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    'Zero net energy' homes: an experiment in Issaquah

    A Seattle-area developer and local governments have teamed up to build townhouses that, in theory, will give back more energy than they use. Will that work? It will depend in part on who lives in them.
    An artist's drawing of the proposed zHome townhouses in Issaquah, Wash. (Howland Housing)

    An artist's drawing of the proposed zHome townhouses in Issaquah, Wash. (Howland Housing) None

    What's less than zero? We're not talking about the corporate income tax or the price of a foreclosed property in Seattle. In fact, sometimes less than zero can actually add up to more than zero. We're talking about something new under the sun: "zero net energy" homes, often equipped with solar power, which are designed to generate more energy than they consume.

    "Picture living in a thermos bottle," says Seattle builder Doug Howland of Howland Homes. He was explaining the concept at the groundbreaking of zHome, a "zero net energy" housing development he's building outside Seattle. The idea is to insulate the house so tightly that heating and cooling requirements are drastically reduced. "Yet it stays warm or cool."

    When utilities allow "net-metering," consumers can save up credits on solar power generated in the summer to power their needs in the winter, ending up with little or no utility bill or even a positive credit on next year's bill. Zero-net-energy buildings have been popping up around the U.S. in the past few years, boosted by federal efforts like the Department of Energy's "Building America" incentive program for "net-zero" homes, the goal of which is cutting American household energy use 70 percent by 2020.

    Last week, the Pacific Northwest quietly gave birth to the newest incarnation of the idea in Issaquah, a formerly quaint and historic small town that now is a fast-growing suburb 15 miles from Seattle. Howland's company is the first to break ground on a multi-family development of such homes. Called "z-Home," Howland Homes' 10 attached townhouses will depend for power on an array of photovoltaic panels and ground-source heat pumps. The only other such development near completion is the Geos master-planned community outside Arvada, Colo., that dubs itself the "first fossil-free community in the U.S."

    Siting a solar demonstration housing project in the cloudy, rainy "Issaquah Alps," nestled in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains a half-hour from Seattle, might seem odd. But Seattle gets more sun than some of the prime solar-power building sites in Germany, one of the world's most prolific generators of power from the sun, says Mike Nelson, director of Washington State University's Northwest Solar Center. "In fact, Juneau, Alaska, is more akin to Germany's climate," laughs Nelson.

    Surprisingly, Nelson adds — but quite scientifically, according to a recent report by the American Institute of Architects — "the Puget Sound is one of the best places to pilot zero-energy homes because the climate is so mild." What most people don't know is that photovoltaic panels work more efficiently at lower temperatures.

    What wasn't surprising was to see several dozen city, county, and state officials who turned out for the groundbreaking exuding enthusiasm for the project. "This sets a new standard for renewable energy and energy efficiency," Katherine Drew, senior policy advisor to Washington Governor Christine Gregoire, told the several dozen people assembled. "These houses are about as green as you can get."

    Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger touted the development's being a stone's throw from public transit (a neighborhood park-and-ride lot is across the street). The tree-lined, pedestrian-friendly Issaquah Highlands development, constructed to Built Green standards, is on one side. That, said the mayor, will save on fuel and car trips, while offering residents the ability to walk to new offices and a shopping district soon to be built.

    In many respects, z-Home goes against the grain of development trends in suburban Seattle, where sprawled-out luxury mega-homes have drawn widespread protest. Rural cluster developments of "McMansions" were even the target of arsonists, when a Street of Dreams model home exhibit was burned to the ground earlier this year.

    Brad Liljequist, a planner with the city of Issaquah — a partner in the project with King County, Built Green, Port Blakely Communities, and Puget Sound Energy — was one of the originators of the development. He spent time visiting another pioneering zero-energy project in Britain, BedZed (an acronym for the Beddington Zero Energy Development in Wallington, England) and was impressed by how far planners took their project, so quickly.

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    Posted Wed, Oct 8, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

    Zero Energy Idea House in Bellevue deserves mention: I'm surprised that this story made no mention of Bellevue's Zero Energy Idea House, which broke ground in July and is being built to increase awareness of products and systems that can help inspire homeowners to move toward energy independence.

    Besides the fact that this is a single-family house and not townhomes, the biggest difference is the use of structural insulated panels (SIPs), an alternative to traditional stud framing. SIPs are one of the most eco-friendly building systems available: The manufacture of polystyrene SIPs creates no CFCs; there is no off-gassing; and these SIPs are closed cell, which means they absorb no vapor and cause no mold - a common problem in the Northwest.

    Using a SIP building envelope in the construction of the Zero Energy Idea House makes the home extremely airtight and provides high levels of insulation - SIPs cut energy usage by up to 50 percent.

    The tight-fitting panels also create healthier indoor air by preventing drafts from outside and reducing the likelihood of mold and mildew through better humidity control. Additionally, because SIPs are prefabricated and custom-cut for every project, there is less construction waste - a huge benefit considering that the National Association of Home Builders estimates that the construction of an average, traditionally built single-family home generates between 7,000 and 12,000 pounds of construction waste.

    Other key sustainable features of the Zero Energy Idea House include PV solar panels; a 1,200-square-foot vegetated green roof; ENERGY STAR lighting, windows, and appliances; and in-floor radiant heating.

    (Disclosure: I work for Parsons Public Relations, and Shirey Contracting, the builder of the Zero Energy Idea House, is a client.)

    Posted Tue, Oct 14, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

    This sounds like a great idea -- but they'll probably price them at $750,000 for a 2 bedroom to attract "high lifestyle" types.

    Call me when they're selling for $75K.

    The real worth of a condo in Issaquah.


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