Home Green Home: Don Shelby’s sustainable house makes a statement

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Don Shelby's House
Photo by Joe Paetzel, The Landschute Group

After working for 32 years as a TV anchor, investigative reporter, and environmental correspondent for WCCO-TV, and hosting a WCCO-AM radio gig for 10 years, local personality Don Shelby has clearly demonstrated a talent and passion for sharing people’s stories over the years.

Now, during his golden years of retirement, he’s sharing his own—a passion for protecting and preserving the earth. His dedication to the environment is evident not only in his service as a member of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team and on the board of Minnesota GreenStar and Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, but also in the sustainable home he and his wife Barbara recently built in Excelsior. We asked him a few questions about when he started taking an interest in the environment, details about his sustainable home, and easy ways homeowners can incorporate sustainable features into their own homes.

Don will be speaking at the Living Green Expo May 5 at 10 a.m. and May 6 at 10:30 a.m. in the Education Building.

When did you start taking an interest in environmental issues? Did you learn from your parents to reduce, reuse, recycle? Did you also teach your kids to be good to the environment?

My parents were conservative Republicans and I was raised to abhor waste of any kind. They put the word ‘conserve’ in conservative. I have always been a nature boy, but not until about 15 years ago did I connect the dots of human behavior to the environment in a scientific way. My wife Barbara and I have three daughters who care deeply about nature and the environment. One is a writer and author, and much of her work is about a sense of place, and that place is often nature. One got her undergraduate degree in the outdoors, and her advanced degree in landscape architecture. She is a Frederick Law Olmsted scholar out of Cornell University, and is currently the director of Green Infrastructure for the City of New York’s Department of Transportation. Our youngest daughter is a licensed family and marriage therapist, and recognizes the healing effects of a natural environment.

At what point did you realize you wanted to build a home in Excelsior with Green Path, LEED Platinum and Minnesota GreenStar Gold certifications, rather than simply retire in your Minnetonka home?

We raised our three girls in this house, and there is no good reason to heat a home large enough for five when only two live there. Twelve years ago we began planning on downsizing and living smaller lifestyles. In the midst of that planning and savings scheme, we came to understand that whatever we built had to be responsible and represent the ethic of energy efficiency, reduced waste, recycling, repurposing, and leaving a smaller footprint. As a public figure urging others to pay attention to these issues, it was obvious that I had to walk the talk in order to be believable.

Why was it important to you to incorporate sustainable features into your new home?

There are two guiding principles in sustainable housing: The most important is that we can’t keep wasting finite resources. We can’t keep harming the planet. We’ve got to find a way to be responsible to the earth and to future generations. The other is that saving energy and conserving and recycling not only saves resources, it saves money.

What were some of the sustainable features you incorporated?

Recycled tires and sawdust for roofing shingles, permeable pavers made from recycled pop bottles, solar panels on the garage roof, reclaimed wood salvaged from the original home, barns, and bridges, and an extensive water retention system.

What can you tell us about the water-retention system and rain gardens?

My daughter, Lacy, designed the system that captures 94 percent of the roof rainwater in a cistern on which I can draw during the dry months of summer. There are two 3,000-gallon rain gardens, and 4,000-gallon dry well storage beneath the permeable paver driveway that can absorb up to 9 inches of rainfall per hour. I’d like no water to leave my property. The landscape has been designed to hold water on the property and not flush into the lake, the creek, and the river. Water is an essential resource, and fresh water is the most rapidly depleting resource we have. In this country, we use clean drinking water to flush our toilets. Is that crazy, or what? In the new house, I have a gray water recapture system so that used water is plumbed into the toilets.

Why did you choose Landschute to design your new home?

We both love farmhouse/cottage style homes, and Jon and Mary Monson are the masters of that style. Most LEED Platinum, or GreenStar Gold homes suggest post-modern architecture. It is not everyone’s cup of tea. This house looks like it was part of the original neighborhoods of Excelsior 100 years ago. I wanted to be able to show people that they could have any kind of house they wanted, and still be highly energy efficient.

What are some easy ways homeowners can incorporate sustainable features into their own homes?

  • Replace (as things need to be replaced) furnaces, water heaters and air conditioning systems with the highest efficiency items on the market.
  • Insulate and tighten your home so heating and cooling aren’t lost to the outside.
  • Replace windows with high-energy features, like triple-pane argon windows. We have some wonderful local companies making those around here.

Do you think there’s a movement toward green construction, or do we still have a long ways to go?

The movement has already begun, but there is a long way to go. The real effort must be remodeling and re-outfitting existing homes. Older stock homes, which make up the bulk of housing, are highly inefficient and expensive to operate, requiring much more electricity and fossil fuel. If we reinsulated the existing stock of homes in the area, and did nothing else, we would never have to build another
power plant.

In what other ways do you “live green?”

We share a large truck garden and grow a lot of food.  I can for a month at harvest and eat that food during the winter. This new home will be populated with apple trees. We try to shop local, I drive a car that gets 700 miles to a tank of gasoline, and we are mindful about how to plan our trips and chores. Barbara was a recycler-reuser-repurposer long before it was popular. Our parents and grandparents never threw anything away. We compost. After water, good soil is disappearing at an alarming rate. Soon we will be closing the loop in this country and not wasting anything. The things we throw away today can help build the soil tomorrow, they could become the fuels of tomorrow. We will start to behave more like nature. In nature, nothing is wasted.

What message do you hope people take away from your home?

The chief message I’d like people to take away is the ethic behind the idea of building an energy-efficient, conservation-minded home. I realize that most people won’t be able to go out and build  a house from the bottom up like this, but they can employ pieces of the energy efficiency they see in the home. High efficiency insulation and windows can save money by conserving energy and do less damage to the planet. Homeowners can make these changes a little at a time.

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