HUG Visit

I had been on the hunt for a group like HUG for some time. Our group, the Twin Cities Ecovillage Project, has talked since the early days about using alternative building materials and techniques that would be more regenerative and efficient than the current standards. Many such alternatives exist, but we face specific challenges in the land of 10,000 fluctuations in weather. For example, one of my favorite possible building styles, earthships, faces many challenges in those months when “zero” is considered “a little warm.”

Hunt Utilities Group (aka HUG) is a research and development company in Pine River, MN that is seeking ways to reduce the world’s dependence on carbon-based fuels. I discovered their companies (I’ll get to the pluralization in a minute) while searching for practical ways to build green in the Minnesota climate. Their “Who We Are” page sold me.

“The Hunts believe it is everybody’s duty to use the resources they have to make the world a better place.” At the same time they formed HUG, they also created the Happy Dancing Turtle non-profit. While HUG designs, builds, and sells products to support what they call “resilient living,” Happy Dancing Turtle shares their knowledge, especially with young people. It sounds like a too-good-to-be-true place with a too-good-to-be-true mindset. I had to see it for myself.

HUNT owns a large plot of land in Pine River, where they’ve built six buildings and counting. Each building has been a living experiment, testing many different ideas in what they call “resilient living.” It sounded perfect! The Seedling Ecovillage organized a (safe, socially-distanced and masked) visit for its founding members and friends to the HUG campus.

Pine River is about 3 hours away from the Twin Cities, an hour north of Brainerd. A few of us camped the night before in a State Forest. Did you know about “dispersed camping?” I didn’t, but now I’m sold! It’s definitely “roughing it,” but gives you a chance to explore some lovely, remote places.

A small lake
Our dispersed camping site

We met mid-morning at the back of the HUG campus, parking behind their largest building. I later learned that they called this building “The Manifesting Shop,” which is where most of their R&D work happens. As I drove, I didn’t think any of the homes on the campus seemed that unusual from a distance.

The eponymous Paul Hunt, along with Ryan Hunt, greeted us outside. Before a tour of the campus, we chatted about HUG’s history and its place in Pine River. “We wanted to be pushing the ragged edge of what we can do,” Paul Hunt explained as we collected at a distance around a gazebo. They had worked with the community before acquiring land in Pine River, explaining their vision for the campus.

Part of the group meeting in the gazebo
Hanging out in the gazebo before the tour.

The “Old Main,” as HUG calls it was the first building we visited. It is a large straw-bale home, meant for both office and personal use. Approaching, the first thing I noticed was the large wall of southern-facing windows, protected by what looked to me like an oversized eave. The southern wall stands at least thirty feet tall, with two rows of large windows. Solar orientation, as Ryan Hunt pointed out to us, is one of the easiest ways to improve the efficiency of a home.

The exterior walls are three-feet thick, much wider than the minimum recommended eighteen inches. They sealed both the interior and exterior walls with a traditional cob mixture. As we rounded the building to approach the northern entrance, a fire-breathing dragon greeted us from the wall. “Once you get your hands in the mud, everyone’s a kid again,” Paul Hunt explained. Magical sculptures covered the entire wall. A dragon, a fox, oversized mushrooms, hanging bats, trees, and more. Inside, too, we saw playful touches everywhere, including a cob-sculpted bathroom styled to look like it could have been found in ancient Egypt.

A drag carved out of cob
The dragon greeted us with a smile and a bird's nest behind the ear.

With this building, HUG had wanted to test the limits of both cob and straw bale. They quickly discovered one of the big drawbacks of this building style, especially with such large bales. “Only the poorest and the richest can afford to build that way,” Paul Hunt said. It’s a labor-intensive process, and though the construction materials were less expensive than what would go into some of their later buildings, it ended up costing comparable to the expense of a traditionally built home. “Meeting code is the expensive part,” explained Ryan. Still, their experiments with the Old Main are paying off. The average utility bill for 4,500 square feet of space is about $89 each month.

