Living laboratory: Hunts work to model, assist resilience

PINE RIVER--Long before sustainable living was a catch phrase and podcast topic, it was part of Paul and Lynn Hunt's investment in resiliency. Their resilient living campus in Pine River focuses on energy conservation and reducing greenhouse gase...

The Hunt Utilities Group Resilient Living Campus in Pine River has ongoing experiments in several buildings. An open house is planned at the campus on Sept. 20. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch
The Hunt Utilities Group Resilient Living Campus in Pine River has ongoing experiments in several buildings. An open house is planned at the campus on Sept. 20. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

PINE RIVER-Long before sustainable living was a catch phrase and podcast topic, it was part of Paul and Lynn Hunt's investment in resiliency.

Their resilient living campus in Pine River focuses on energy conservation and reducing greenhouse gases, efficient building design and ways to help people use resources so they can live well during economic booms and busts.

Their work uses a two-pronged approach with a for-profit firm based on resilient-living research-Hunt Utilities Group-and a nonprofit-Happy Dancing Turtle- based on education and promoting sustainable living. There are so many initiatives and moving parts on the campus, it's a challenge to corral them in a single conversation, but they are all connected by common threads.

All the campus buildings serve as real-time experiments as concepts take physical form and research data is accumulated on practical ways to live as energy-free as possible-even in Minnesota. The campus includes the Hunts' large home, a multi-family building, a cost-effective duplex, a manufacturing facility and office building. Gardens, plants and art sculpture created in the main office dominate the surrounds.

The main office, or Old Main as its called on campus, was the first building. It's created from straw bales and clay/mud to make an energy-efficient Cob building. Near Old Main is a 2-acre garden, which provides food for the complex staff and nearly 30 participating families taking part in a community-supported agriculture partnership. The families get shares of the garden's vast and varied produce. Ten shares are donated to needy families who then also attend cooking and nutrition classes. And that all ties into the nonprofit's work helping producers with initiatives based on sustainability-healthy soils and water quality. The lush garden on campus, for example, was once a sawdust dump site.


Quinn Swanson, Happy Dancing Turtle sustainability and stewardship program manager, said the campus term takes on even greater significance given Happy Dancing Turtle's focus on education, which isn't typically a component of a business setting or even part of all nonprofits. Happy Dancing Turtle provides classes and workshops, even camping excursions for children, including a camping trip for girls in fifth through eighth grades. The ecological education includes recycled crafts and nature tours, science lessons in the classroom, an after-school nature club, a weeklong ecological day camp focused on nature in the summer, demonstrations, a podcast with the garden crew, and a healthy eating blog. For adults, this month there are courses for a Guide to Greener Living Series offered through community education, covering topics from green cleaning products to reducing the amount of plastic used and reducing overall waste to greener gifting-including using cloth for gift wrapping.

"There is a lot of community engagement as well particularly with the Happy Dancing Turtle side," said Bob McLean, Happy Dancing Turtle executive director.

Multiple events and activities the campus staff members are involved in surround community outreach focused on stewardship and sustainable and profitable farming techniques, from healthy soil to woodland grazing to solar thermal energy.

In-house, Happy Dancing Turtle also has an annual one-day event called Back to Basics, which has adult learning, as well as children's programming. The event-on topics related to sustainability and resiliency-includes about 46 different workshops, keynote speaker, more than 50 vendors, lunch and door prizes. The next Back to Basics is Feb. 2, 2019.

"This continues to get record numbers," McLean said. The event draws about 400-500 people.

Swanson said success for her is hearing about changes made in families, when those attending the Eco Camp tell her of changes they've made at home because of the experience with Happy Dancing Turtle.

"I think that's really powerful," Swanson said.

For Jim Chamberlin, food and water security coordinator with Happy Dancing Turtle, inspiration comes as people have changed eating habits to be healthier. But a lot of the focus recently, he said, has been on a social enterprise process, building a business model as an example that meets the ecological mission and is economical-such as a mobile slaughtering unit. He noted Cass County raises 10,000 to 12,000 cows a year and processing money leaves the area. They submitted a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant and should find out this month how a detailed business plan would work. The business plan would look at processing 480 head of cattle a year.


If people in the Whitefish Chain are worried about water quality they should be worried about how cattle are raised and pasture is managed and then buy from producers who are doing it the right way, Chamberlin said.

Also in the works is raising chickens, originally a forest bird, under hazelnut trees. Chamberlin said they are working with the University of Minnesota to do a varietal trial on campus as a research project, called a Main Street Project, looking at a poultry-centered regenerative agriculture system of a size that can be reproduced in multiple areas.

Chamberlin also initiated bringing shrimpers from the Gulf Coast to the lakes area to speak at several local events this summer as a tie-in to what happens here at the start of the Mississippi River, in soils and water, affects those living and working at the river's southern mouth.

Living laboratory

The Hunts have always been known for putting themselves into projects with full measure and their home on the campus serves as a living laboratory with sensors recording data.

