Taking energy efficiency to another level

The Alkatouts’ home will be featured in an upcoming passive house home tour. It will be open on Nov. 15 from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. with a guided tour at 11:15 a.m. Credit: Photos by Corey Gaffer

The neighbor’s lawnmower roared through the yard next door, but it was silent from inside Alkatout family’s back room — until the door was opened.

The sounds were muffled by insulation that’s more than three times above code, made largely of densely packed cellulose created from old newspapers.

The Alkatout’s home is an extreme rarity in Minneapolis. It’s considered a passive house, meaning that it uses a hyper-efficient standard of building that originated in Germany.

“It’s efficiency to the extreme, basically,” said Ryan Stegora of RJ Stegora Inc., which built the Alkatout’s house.

The goal is to make the house eventually net-zero or net-positive when it comes to energy use, Stegora said.

There’s no furnace. The walls are well over one foot thick. The water heater is tankless and tiny. The cooktop heats using induction, and it boils water in about a minute.

Julie and Tarek Alkatout used to live in an older home in northeast Minneapolis with their children. They wanted to make the home more energy efficient. But that house wasn’t right — starting from scratch is more cost-effective than renovating an old house.

Luckily for the Alkatouts, the house right next door was for sale, so they bought it with the goal of constructing an entirely new structure. They didn’t have to leave the neighborhood where they had lived for over a decade.

Plus, the Alkatouts — both Medtronic employees — could fulfill their sustainability and efficiency goals.

“It just makes sense when you learn about it,” Julie Alkatout said of the passive house design philosophy.

When it comes to building a home from the ground up, Stegora said it’s often only 15 percent more expensive to include passive design rather than simply building to code. 

While more expensive, the benefits of a passive house include more comfortable climate control, less utility use and a very quiet living environment because of thick insulation and triple-pane windows, he said.

Building a passive house is no simple task. It took the Alkatouts and Tim Eian of TE Studio two years to design the Nordeast Nest, their house’s nickname and namesake of their blog (www.nordeastnest.com).

But their meticulous attention to detail comes through in both personal touches and energy-saving measures.

Between two of the kid’s rooms on the second level of the 2,700-square-foot house, there’s a small tunnel through which the kids enjoy crawling. When giving this reporter a tour, the kids played a “magic trick” where one would hide in a closet and vanish through the tunnel.

The designers also fitted their garage’s roof so they could grow plants on it. 

Other details are more practical than preference-based. 

For example, the toilets all have small and large flush settings to ensure only the necessary amount of water is used. The induction cooktop uses a fraction of the energy a traditional one would.

The windows will tilt back so that fresh air can go in even during rain storms, and the roof has overhangs that keep out harsh sunlight.

One of the largest and most-unique features of the passive house is an air-circulation system that filters and recycles air throughout the house using a network of pipes. This keeps fresh, climate-controlled air flowing while kicking out stale air and retaining heat. 

With such a unique house, the Alkatout family fields plenty of requests from the media and designers. Despite the attention, they’re nothing but helpful in educating about sustainable design. 

Their home and one other are slated for public tours as part of the International Passive House Days local celebration Nov. 14 & 15. For more information, go to testudio.com/blog.