Cob-made Egyptian bathroom
The Egyptian-style bathroom told the story of the campus

We visited the ARC next, which Paul calls, “Half house, half business and meeting space, half research lab, and half greenhouse.” If that sounds like two halves more than a whole, you’re right. Paul and Lynn currently live in the ARC. When they built it, they wanted a place that made people say “I could live here.” With 3,800 square feet of living space and another 1,080 square feet for a hydroponic greenhouse, it’s incredibly spacious. Their average monthly electric bill? $54.

Lavishly carved wooden door
The hand-carved door that marked the entrance of the ARC.

For the ARC, HUG created a super-insulated box, with a foundation set in an insulated concrete form, and walls made from foot-thick structural insulated panels (SIPs.) Thanks to the thickness of the walls, they used a pair of double-pane glass for each window. They have found that two double-pane windows cost less and performed better than one triple-pane window.

As impressive as the R-50 insulated walls and the R-100 blown cellulose under the roof were, the real star (and heart) of the ARC for me was their “water processing plant.” Just off of the dining area, Paul opened the door to a room where they had converted one of the two original solariums into a literal water processing plant. The room teemed with foliage and sounded like a babbling brook. It was relaxing, tropical, like entering a greenhouse.

Water filtration system in HUG
The "water processing plant" inside ARC

In the room, HUG had installed four double-sided towers. On each side of the tower, they had stacked 15 trays filled with hydroponic plants seated in activated charcoal. The greywater from their home, up to 300 gallons each day, trickles from the ceiling onto the top-most trays. Over the day, the water slowly drains through the series of plants. The plants draw nutrients from the water and purify it. After one last pass through a purifier, the water is clean and drinkable. Before installing this processing plant, Hunt told us that their water supply was making them sick, too much magnesium and iron. Now, they could bottle and sell it. As a bonus, in the winter months, they can leave open the door and bump up the humidity in the house.

Paul introduced us to another one of their innovations, and their current product, in the garage. Their Tank Hydronics system is a brilliant way to control radiant floor plumbing, which is traditionally notorious for being expensive to repair and maintain. In essence, their system is a series of pond pumps connected to a controller and set in an open tank. I won’t dive into the details. Their website explains them well. We did dive into the details during our visit, however. Both Dylan Linet and Katie Ibes, TCEP trustees, geeked out with Paul and Ryan about the device, which can run on a 12 volt battery!

Our last stop was the “Mani Shop,” short for Manifesting Shop, which is a gigantic engineering laboratory and playground. The 13,760 square foot workshop houses 3d printers, CNC machines, oscilloscopes, power tools of all kinds, and more. The average electric bill? $157/month.

The Mani Shop
Paul explains the Tank Hydronics system in the Mani Shop

Paul and Ryan lead us through the shop, showing off some of their old and new projects, including a composting toilet that used wood chips, an enormous lazy Susan, and worms, which hadn’t required maintenance or a change of material in the 2 years since they had installed it. We saw a few machines they’ve used to run experiments with cold fusion (really), as well as a few more prototypes of their Tank Hydronics system.

Plants growing in the Mani Shop solarium
A small portion of the plants that grow in the Mani Shop solarium

We wrapped up the tour on the shop’s expansive living roof. It was a beautiful day. The sky was clear and bright, and a gentle breeze rippled in waves the plants on the roof. After a day of seeing all sorts of inventive ways to create a strong barrier between our indoor and outdoor worlds, standing on the Mani Shop’s green roof was a perfect reminder of the reason behind all of HUG’s work. Earlier in the day, Ryan Hunt had summarized how all utilities, from fossil fuel generators to passive solar collectors, work in three simple steps.

  • Capture the energy of the sun.
  • Hold on to it.
  • Circulate it.

On that day, on their roof, with the late-summer sun warming my body, I thought about how even our bodies follow those same three principles. I also considered HUG’s mission, what they’ve learned and built, and I felt immense gratitude for the way they circulated their knowledge and energy with us.

A group standing on the green rooftop of HUG
A green end to a sunny day.