Walking the Walk: Jeff Lutsey is living his principles

There’s hardly a minute in any day when Jeff Lutsey isn’t battling climate change – with such commitment, in fact, that when the Climate Change Coalition (CCC) of Door County offered him the position of executive director, he needed to make sure he would have enough time to dedicate to CCC’s mission while pursuing his own environmentally friendly projects.

In late summer 2022 – while organizing a countywide planting of 1,000 trees, and booking speakers to teach people how to conserve the soil on their properties and create highly efficient homes – Lutsey also secured building permits for a home built to his specifications for future renters and designed to become one of the most energy-efficient homes in northeastern Wisconsin.

CCC co-chair Roy Thilly said the nonprofit organization needed to take a step forward by adding a paid executive director, and in Lutsey, they found someone with real-world engineering, electricity-generation and business experience, as well as a person who “walks the walk” in the war on climate change, both in his CCC role and in his free time.

Jeff Lutsey is building energy-efficient homesites at his Boreal Preserve property in Baileys Harbor. Photo by Jeff Lutsey.

Lutsey is the son of one of the founders of Waseda Farms, the Jacksonport pasture-fed-cattle raisers. The Northwestern University engineering graduate worked for two decades in the private sector training military personnel on small nuclear reactors and designing reactors as well.

He could reside in a mansion on a large, luxurious estate. Instead, he lives in a rather small, thickly insulated home on a half-acre lot with an all-natural landscape and a German Hugelkultur (mound) garden. Designed by Frank Lloyd Wright–inspired and Taliesin-trained architect Chad Cornette, Lutsey’s boxy home with angled roof lines and overhangs has heated floors and huge windows: perfect for viewing Northern Door’s dark skies with the naked eye or through his telescope. His efficiently appointed, 1.5-bath home has an office loft instead of a second bedroom. 

He also plans to share his 40 acres with neighbors who are willing to rent or build small, energy-efficient, fairly affordable homes surrounded not by lawns, but instead by woods on one side and meadow and new trees on the other.

After moving back to northeastern Wisconsin from near the East Coast, Lutsey realized how hard it had become to find an affordable house or apartment in Door County. His idea for developing a small, environmentally friendly subdivision took root a few years ago after he attended a CCC presentation about high-performance homes given by renowned green architect Virge Temme.

“Early in 2020, I was looking for something in the middle of the peninsula and near Fish Creek, Baileys Harbor, Sister Bay and Ephraim – mostly to serve the community by creating small workforce housing close by those communities,” Lutsey said.

“My house is 920 square feet with a garage, and a second house I built is 1,200 square feet,” he said of an energy-efficient house that he plans to provide to long-term renters. That house, which benefits from solar panels on his machine shed, sits just south of his home. 

While selling lots to similarly inspired buyers, Lutsey received permits to build one more house just to the south of the first two. That one, designed by Temme as a “super energy-efficient” home, will have triple-pane windows, and around the exterior, double walls will have air voids between two layers of insulation.

“After that, my dream is to sell lots where everyone builds their small dream home and natural lot. I’ll live in this one and build the next two and rent them out long term,” Lutsey said of his smaller, simple home. “The footprint is small. It’s energy-efficient. I have a heat pump as well as hydronic, in-floor heating for winter.”

He noted that at one time, heat pumps were not trusted in northern climates, but now most local HVAC companies recommend using them for efficiency and efficacy whenever people need to replace old furnaces and air-conditioning systems.

Lutsey’s subdivision has covenants: The maximum home size is 1,500 square feet; no detached garages are allowed other than his initial one; and the goal is to “keep the exteriors of the small homes aesthetically simple using native materials the best you can – wood and stone. We’ll urge people to use native landscaping on their half-acre lots.”

Lutsey said he will keep data on each of the first three homes to track their energy use or electricity production. He will then compile records and comparisons of their construction prices and the costs of their energy-saving measures and share that information so that neighbors and most likely the CCC can determine which measures are best for them.

“Most of the people in my generation, and a whole bunch of the people who moved here in the same five-year period as [I did], don’t all want what is the normal Door County dream, which is a five-acre plot and a big house,” Lutsey said. “They really want a small home base and house, but to balance that with staying close to nature and living close to everything.”

He thought the longtime “deer-hunting parcel” that he’d bought south of Grove Road and a mile west of Highway 57 was perfect for his purposes. Along the woods that separate a rolling meadow on the western third of the property and a sandier meadow on the eastern third, he found huge stone fences and piles of rocks left behind by farmers’ futile, year-after-year rock-picking efforts. Lutsey figures a farmer surrendered the worse-than-marginal fields back to nature as long as a century ago.

He said that grasses, “typical Door County weeds” and a few invasives such as showy, pink knapweed flowers inhabit much of the meadow. He will plant trees on much of the land and hopes to foster some prairie, even if the county had mostly woodland and hardly any true prairie prior to settlement.

Jeff Lutsey’s home. Photo courtesy of Jeff Lutsey.

“We need more trees, and we need to help our native ecosystem, so why not use a good amount of this meadow to replant and reforest, and also to bring a lot more native flowers back?” he asked.

Lutsey discovered a few treasured native plants – milkweed and St. John’s wort – in the meadow among the grasses, plus some coreopsis on a remote, sandy rise.

In addition to demonstrating how to live more efficiently, he’s promoting a new, countywide composting effort. He’s been composting his nonmeat food waste, coffee grounds and eggshells, and he also picks up compost from a Baileys Harbor business, Heirloom, and two local homeowners. 

Lutsey is following the example set by Mighty Wind Farms, which has steadily improved its large gardens’ soil, layer by layer, after taking in compostable materials from 10 local restaurants.

“They are the hero farm for me. They have been a cool partner,” he said of the Mighty Wind operators who taught him which materials to introduce into the compost mix and which ones not to allow in.

Lutsey, the CCC and local volunteers got serious about the new Door Community Composting Initiative in 2022. By autumn, 10 entities had signed up to host compost sites – in addition to Lutsey’s drop-off on a circle drive on his land – at locations from Washington Island all the way down to Sturgeon Bay.

But he’s also focused on CCC’s goals. The organization works to help Door County residents and visitors adapt to climate change and to demonstrate how communities working together can do their part to reduce the impact.

“I’ll be here for as long as it takes to do our mission,” Lutsey said. “I love it.” 

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