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Alumna Sonya Newenhouse holds the blueprint to green living

March 15, 2013

When Sonya Newenhouse was 11, she dreamed of being a carpenter. 

As a graduate student, she was determined to launch her own environmental consulting business.

Today, she’s fulfilled both of those visions and is literally building a greener future. 

Her concept for a line of small, sustainable kit homes – aptly named NewenHouses – for those who want to live lightly on the Earth came to fruition in the fall of 2011 with the completion of a prototype in Viroqua, Wis., which she, her husband and their newly adopted 5-year-old son, Addisu, now call home. 

Sonya Newenhouse and family
Sonya Newenhouse and her husband Cecil Wright
hold their newly adopted son Addisu in Ethiopia.

Newenhouse, who earned a master’s degree (’92) and a Ph.D. (’97) in Land Resources from the Nelson Institute, designed the kit homes to be at least 50 percent smaller than the average new American home (which today measures approximately 2,400 square feet) and 90 percent more energy efficient. The homes will be available in one-, two- and three-bedroom sizes, at 600, 800 and 1,000 square feet, respectively.

But Newenhouse’s toolkit extends beyond green living – she is also the president of Community Car, a Madison-area car sharing organization that serves more than 1,300 members, and founder of the sustainability consulting company Madison Environmental Group, which provides engineering, building design, transportation, research and marketing services to a range of clients. 

On campus, Madison Environmental Group recently served as green building consultants for construction of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, which this fall received a top sustainability award for its innovative and sustainable design, and Union South – both now LEED (Leadership and Environment Energy Design) gold certified buildings.

In 2011, after more than a decade at the helm, Newenhouse sold Madison Environmental Group to fellow Nelson Institute alumna Leah Samson-Samuel (ESC ’98), to allow Newenhouse to focus more on the launch of her sustainable kit homes. She discusses the concept behind these homes, along with advice for others with an entrepreneurial spirit, in this edited interview. 

In Common:
Where did your idea begin for the NewenHouse kit home?

Newenhouse: In order to answer that question I need to back up to Community Car. I started Community Car because I thought it was an effective way to tangibly address global warming and greenhouse gas emissions (29 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Wisconsin come from transportation). But then I learned that the building sector also emits a lot of greenhouse gases and has a large environmental footprint. So I thought we need to get into the building sector more aggressively. 

"If there’s only one thing
you remember about this
house, it’s that they’re so
well built they do not require
a furnace, even in Wisconsin

Here is where my passion comes in from when I was little. Basically, at [the age of] 46, I am fulfilling my childhood fantasy – I wanted to be a carpenter in a big way. Growing up in the 1970s, I was into the green homes of the decade; I wanted to build a little cabin at my parent’s farm. That never happened, but now I’m realizing my dreams in a bit different way. 

I’m really combining something strategic, of offering a new product to customers who want to live simply and reduce their ecological footprint, but also having fun and providing something that I’ve always loved: houses, nesting, building and being creative in that way. 

What are some of the features the kit homes will include?

What we’re providing are sustainable, super-insulated small kit homes, following the Sears Roebuck service model. Our largest house that we’ll sell will always be half the size of the average new American home.

If there’s only one thing you remember about this house, it’s that they’re so well built they do not require a furnace, even in Wisconsin winters. They only require 1,300 watts of electric heat – the equivalent of one hair dryer. 

Our walls are 18 inches thick; it’s a double wall system with blown-in, dense-packed cellulose insulation. We have a very efficient, quiet, heat recovery ventilation unit. We have triple-glazed, insulated windows from Canada. We have more than two feet of insulation in the attic and one foot of insulation under the slab. 

We have a detached three-season porch, which is attached to a storage room that has a root cellar underneath, so it really provides the opportunity for green living as well. This 270-square-foot stuga (meaning cabin in Swedish) also includes a guest loft and wood stove for winter visitors. 

I’m trying to intersect three movements: the green building movement, the small home movement and the sustainable lifestyle movement. I think there’s a gap in the products out there for housing. There might be green homes, but they’re not smaller. Or there might be a green home that’s actually not so much designed for green living. 

What has it been like to watch this vision become reality? Have you encountered any challenges you didn’t anticipate or that are unique 
to building a home like this?

