HUG, A living laboratory for building tomorrow’s resilient communities


by Corrine Bruning, CERTs Research Assistant - February 2011

The Hunt Utilities Group (HUG) has been involved with CERTs over the last five years, and is a leader in the research, development and application of technologies and methods that support sustainable living and environmental stewardship. We want to take this opportunity to highlight the history of their work and involvement in Minnesota communities.

Hunt Utilities Group pursues research through a “living laboratory” on their campus in Pine River, MN, specializing in sustainable living, renewable energy, and high efficiency sustainable housing. Their ideas foster entrepreneurship and community as their work inspires innovation and explores new and creative ways to build sustainable community.

Introduction and History

The Hunt Utilities Group (HUG) is the creative product of Paul and Lynn Hunt, who after a very successful business venture, decided that the most important thing they could do would be to help communities, buildings, and people become more resilient. They decided to create a research campus where people could learn, teach, and practice ways to live resiliently.

They envisioned a campus on a sizable piece of land within walking distance of a downtown. In 2003, they found land that fit that description near Pine River and started their first building.

Pulling into the parking area, visitors encounter HUG’s first cob “old main” building with a playful and nature scene cut into its exterior entrance. Today, cob isn’t a material that is often used in building construction, but it has been used since prehistoric times and many very old cob structures can still be found across the world. Today, HUG’s work with cob is displayed as a leader among do-it-yourself cob-home builders across the country and represents HUG’s first foray into their search for a simpler, cheaper, more localized way to build and live.

Old Main is a two story building with a bright and open interior due to the large south facing windows on both the upper and lower levels. There is a wide open meeting space and kitchen on the lower level, and offices on the upper level where Kathy Hoefs, Paul and Ryan Hunt, Bob McLean and many other people do the work to make HUG a reality.

The HUG ‘campus’, as they call it, is scattered with a couple of different buildings all in quest to develop an Agricultural Resilient Community. Such a community includes:

  • Homes/multifamily dwellings that have connected greenhouses that provide food and a connection to nature
  • Super energy efficient buildings that contains the full cycles of water and waste
  • A focus on local resilience, and local economy.
  • Healthy people and a strong sense of community

It is the mission of HUG to do research on how to make efficient and sustainable buildings for sustainable communities and ultimately provide a more enjoyable lifestyle.

With each building they move closer to their goal. They have identified the easily cost-effective strategies, such as implementing south facing windows for passive solar. They have also encountered the true challenges to building sustainable buildings, such as the cost of some of the materials.

Paul Hunt, “We love cob, it is earthy and warm and artistic. It can make (and has made) wonderful houses that last 1000 years. It also takes a lot of manual labor. That makes it very difficult to sell in the United States. Cob also requires learning how to treat it properly and maintaining it. We want to design buildings that use sustainable materials but that contractors are also more familiar with.”

In some of their later buildings, including the houses they now live in, HUG did a lot of research on the most efficient products, used them, and figuring out ways to mimic efficient products with more economical materials and technologies.

Projects and CERTs Involvement

Hunt Utilities Group has the unique capability to imagine, innovate, and implement—they make dreams and ideas a full and livable reality. They live among their work, letting their next ideas and curiosities emerge from their community, and learning from their built environment. CERTs has had the privilege of partnering on three of their major projects on campus through the Central CERT Seed Grants.

HUGnet: As one of their most recent developments, HUGnet is set to revolutionize community-based energy projects. HUGnet is an open source software program that collects data (temperature, heat flow, humidity, light, air quality) from sensors located amongst energy projects around the HUG campus, allowing them to use this information to optimize future projects. These sensors shoot data to a central database, which then posts near real-time results on to their website. The goal is to make the software user friendly, so almost any layperson can pick it up and understand with little direction what the numbers mean. Thus, Scott Price, creator of HUGnet, engineer, and IT manager, has been working to overlay the data onto pictures of where it is coming from, say the south side exterior wall of a house. This information can be used to know how to store heat better, where cold spots are, and how well buildings are performing.

