Verona and Tom's Cheery Net-Zero Modern

Verona and Tom's Cheery Net-Zero Modern

Therese Maring
May 25, 2011

Name: Verona and Tom Chambers
Location: Black River Falls, Wisconsin
Years lived in: 2 years

Tom and Verona Chambers have always been passionate about sustainable living. Tom drives a Smart Car and created Wisconsin's Black River Area Green School, where students focus on sustainability, renewable energy, forestry, and organic agriculture. Sharing what the couple learns comes naturally, since both are educators—Tom a high school principal and Verona a middle-school German teacher. So when the couple found a site with amazing views of the Black River, they decided to build a dream home sure to inspire others: a Bauhaus-influenced, net-zero energy house that lets them live sustainably in style. Their bright, modern interiors may even generate a little additional energy!

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A net-zero energy house is one with the potential to produce as much energy as it uses. By participating in the GreenMax Home program from WPPI Energy, Tom and Verona were able to incorporate energy efficiency and renewable energy systems into the home's design. Grants from Focus on Energy and federal tax credits helped offset construction costs. A buy-back solar tariff from WPPI continues to pay off, as the utility company purchases back the electricity generated by the solar photovoltaic panels.

Amazingly, while the couple was aiming to have a net-zero home, after the first year of occupancy they actually proved it was a "plus-energy" home, producing 13% more energy than it used.

Since Verona and Tom plan to stay in the home through retirement, making the long-term investment in their house's infrastructure was worthwhile. Other green features include a geothermal heat pump, heat-recovery ventilation system, high-efficiency windows and insulation ranging from R5 to R50.

Their fresh style—with clean lines and bright pops of color—shows the influence of Verona's German upbringing and the couple's minimalist tastes. River views are visible from every room, bringing the organic in and keeping the design from getting sterile. Modern fixtures and furnishings (many from IKEA and CB2), fit the couple's style and budget.

And being teachers, Tom and Verona can't help but teach. They often host tours where students can learn more about the home's many green features. Says Verona, "We want them to understand that Earth-friendly lifestyle choices—no matter the size—can make a big difference toward a cleaner, greener environment."

Re-Nest Survey:

Our style: Modern, Bauhaus-influenced

Inspiration: Tom and I have always been interested in architecture and design. We knew that at some point in our lives we would design and build our dream home. The question was, what style would dominate the design? We like Frank Lloyd Wright's prairie and Usonian styles as well as the German modern Bauhaus style. In the end, Bauhaus came out on top.

Biggest Challenge: The work and research necessary to secure the grant from WPPI; many months and pages of data, information and rationale. It was also an incredible challenge to design a net-zero energy house in which the large windows are facing north (due to the views), rather than south.

What Friends Say: Those who like modern design love both the inside and outside. Those who are not big fans of modern invariably say, "Wow, I never would have expected this (the inside) from seeing the outside of your house." They all love that it feels open, cheerful, and bright.

Proudest DIY: Kitchen. We spent several months planning, designing and improvising it. While building the house, we spent every evening and weekend for two months assembling the modified IKEA kitchen, piece by piece. We designed it to make a huge statement in the main room. The bright red signifies the hearth (or the heart) of the home. It was an enormous challenge that turned out just as we had conceived it.

Biggest Indulgence: Fully automatic coffee machine; it's the reason we built the kitchen ourselves!

Best Advice: Build your team before you build your house. Get the consultants, builders, and contractor all in one room together before you break ground, and be sure that everyone understands the goal and the process. This was critical for our project.

Green Elements/Initiatives:

  • Solar photovoltaic system The PV panels are connected to the electric distribution system of Black River Falls Municipal Utilities. This lets us send electricity to the grid when the system produces power and to purchase electricity from the utility when we need it. All electricity produced by our system is purchased at a special buy-back rate of 30 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is considerably higher than the retail cost we pay.

  • Ground source heat pump
    Uses thermal energy from the ground to heat the home and provide hot water. In the summer, the system runs in reverse to provide air conditioning.

  • Structural plumbing
    Uses advanced designs and controls, eliminating the need to let taps run before hot water arrives at the faucet. This reduces water waste and energy while providing us with a better performing hot water system.

  • Highly efficient Energy Star rated windows

  • Air sealing
    Blower door tests ensured the home meets an aggressive air sealing standard.

  • Heat-recovery ventilator

  • Added wall thickness
    For better insulation, 2-by-8 studs were used.

  • Framing
    Twenty-four-inch on-center framing allowed for the additional insulation and reduced lumber costs.

  • R5 above-grade and R10 below-grade exterior insulation
    We used continuous extruded polystyrene exterior insulation on the outside walls and under the basement slab. In addition to insulating the home, this makes the basement considerably more comfortable than is typical in a cold climate.

  • R50 attic insulation

  • All water fixtures are low-flow.

  • All appliances are Energy Star rated.

  • All light bulbs are CFL or LED.

  • Certified as a Wisconsin Energy Star home by Focus on Energy


Appliances: Miele and Bosch

Photovoltaic system: Kyocera panels and Wattsun dual axis trackers. Sunny Boy inverter. Installed by H&H Solar Energy Services.

Structural plumbing and Power Pipe drain-water heat recovery unit: RenewABILITY Energy

Home energy monitoring: Installed and maintaned by Steven Winter & Associates

Exterior siding: Hardie board fiber-cement siding

Hardware: Grohe, Kohler, Franke

Furniture: Some IKEA; Arne Jacobson Series 7 chairs (by Fritz Hansen); womb chair; dining table crafted from recycled fence from property

Ventless fireplace: Ecosmart Fire

Accessories: Mostly handmade items crafted by Verona. Other favorites include an Eames house bird and a Diamantini & Domeniconi cuckoo clock

Lighting: CB2, IKEA

Rugs and Carpets: IKEA, CB2

Tiles and Stone: Marazzi Vanity Rust tile in master bathroom, Silestone quartz countertop

Window Treatments: Blinds and sheers from IKEA

Beds: IKEA

Artwork: Most of our artwork is our own work. Some pieces are made from found objects salvaged from the property; other pieces we've obtained from various galleries.

Flooring: Model hardwood flooring. We used Canadian maple tongue-and-groove with baked-on grey finish

Consultants: Kurt Pulvermacher, WPPI; Joe Nagen, energy consultant with Home Building Technology Services; Eric Skinner, independent building consultant; Todd Page, general contractor, All-American Lumber.

(Thanks, Verona and Tom!)

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(Images: Therese Maring)

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