If Don Shelby had it do over again, he’d get a smaller TV.
“In this LEED Platinum house, did I really need that giant screen?” mused Shelby, the retired WCCO anchor whose set is a whopping 72-incher. “I did not have to have that. That part of my psyche was not complete, the idea that there are going to be certain things required of us to maybe downsize.”
Shelby is reflecting on the home that he and his wife, Barbara, built and moved into in Excelsior in 2012, after saving up for a decade. Having covered technology and climate shift (the term he prefers) for years, Shelby knew he wanted the house to employ the latest strategies for energy efficiency. That’s how it earned the highest “platinum” designation in Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), a worldwide certification program developed by the nonprofit U.S. Green Building Council — big ol’ TV notwithstanding.
“I would go further, knowing what I know today,” said Shelby of what he has learned during eight years in what looks like a stately farmhouse but employs an army of new-fashioned tech. “Pretty soon, you don’t notice the difference between a 72-inch flat-screen TV or a 50-inch.”
The Shelbys’ “green dream” home garnered a lot of attention when it was built, appearing on the Parade of Homes and in publications including the Star Tribune. The home’s green features include solar panels on the garage, a water-retention system that prevents runoff, walls and floors covered with wood reclaimed from previous buildings on the property and triple-glazed argon windows — all of which earn it high marks for efficiency.
Those windows are one of the newsman’s favorite things about the house. Coupled with high-grade insulation (two things to look at if you want better efficiency but can’t afford a full LEED home), they make the house a nearly airtight structure.
“Even the inspector was amazed by how tight the house was. So tight that I have to pump in fresh air. Nothing escapes,” said Shelby. “An infrared shot of my house, compared to an infrared shot of another house built 10 years ago, one is all orange and red but mine looks like night. So we’re not producing energy to heat ourselves while also heating the outdoors.”
That brings to mind the classic Dad complaint about “heating the whole outdoors,” a remark Shelby heard as a son and used as a father. He says many efficiencies in his home are similarly intuitive.
“I’m very disciplined about light usage, anything really that draws electricity. Unplug Alexa. Unplug anything in a wall outlet that is not being used because energy is still being used,” Shelby said. “I’m getting ready to install a master switch for cable. Even when I’m gone, all that cable is drawing energy. But all you need is the switch. Boop! Switch it off. It takes a little time to reboot when you come back from vacation but that’s it. There are lots of small ways of improving.”
The house was meant to be an example. The Shelbys had to fight City Hall — well, the zoning board — to get some things they wanted, simply because governments are not always up on the latest techniques. He had to persuade officials that permeable pavers, for instance, would prevent runoff and send rainfall straight to the groundwater, before he was allowed to install the then-unconventional driveway.
Innovations like those do come at a cost, and Shelby knows he was fortunate to be able to make the $1.25 million investment the house required. But those “first costs” can pay off in the long run, he said. The solar panels, for instance, paid for themselves within three years and now put energy that the Shelbys don’t need back on the power grid.
One message about all of this efficiency is that it’s not forcing the couple to wear six sweaters in the winter or dribble water from their cistern over their hands as they wash up over a jug.
“This is the most comfortable house I’ve ever lived in,” said Shelby. “We didn’t treat ourselves cheaply. We didn’t say, ‘Do we really need that big of a refrigerator? The kids are not here anymore. Wouldn’t a smaller refrigerator work?’ All of the appliances are energy-smart, the newest iteration of a refrigerator that used one-tenth the energy of a refrigerator from 10 years ago,” for instance, he said. “But we didn’t sacrifice anything except cash.”
The house has been such a success that the Shelbys are always scheming ways to make it more conservation-minded. That cistern, for instance, is a 3,000-gallon model, the largest that could be installed at the time, but Shelby dreams of a 20,000-gallon vessel to ensure that — along with a rain garden, that driveway and other measures — all the water that falls on his property stays there, today and tomorrow.
“Sometimes, when it doesn’t rain for a period of time you have no call on that cistern water because it’s empty,” said Shelby, who keeps an eye on exactly how quickly our climate shifts. “Looking down the road, with the increased precipitation brought on by the changing climate, I need a larger place to store water so it doesn’t run off into the streets, the lakes, the rivers and streams.”
He admits he’s impatient for municipal governments to catch up.
“They have to rewrite all [the codes], not for today but for the future,” said Shelby. “We have to look out further, not adapt to today’s conditions. We know those are not what tomorrow’s conditions will be.”
It’s an ethos that is neatly illustrated by the contrast between how the Shelby home looks and how it works.
“A lot of these new contemporary, modern designs that are zero-carbon footprint, I wouldn’t want to live in that house that looks like a box. That’s not my taste. I want to live in a house that looks like a farmer built it,” said Shelby. “We asked the architect [Jon Monson, Landschute Group] to design a house that people would drive by and say, ‘I bet that house is 100 years old,’ a house that would fit into the neighborhood. I wanted people to see you can build a LEED Platinum house that looks like a house you would want to live in.”
The home is still fairly new but, with its reclaimed wood, native plantings and resemblance to other homes in the area, it also has a history. Which is exactly what Shelby wanted: a home that respects the past, when folks blew out the candle they were using to read by because they didn’t want to waste it, but that also helps assure a future when our grandchildren can enjoy their medium-sized TVs in a house that helps sustain the planet.