Hunt Utility Group, known by its acronym as HUG, is a resilient research firm, working on research and development looking for marketable products. Ryan Hunt, Paul and Lynn's son, said there have been a lot of different learning curves exploring opportunities. Some projects took two years of analysis. The hope is to create products that will go to market that will help people be resilient so they can ride through the rough economic spots.

"Some of our big goals are making homes that are more resilient by their nature," Ryan Hunt said.

Ryan Hunt graduated from Brainerd Community College at age 16 and earned a double degree in chemistry and chemical engineering at age 20 from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis before he joined his parents at Hunt Technologies.


Ryan Hunt said they took everything they learned about energy efficiency in the first two buildings on campus and put it into an aspirational model in Paul and Lynn Hunt's home, which they call the ARC. The goal was to use eco-building tools to reduce costs to heat the building. Ryan Hunt remembered people saying those tools would be really beneficial for people in poverty. He said the application of saving on energy is for everyone, not just those stretched to pay heating bills.

"Why do you buy a four-wheel drive?" he said. "It costs extra, but it's for peace of mind."

The Hunts moved into the home in late October of 2008 without a heat source and even with frost outside found they could heat the house simply by turning the lights on during the day. Later they installed a heat source with a manual on/off switch. Leaving for a trip, they left the switch off. Even in the following 32 degrees below zero weather two nights in a row, the house-using all the lessons in building techniques for wall insulation and windows-was able to capture passive heat from the sun through the windows to maintain a 66-degree temperature, Ryan Hunt said. When the heat went off at his own home, Ryan Hunt said he was wishing he had what his parents had and eventually worked to that end.

"One of the reason it's taken us so long is that we try these things out and it takes a lot of time to know if they work and if they are stable," Ryan Hunt said. Research begun in 2010 is now getting the maturity it needs, he said.

Lynn Hunt said in 2008 they were looking at the question of whether they should start a housing construction company, but the Great Recession answered that so they looked in other directions. Along the way they have done research on cold fusion on an international live open science platform.

Lynn Hunt said they are now at a point where they've taken all the knowledge gained from the campus buildings to create a resilient core.

"It's resilient mechanicals for housing and you put all those concepts together and integrate them and put them into a core," Lynn Hunt said.

The mechanicals include plumbing, ventilation and air handling.

Ryan Hunt said typically those are separate subcontractors that have to be scheduled at different times in homebuilding.

"A lot of that can be solved if it's pre-designed to set this core in place with everything in it, basically, and you just hook the water up and the sewer up, the electricity up, hook the duct work-the vents through the walls," Ryan Hunt said. "Everything else is taken care of. That's kind of our goal. Now that's relatively conventional and we've got our expertise in super performance buildings, including some composting toilets and water recycling-and then you add a little solar power and you've gotten off-grid utility core and you can set this thing down, build a house around it and you don't have to have pipes or wires. You don't have to have a septic tank."

"So all of those things are coming together in different aspects," Lynn Hunt said. "Right now we are putting our first totally integrated one into a house one of our employees is building. He'll be then the tester of our first integrated system."

McLean said the goal is for this to be affordable as well.

Ryan Hunt said many people think being eco-friendly has to be small and ultra conservative, but if it's sustainable materials and energy efficient the square footage doesn't make a lot of difference. "So I'm all for decadent sustainability," Ryan Hunt said, noting big windows can be part of the mix. He said the buildings can be comfortable, even luxurious and still efficient.

"It's not a large premium to put all the extra insulation in," Ryan Hunt said, noting it's an extra 10-15 percent compared to the finishes people may put inside. "What's the return on investment for your granite countertop?" Ryan Hunt asked.

Lynn Hunt said they are hoping not to go into construction themselves at this point. But there are opportunities to team up with people who are interested in finding ways to build something that is truly affordable, McLean said.

"I think it's exciting they are looking at our utility core as part of the package," McLean said.

The HUGnet system the Hunts developed lets them analyze how systems are working in homes, testing temperature, humidity, airflow, light, pressure sensors and others. The campus has had ongoing discussions with tribal authorities about housing development. Lynn Hunt said they monitor everything to be able to prove the system is actually doing the job it's supposed to be doing.

In the Old Main building where the straw bales are combined with the clay, everything was hand-applied. The result created walls 3 feet thick with large double-pane windows. In-floor heat is supplemented by passive solar with light through the windows. An overhanging roof keeps it cool in the summer along with a well-water cooling system. Sculpture of roots on the main level combines with visions of wings on the second floor. And artistic sculptures are found throughout the building from Egyptian art to a modern bathroom and wildlife on the exterior. The office building covers 4,500 square feet of usable space and costs $89 per month on average for electricity-heat, computers, lights and appliances, the Hunts report. Heating comes from the passive solar and ground source heat pump.