Residential Heat Storage: Residential Heat Storage is a heating system where a homeowner/building manager can take heat from another heat source such as a hot water heater, and store it for other heating uses. In the HUG system, they drew heat from their hot water through a system of pipes and into an underground mass, in this and most cases, a large amount of compacted sand. The heat stored in the dense sand mass radiates upward into a living space over the span of a few days. This is generally excess heat that would be lost in the heating process. By capturing the wasted heat off the water heater, the energy to the heat the water in the first place is more completely and efficiently used.

Residential Greenhouse: HUG’s research group set out to build a research greenhouse that let them test some design ideas that could possibly provide the food for a community and energy simultaneously. The goal for the greenhouse was to “stack functions” much like the principles of permaculture. “A greenhouse that is part of a residence seems to have a lot of functions going for it. It gathers huge amounts of solar heat in the winter. Even at night, it buffers the south side of the house from losing heat. It adds wonderful space to a house. It helps clean and humidify the air (saving more energy). It helps feed the occupants,” says Paul Hunt.

Building Community around Community-Building

HUG works under the premise that “people can only be resilient when their neighbors are resilient too.” This means HUG considers the whole community, and is one of the reasons why they chose a smaller town, Pine River in Cass County to be their home base. Cass County has been very supportive of their goals, and Pine River is also very active as a GreenStep City.

HUG is a catalyst striving for total community sustainability. They are involved with and support numerous organizations and community initiatives. Such as:

  • GreenStep Cities
  • CERTs Biennial Conference
  • Central CERT Steering Committee
  • Region Five Development Commission’s Sustainable Communities Regional Planning Consortium (funded by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)
  • Regional Renewable Roundtable forums
  • Lakeland TV Board
  • Initiative Foundation Regional Loan Committee

In the future, Hunt Utilities Group imagines innovating whole neighborhoods to be multifunctional, heating and cooling themselves while feeding the occupants and recycling nutrients. Paul says, “Resilient communities stay enjoyable and abundant while facing the upcoming changes in both the environment and society. Those neighborhoods will catalyze resilient communities on a larger scale.”


Cob, Miracle of the Earth: Cob is a building material generally composed of clay-based soil or sub-soil, straw, and water, and mixed at the site of building like concrete. It is fireproof and inexpensive (but labor intensive), and serves as an excellent thermal mass, storing and providing heat in the winter and keeping interiors cool in the summer.

Bio: Paul Hunt, Senior Partner: Paul has over 35 years experience designing and building technical solutions, along with the business infrastructure to implement them. He is the founder of Hunt Technologies, Inc. where he designed and sold an innovative new way to remotely read electric meters and was named the “Fastest growing technology company in Minnesota.” He and Lynn started the Hunt Utilities Group (HUG) in 1998 and in 2003, the campus became a living research laboratory for resilient community living.

Permaculture, Eco-oriented Design: Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that are modeled on the relationships found in natural ecosystems. It directs how you grow food, build your environment, provide energy, and all other functions needed for human and planet survival in the most ecological permanent way possible.

Bio: Lynn Hunt, Senior Partner: Lynn is a 15-year entrepreneurial veteran managing high tech companies. Armed with an MBA from Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, Lynn capably has worn hats that cover most managerial issues and also technology issues through the development and successful of Hunt Technologies and now the Hunt Utilities Group, LLC. There are more ideas for companies floating around in Lynn’s head than can ever be handled by one Woman, but she is going to try and build a few more companies before her great grandchildren arrive and she is too busy to build anymore.

Bio: Bob McLean, Chief Operations Officer: Bob provides operational and strategic direction for the companies founded by Paul & Lynn Hunt including Hunt UtilitiesGroup,LLC and Resilient Properties Management, LLC. He is also provides support for the Hunt’s non-profit: Happy Dancing Turtle. McLean also serves on the board and is secretary/treasurer and chair of the endowment committee.

For more information about the Hunt Utilities Group, contact the Hunts at 218-587-5001, or visit their website The HUG campus is located at 2331 Dancing Wind Road South West, Pine River, MN 56474.

Relates to the following technologies

May be of interest to the following communities

Minnesotans building a clean energy future


    CERTs Partners:

Minnesota Department of Commerce Division of Energy Resources University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and Extension Great Plains Institute Southwest Regional Development Commission