In other News: Just Gave a Talk on Underhill at the MREA Energy Fair

Saturday, I gave  a lecture at the MREA Energy Fair in Custer, WI about the joy of working with my parents to design their timber frame, straw bale, passive solar house, Underhill, completed four years ago.

If you happened to attend that lecture, the work I’m doing now might seem very different.  After all, remodeling a 1950’s ranch LOOKs pretty dissimilar to building a timber frame, sod roofed house from scratch.  However, I feel strongly that both projects come from the same place – a desire to use buildings to live lightly on the earth.

If you did NOT attend the MREA, here are a few of the highlights from the presentation:

I designed Underhill under the supervision of my wonderful boss Roald Gundersen at Whole Trees Architecture and with the inimitable support of contractor Bryan Dalstrom.  Likewise, good projects come from good clients and the collaboration I had with my parents allowed me to create a really great design;  it was the first project I took the lead on and I couldn’t be more proud of how it turned out.

How to Win at Building Your Dream House

Step 1:  Find an architect (and a builder) that you like, trust and respect

Step 2:  Listen to them.

I understand this may sound self serving to say “Do what your architect tells you.”  If you feel that way, circle back to step one.  Choosing the right designer for you, someone with whom you share values, perspective and communication style is one of the most important decisions you can make along the path to building a house.

Collaboration comes from Communication

  • Communicate early and often
  • Send ideas in bursts
  • Change your mind early
  • Document everything
  • Check in regularly on costs and scope

Watch out for the [very human and natural tendency] to let the ideas grow out of control and then be surprised by the growing costs.  This will happen.  No one can afford all the cool ideas they have along the way to building their dream house.  Architects people too.  Here are some of the things they/we like: designing, solving problems, synthesizing cool ideas spatially, and making people happy.  Here’s what they/we don’t love: scaling down, and giving people bad news.  So be prepared for this dialogue to happen at some point … and then get past it.

You: Here is my [LONG] list of house ideas, developed over years of fantasizing.

Architect: Here is a drawing with those, plus three added cool ideas.

You: FANTASTIC!  Do that, and I just had this other neat idea …

Architect:Sure, we can do that.  FYI, it will probably cost $$$$

You: WHAT?

What Makes a Building Green?

To last, buildings must be:  sturdy enough to stand the winds of time, useful or adaptable enough to stay in use, and likable enough that people will want to use them.

Just as important as the cool bells and whistles we used at Underhill [PV, solar thermal panels, heated floors, insulation made from castor beans, etc] or the sustainable materials [straw bales, sod roof, local wood timbers] are the underlying green principles of design we focused on.

  • Keep it Small: Make room in your life for less
  • Be Where You Are: Take Climate Into Account
  • Choose Where You’ll Be: Make the most of your site
  • Plan for the Long Term: Will your building outlive you?
  • Take Your Time: Be Patient with the Green Building Process
  • Be picky with your green technology choices:

    Ask: “Who is telling me this and why do they want me to believe this?”  Choose methods and tech that work for you, are right for your site and improve your project.

To find out more about the Underhill Project, check out Digging in the Driftless, where my mom turned her journalist’s perspective on to the design and construction process.  This page contains links to many of the key posts on the construction process.

One thought on “In other News: Just Gave a Talk on Underhill at the MREA Energy Fair

  1. Kristen says:

    Hi Della,

    I attended your talk at the MREA Fair. Great job!

    My husband and I are interested in green building. We have a building site and would like to use it to the best efficiency. We are looking for an architect to help us with our design. If this is something you would be interested in could you please contact me at [redacted].

    Thank you,


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