Attempting to leave the Dickensian Era

As a child of hippy parents, Sean McLoughlin grew up living off-grid in the mountains of Taos, N.M. The fall was spent compiling the wood pile that heated their house for the winter. As they waited for spring, and the wood dwindled, use of each log became a conscious choice. Did they really need it?

Today, McLoughlin — a licensed general contractor with a small remodeling company — uses his 25 years of skills in construction, his belief in the market economy, and his passion around sustainable energy use to create what he intends to become a new model in affordable, environmentally sound housing.

As founder of the nonprofit Carbon Zero Home (CZH), he is working toward building smarter housing stock that generates its own power and provides Minneapolis residents the opportunity to have a more tangible and personal connection with energy use.

For example, someone he knows closely and who knows about his lifelong interest in reducing our carbon footprint overheard him talking about our reliance on coal. She was taken aback. Didn’t coal use end around the era of Charles Dickens?

Because we’re no longer shoveling it into the furnaces of our basements or trains, he realizes, we are divorced from understanding just how much we rely on centralized fossil-fuel energy sources that are, in fact, coal-burning plants. We turn on a light switch in our home, and all we know about energy use starts there.

“Energy is a fundamental part of our life, and we know nothing about it,” he said.

[In a similar vein, Timothy DenHerder-Thomas of Cooperative Energy Future, explains it this way: if we were all made to bring out a bag of coal to the garbage bin each week like we do our trash, we might have a better understanding of how much we are personally sending into the atmosphere every day.]

McLoughlin believes it is the marketplace that will lead the transition to energy efficiencies, not necessarily government. He believes dysfunction tends to exist at the city level — including our own.

“The market can make corrections in ways that government cannot,” he said.


City policy as obstacle 

As McLoughlin and other local architects and housing builders/designers discussed at the Dec. 14 “Sustainable We” forum — third in the monthly series of interconnected topics — city policy can stand in the way of making bigger steps toward the energy changes we need in housing stock if Minneapolis is to meet its 2030 Climate Action Plan goals.

In McLoughlin’s case, his nonprofit was awarded in June the contract to rehabilitate a century-old “Brick House” project in the Hawthorne EcoVillage. After multiple issues at the city level, he hopes to finally have a building permit to work on the property this month — five months after he first attempted to get it.

One of the biggest hold-ups involved asbestos. The City of Minneapolis sold the house to Project for Pride in Living, which contracted with CZH to perform the rehab, with the stipulation that a permit be pulled as a condition of sale. 

However, in a true Catch-22, the city also required the asbestos to be removed before the permit could be issued. “PPL was understandably uncomfortable spending money on a house they didn’t own, and so around the mulberry bush we went — at least a dozen times, per my count — before everyone agreed to what would happen first,” McLoughlin said.

He understands why the Catch-22 exists. For safety reasons, asbestos needs to be removed before any other works occurs.

“During the foreclosure crisis, a lot of property was sold to developers and contractors who left the asbestos in place and put houses back on the market in unsafe condition. They were shaving costs. The city’s only means to insure asbestos abatement happens is to withhold the permit,” he said.

In the end, PPL was required to spend more than $6,000 to remove the asbestos. “More than necessary, in my opinion,” McLoughlin said. “We will also spend a lot money removing the lead paint from inside the house.  I am licensed by the EPA to remove lead, but HUD requires a state license — which requires a hefty investment to obtain — so the lead will be abated by others.”

Developing affordable housing around environmentally unsafe properties is an expensive process. As many house designers have told me, in Q&A interviews for, there are not a lot of incentives to truly invest in improving our existing housing stock with more energy efficient, environmentally sound retrofits.

“It’s one of the great ironies of affordable housing,” McLoughlin said. “The same [rehab] work costs more than it does in an upscale neighborhood. Well-intentioned people trying to solve a large problem get bogged down in rule-making, bureaucracy, and protecting their own interests.”

As we explore throughout the Sustainable We forum series, there is no one bright shining solution. These group discussions are designed to ultimately help more residents understand ‘what we don’t know about what we don’t know,’ and lead to some consensus about what we can do now to make smarter choices.

His optimism is in the marketplace to help change happen more quickly. The costs of solar energy are dropping, he noted, like personal computers and cell phones did. “Remember how hard it was for many of us to give up the landline phone?” McLoughlin told MPLS Green. “And look where we are now.” 

Mikki Morrissette is the founder of and the “Sustainable We” forums, designed to lift up and celebrate the innovators in our midst who are working to resolve issues of sustainability.