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Kyle Bursaw // Curb Magazine
Aiming for Nothing
Couple seeks energy freedom one watt at a time

The pristine waters of the Black River wind through Wisconsin’s Northwoods toward a small town known for its Karner Blue butterflies and breathtaking fall colors. On the top of a hill nestled among this simple, natural beauty sits a partially constructed, one-story home. Although from a distance it appears simple, the small home hides an intricate web of technologies that reveal the true complexity of its design: a firm foam enveloping the basement, glimmering copper pipes snaking their way through the walls, white rubber stretching its legs on the roof. Yet beyond the sophisticated design of the home is a simple idea – a small energy meter that counts backward.

The meter hides on the east side of Tom and Verona Chambers’ home. Although on the outside it appears like any other meter to monitor energy usage, its small digital screen reveals its uniqueness. Not only does the screen count up, as all meters do, but it also counts down. The Chambers’ home will both consume and produce energy, with the ultimate goal of a zero reading on that meter at the end of the year – making their home one of the first net-zero energy homes in the region.

The Chambers’ ambitiously green project began in January 2007 when they decided to build a new home in Black River Falls, a small town in north-central Wisconsin. While driving around looking at properties, they stumbled across a piece of land just outside of town overlooking the river.

“For many years, we have been dreaming about having a house on a sloping piece of property, overlooking some water, with some trees,” Tom says. When they saw the breathtaking view, they knew it was the perfect location to build their living energy experiment.

Aside from a scenic location, the couple knew they wanted to incorporate both modern design and energy efficiency in their home. Verona grew up in Germany, a country where renewable energy has long been a highly valued commodity. “Both of us have seen and lived in and experienced very sustainable and eco-friendly, energy-efficient design, which Europe has been doing for many years, and we wanted to incorporate some of those features and some of those ideas into our design,” Tom says.

While neither has a background in architecture or building, the knowledge with which they describe their home would never reveal such a fact. Their comprehension of energy-efficient design, however, did not come from perusing a few websites.

The Chambers’ quest for net-zero energy began at the Midwest Renewable Energy Fair, where they spoke with a number of businesses that deal in renewable energy technologies. They quickly learned just how complicated the concept of energy efficiency is. A simple Google search for “energy-efficient homes,” for example, garners more than 5.5 million results. And so, the couple read. Talked to experts. And read some more. Hours turned into days. Days turned into weeks, months, over a year.

As the search turned toward solar panels, Tom discovered the GreenMax Home program, coordinated by Wisconsin Public Powers Inc. Kurt Pulvermacher, an energy services representative with WPPI, worked with the Chambers on their project. He says that because the electric utility company is member-owned and more interested in providing low-cost energy than profits, they developed the program to highlight ways to save energy and money. The program also provides grants to homeowners building net-zero energy homes. Tom and Verona Chambers were the first to receive a grant through the program.

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