Economics, environment at heart of rural house project



By Adam Johnson, F&C Construction Writer, Finance and Commerce? November 28, 2006


Workers are preparing to put the finishing touches on a house in Aitkin that represents a rare collaboration between environmental and economic interest groups in rural Minnesota.



The 1,300-square-foot demonstration house sports flooring and external siding certified by the Forest Stewardship Council—which is why people are calling it the “FSC Home.”



Using wood certified by the international standard-bearer for sustainable forestry was, in fact, a primary motivator for the project, said Ross Wagner, Aitkin County’s economic development director and forest industry coordinator. Construction of the FSC Home is part of an effort to supply low-cost housing for the county’s residents.


Aitkin County holds the distinction of being the first public land managers to achieve certification from the 14-year-old forestry organization. But the county’s interest in the project – partially funded by a grant from the McKnight Foundation – went beyond responsible forestry, as did the interests of the project developer.



Dovetail Partners, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that encourages rural economic development, took on its first residential project with the FSC Home in order to promote housing construction as a development tool in rural Minnesota. St. Paul-based Talor Building Systems is the project’s construction manager.



The builder used in-floor radiant heating, natural lighting and other energy-efficient building practices to ensure the house is inexpensive to operate. But unlike many energy-efficient houses on the market, the FSC Home also boasts a triple-threat of populist building practices: local resources, environmentally friendly practices and low construction costs.


Some of the internal work won’t be complete until the end of the year, so project officials declined to put a price on final construction costs. But Dovetail project developer Alison Lindburg said the price would meet state criteria for “affordable housing,” and should be well under $200,000.



The emphasis on local resources is part of Dovetail’s mission, said Katie Fernholz, executive director of the organization.


“The premise behind our ‘eco-affordable’ housing program is that we know these rural communities need houses,” Fernholz said. “And whether for social reasons or economic reasons, contractors are looking to make these local connections and get more inroads into these communities.”


That desire led Talor to work with Snowy Pines Reforestation, which supplied the FSC-certified wood from nearby Browerville.



The local, family-owned business has been planting trees and promoting forest stewardship for almost 30 years, but the FSC Home provided a rare opportunity to put their certified product to use on a larger scale.



“It was just a breath of fresh air,” said Greg Nolan, co-owner of Snowy Pines. “To have done all those years of work and get everything certified, and finally we got an order and can make some money.”


Nolan’s own focus is not only on doing business locally, but on sustainable agriculture. Almost half of the logs Nolan saws come from dying or damaged trees and local salvage operations. He’s also committed to energy reduction, powering his shop with 20 solar panels and air drying most of his wood.



“We have a really different way of looking at kiln drying, and energy for that matter,” he said, noting that his drying techniques aren’t revolutionary so much as old fashioned. “We just really think it’s a sin how much energy gets put into wood today.”


Like Snowy Pines, other businesses hired to work on the FSC Home share an interest in supporting local businesses with an environmental bent.


“We’re trying to bring all these things together on this project,” Fernholz said. “Economic development is part of it, but the environmental benefits are absolutely important as well.”


For Talor, the primary driving force behind their work is to reduce construction costs, which will provide economic benefits to northern Minnesota, where building subcontractors and suppliers have not kept pace with similar jobs in urban areas.


Steve Eskelson, vice president of operations at Talor, compared the company’s goals to those of auto pioneer John Ford.


“He made automobiles affordable for the people who were actually making automobiles,” Eskelson said. “We are focused on [business] models that look at how you can reduce costs to the point where housing is affordable to the average person.”


To that end, the company pre-builds framed walls and assembles them on-site like a jigsaw puzzle, significantly reducing construction time and labor costs. The FSC Home was a prime example of that speed.



“Our main bailiwick is to get the shell of the building up,” Eskelson said. “Within three days, we had the roof up and shingles going on.”


Though the project employed a St. Paul construction manager, much of the labor on the project was hired locally; Dovetail is looking to use the FSC Home project as a model for local job growth that others can follow.


And with Aitkin County officials interested in providing more affordable housing, the potential exists for similar projects in the coming years.

“Certainly the green building market in the urban areas is humming along, but there’s really a gap in getting those projects to rural communities,” Fernholz said. “And with these forest-dependant communities, there are perfect opportunities to help local economies. We’re definitely looking to repeat this project.”