Archaeologist couple in Garnavillo build energy efficient home with future in mind











by Natasha Hegmann, CCCAN Program Coordinator

Dec. 14, 2018

Archaelogists investigate hundreds of years into the past, but local archaeologists Laura Elsinger and Chris Schoen chose to envision generations into the future when building their dream home. Elsinger and Schoen both grew up in the Driftless region: Schoen in LaCrosse, and Elsinger in an 1840s stone farmhouse in Clayton County. Their mutual reverence for the woodlands of the region led them to put down roots near Garnavillo. Their background in archaeology field work and their lifelong pursuit of conservation launched their journey to build a home that fits their land stewardship ethic and is equipped to serve families for generations to come.

Seven generation thinking [dictates that] for every decision you make, you must consider the effect it will have on the next seven generations,” explained Elsinger. This Great Law of the Iroquois instructed stewards of the land to be mindful of the consequences of their daily decisions, projecting the effects more than 100 years into the future. With this stewardship ethic in mind, Elsinger and Schoen considered their home building adventure from a longitudinal perspective: planning ahead for their own aging, anticipating the limited availability of petroleum products and their impact on the environment, producing their own solar energy, and even the disposal of the home’s building materials.

One guiding principle for the project was to employ non-toxic building materials and reduce their carbon footprint — this meant avoiding petroleum-based products as much as possible in the build.

“So many new houses when they are built are toxic while they off-gas, causing coughing, headaches; [the chemicals are] harmful for humans and pets,” said Elsinger. Whenever possible they avoided plastics, chemical adhesives, and stains that off-gas and negatively impact the air quality of the home. Elsinger and Schoen sourced caulk, adhesive, stain, and finishes from Green Building Supply in Fairfield, Iowa.

One of the materials sourced from Fairfield is a wall treatment alternative called American Clay. “We mixed the clay with water to the consistency of soft serve ice cream,” said Elsinger, and then they “frosted” the drywall of the living room and bedroom with multiple layers of the clay. The treatment is chemical-free, long-lasting, easy-to-repair, and gives their home a warm, earthy glow in the morning sunlight.

Hardwood floors, trim, and cabinets complement the natural tones of the American Clay wall treatment, and the wood for these features comes with its own story. Before breaking ground, Elsinger and Shoen consulted with a forester to decide how much area to clear for the home site. Trees harvested from the site were milled locally to produce the basswood, cherry, oak and ash lumber for the home.

Continuing the couple’s dedication to sustainably sourced, high-quality building materials, the recycled brick exterior of the house was obtained from just a few miles away. Only after the brick arrived at the home site did Elsinger learn that it was repurposed from a house thought to be constructed by the same builder as her childhood home.

Like the 1840s stone house of Elsinger’s youth, Elsinger and Schoen’s new home is a small space. Opting for a small footprint was part of their plan to avoid overbuilding — they wanted a home that would be highly efficient to heat and cool. The small space is heated and cooled by an air source heat pump, with a standard furnace for backup in very cold conditions.

While the current living area is ideal for the couple and their two dogs, Elsinger and Schoen considered future inhabitants of the home in the house  design. The unfinished basement could accommodate bedrooms and living space and it is plumbed to be outfitted with a bathroom. PEX tubing was laid in the concrete slab to facilitate future in-floor heating. There is even a seperate entrance and future kitchen area that could provide  for a live-in caregiver should the need arise as Elsinger and Schoen age.

“In this culture, we don’t talk about or think much about growing old and dying. We tend to ignore it as a society,” said Elsinger. “Our approach was different: we wanted to plan ahead for changes in our mobility and healthcare needs as we age.” In addition to housing for a future caregiver, the home also features extra-wide, three foot doorways to easily accommodate wheelchairs or walkers.

While they are still fit and mobile, Elsinger and Schoen are dedicated to nurturing the 18 acres of forest surrounding their home.

“In 2018 we planted approximately one  hundred trees, mostly focusing on understory habitat species like nannyberries, elderberries, wild plum, arrowwood, and highbush cranberry,” said Schoen. The couple have plans for many more tree plantings, developing a ‘no-mow’ lawn mix of native grasses and nectar plants, a permaculture food forest on the south side of their property, and eventually a vegetable garden.

“We hope our home can be a model for an energy efficient home with a small footprint, for building and planning with the future in mind,” said Elsinger. Based on their experience, Schoen and Elsinger shared a few of tips for those interested in sustainable upgrades to existing homes:

  1. Consider solar energy – For Elsinger and Schoen this was an obvious choice. The cost to install a solar array is made affordable with tax credits, and the system pays for itself over a reasonable timeline. Their array feeds the rural electric company’s grid, so when they are producing more energy than they need, the company can sell the extra green energy to other consumers.
  2. Dedicate time to the planning and working processes – Elsinger notes that they were very fortunate to have Schoen’s flexible work schedule during the build; he was able to be present at the build site at critical moments to work with the contractors and communicate their plans and concerns.
  3. Invest in insulation – Schoen notes that this is one of the most cost effective improvements current homeowners can make. They employed blown dry cellulose in the attic and fiberglass batting and foam in the walls and around the foundation.