The Mani Shop, short for manifesting, is the campus work space with ongoing research and manufacturing of the Garden Circles, created for affordable raised garden beds using landscape fabric and wire mesh. Most of the sales are online.

The Mani Shop building includes 76 hot air solar panels so the air is heated and then circulated beneath the floor with hot water in-floor heat as a backup. Walls are made of Structural Insulated Panels with a foot of foam insulation between two pieces of plywood. On top is a living roof with a grassy meadow, which cleans the air and cools the building as well as offers a place to take a break from the work space below. With 13,790 square feet of space, it costs $157 per month for electricity to heat the building and run the equipment and lights.

Paul and Lynn Hunt's home uses an insulated concrete form foundation with foam insulation extending horizontally from the slab foundations in the garage and greenhouse. The two-story home has 12-inch thick walls and two sets of double-pane windows, which have about 10 inches of air between them. It's worked so well Ryan Hunt said they've put it in every building they've constructed since. Having the separate frames helped enormously, Paul Hunt said.

On the second floor, ceiling tile lets the natural light flow through to the interior and a design creates a space where the sound bounces off the ceiling and is easily heard in quiet conversation but is kept to the meeting area instead of traveling to other parts of the house.

In a greenhouse off the kitchen, columns of plants in the hydroponic greenhouse filter the house water-from washing clothes to dishes to bathing-up to 300 gallons a day. The water from the well and the gray water from the house use is collected in a tank and then goes through plants, stacked in trays on top of each other nearly about 8 feet tall-120 trays in all.

"It zig-zags its way down through all the plants so it takes a very long path," Paul Hunt said. "The plants on top are rich and lush and ones at the bottom are sparse and kind of yellow." That's a sign the plants are taking all the nutrients out of the water.

The house plants, sitting in activated charcoal, use the impurities in the water as nutrients thus cleaning the water as it trickles through the system. The resulting water is clear as a window pane. The water is then run through a purifier before consumed to be on the safe side, the Hunts report. In addition, the plants provide much needed greenery during a long Minnesota winter and provide natural humidity for the dry winter months. The rust-color went away from the iron and minerals turning Paul Hunt's white hair orange, as did the calcium buildup on fixtures. Paul Hunt said he recommends it for anyone who wants to be a gardener all year-round.

"So this whole place is about 100 research projects going on at the same time," Paul Hunt said of their house.

Inventors, innovators

Ideas have never been in short supply with the Hunts.

Paul and Lynn Hunt founded Hunt Technologies in 1985. They note they were willing to give up a regular paycheck to start their own venture and that commitment meant years of living on little income. But they had two necessary ingredients-belief and persistence. It paid off. They would go on to grow working and inventing from their home to employ more than 200 people in the lakes area. Their company launched the first power line carrier-based automatic meter reading system to be broadly used by electric utilities in 1994. The automated meter reading device, which sent data over established electrical wires, was dubbed The Turtle.

As is the case with many a successful startup company, the work that began in their home in Brainerd moved into a large facility in Pequot Lakes. Lynn Hunt designed the 47,000-square-foot facility with no fixed walls, a lot of natural light, plenty of plants and trees growing inside, its own cafeteria and several areas where employees could find space for themselves. Hunt Technologies was later sold to Bayard Group, a global investor specializing in energy measure and efficiency technologies based in Australia, and work continues at the Pequot Lakes site now known as Landis+Gyr.

The Hunts sold the business in 2001 and put their investment, time and talents into two new ventures-a for-profit company called the Hunt Utilities Group and a nonprofit Happy Dancing Turtle.

Their stated mission was to "put together a coalition of minds to conduct research and development into ways of reducing the world's dependence on carbon-based fuels." Happy Dancing Turtle focuses on environmental education and promoting resilient living-which they describe as a way to live well through good economic times as well as bad ones.

"It makes you less vulnerable to the whims of nature, climate change, politics and marketeers," their website states. "It builds stronger, healthier and happier individuals, families, businesses, communities and ecology by making each of those less vulnerable and needy. Resilience is confidence, based on real skills, knowledge, tools and goods. Our goal is to help everyone move towards living and being truly resilient one step, one skill at a time."

Believers in the power of volunteering and value of donating one's time, the Hunts have continued to do that themselves. Paul and Lynn Hunt were awarded with the Brainerd Lakes Area Community Foundation Award in Philanthropy in 2013. Their staff members are also involved in community engagement and volunteering on area projects on topics ranging from a children's museum to the national loon center.

The family continues to put time into the lakes area communities. In 2015, the Hunt family organized TEDxGullLake, based on the popular TED talks,-Technology, Entertainment and Design-which were founded as a way to share ideas. The first TEDxGullLake theme was based on the art of resilience, focusing on ways to strengthen rural communities.

Open house opportunity

The resilient living campus is hosting a free open house from 5:30-7 p.m. Sept. 20 in Pine River. Staff will be available to talk about updates and guide tours. Light refreshments will be served.

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