded exhibit boasts colorful and organized signage featuring local farms and food producers, transit options, energy sources, and sustainable products. Both of my trips have been prompted by the Eco-House (it being a design contribution of my employer).

The Eco-House is a full-scale example of eco-friendly practices in residential construction. The home’s design integrates passive solar heating and cross ventilation for cooling, fundamental principles of comfort since our moving out of caves. The home is constructed using Structural Insulated Panels (SIP), in lieu of standard framing, for increased R-value and minimized heat loss through structural members. Windows are triple-pane with two layers of low-E coating for an R-value surpassing that of the walls of many century-old Minneapolis homes. And should anyone question the “greenness” of constructing a full-scale mock-up, it should be noted that the Eco-House was modeled after an actual project that will benefit from the disassembled components being reused in the construction of that particular house.

Interior finishes were selected to showcase a diversity of “green” products. Flooring selections included finished concrete (necessary for thermal mass in passive heating), bamboo, cork and linoleum. Featured were Energy Star appliances, LED light fixtures and urea-formaldehyde-free cabinet boxes. One recycled glass-and-concrete countertop drew so many people to its colorful polished surface that no one could open the cabinet underneath it to find the recycling center. Therein lies a particularly challenging issue: It is easy to grab people’s attention with specific features, but much harder to educate them on a sustainable lifestyle.

Talking with homeowners in the Eco-House, it was incredibly clear that many were eager to make “green” choices in their homes but overwhelmed with the options they were presented with in the marketplace. I spoke with one couple that was interested in replacing their original hardwood floor with a new “green” product, not immediately realizing that refinishing their existing solid wood floor with a low-VOC finish was the environmentally friendly choice. This confusion is certainly not the fault of these particular homeowners; contradictions are everywhere. Next door to the Eco-House, samples of organic soymilk were being offered in plastic cups that could not be recycled in the receptacles at the Eco-Experience!

While the Eco-House may not please everyone’s individual aesthetic, and the Eco-Experience still needs to fine-tune its agenda, both operate in an excellent educational venue to inform homeowners and Fair-goers alike of the breadth of choices that exist in green building and in creating a holistic approach to a sustainable way of life that ensures a future of Fair traditions, new and old.

Bryan Anderson lives in Stevens Square. He works for SALA Architects on East Hennepin.