Newenhouse in winter
The Newenhouse prototype in Viroqua. The kit homes
will be at least 50 percent smaller than the average new
American home and 90 percent more energy efficient.

I thought we would sell just like Sears Roebuck did: the lumber, the nails, everything you need to build this on your job site. But as I started the building process I realized that wasn’t very efficient and not very effective; it would be very difficult to store and access all of the materials during construction. 

So rather, we’ll be selling everything you can’t buy at your local lumber yard – the specialty materials that make this a sustainable, energy efficient house. We’ll be selling, for example, the windows, the doors, the heat recovery ventilation unit, the handmade tile and the sustainable, custom-made kitchen cabinets. And of course the detailed construction documents and design, because it’s not difficult, it’s just a different way of living. 

And then we’ll also sell, with the kit, our consulting services. So a homeowner could call us and we could have weekly or monthly phone calls just to help them along as they work with their contractors. 

It was wonderful to be my own general contractor for this first home because I was putting myself in the shoes of my future customers. 

You’ve been holding open houses at the NewenHouse prototype. What has the public response been like?

People are coming from all over because I have a blog in Natural Home magazine. We even had somebody from South Dakota on their way through the Midwest. 

It’s so much fun to see people’s reactions; they just love it and they still cannot believe it only needs [the equivalent of] one hair dryer to heat the house. 

Newenhouse plansThe Newenhouse floor plan, courtesy Sonya Newenhouse and Madison Environmental Group.

Most people also are surprised that it’s only 970 square feet on the inside. It feels much bigger, but that’s because the design is so efficient. The first floor is a completely open floor plan; the kitchen, dining and living rooms are all open to each other. Upstairs, in the three bedrooms, all the walls are painted white and the windows are large to bring in sun. 

Visitors appreciate the efficient use of space and details. Our stair treads, for example, open for storage. We’re bringing in borrowed light. In the stairwell, we have a salvaged window that brings in light from the outdoor stairwell window into the interior bathroom window on the first floor. We have three or four spots in the house where we have interior windows, which is unusual. 

Many Nelson Institute students are interested in careers that involve consulting on sustainability and environmental issues. What advice would you share with them?

My advice is to get engaged in the professional community while you’re in school. So for example, maybe you pick a nonprofit that you’re excited about, local or national, and try to get involved – not just to gain professional experience, but to keep having experiences to hone in what it is you really like doing. 

Everyone needs volunteers. So you go to a conference on some topic that you’re really interested in and you volunteer. And through that volunteering you’re gaining both professional experience and you’re learning what your passions are. 

"Follow your passion
and do your homework.
I take risks, but they’re
calculated, thoughtful
and deliberate."

[As a student] at the Nelson Institute I became a board member of a statewide nonprofit. Sometimes younger people think nonprofits might not think they’re experienced enough, that they need more experience to be a board member, but many boards are intentionally trying to diversify by having younger members on their boards. And environmental organizations need more women and diversity on their boards. 

If you’re a go-getter, don’t be shy to seek a leadership role in the area you’re interested in through volunteering. And if you’re too intimidated to be on a board, start on a committee level. 

I have learned so many leadership skills from sitting on boards. You’re just absorbing, like a sponge, and continually learning. And at the same time that you’re gaining experience, you’re giving back. 

Don’t wait for a job announcement, don’t wait for a volunteer opportunity announcement, just seek out organizations – for-profit or nonprofit – that you’re interested in and go for it. Or volunteer for your local politician – you meet so many people. 

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Follow your passion and do your homework. I take risks, but they’re calculated, thoughtful and deliberate. 

You can’t just follow your passion and not be smart about it; you need to do your homework. So if you can knit your passion and your skills, but you can hone your skills, you can keep learning. 

And stay connected with the Nelson Institute. I feel so fortunate; my closest friends are the graduate school friends I made at the Nelson Institute. Today they’re still my dearest friends and people I seek advice from.

Open-door policy

Sonya Newenhouse hosts open houses at her NewenHouse prototype in Viroqua, Wis., usually on the fourth Friday of every month. You can find more information and a link to Sonya’s blog about the house at Or contact her for a private tour: 608-220-8029,

If you’re interested in the small house movement, or in living more mindfully in whatever space you have, Newenhouse recommends the book Little House on a Small Planet: Simple Homes, Cozy Retreats and Energy Efficient Possibilities, by Shay Salomon.