'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.
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An artist's drawing of the proposed zHome townhouses in Issaquah, Wash. (Howland Housing)

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.

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.

"It's a much more radical approach than conventional green building today," Liljequist says, in tandem with the Architecture 2030 plan that envisions zero-net energy homes in production by 20 years from now. "We have a huge environmental crisis on our hands now," says Liljequist. "Why wait until 2030? We have the tools today."

zHome is also designed to use 60 percent less water than average; incorporates salvaged, reclaimed, and locally manufactured materials; uses rain gardens to reduce stormwater runoff; and employs non-toxic paints and finishes.

What's most cutting-edge about the development, however, says WSU's Nelson, is how the developers of zHome assembled all the pieces into a production-built design that could be scaled up and replicated elsewhere. True, he argues, "you have to design with nature and climate, and the energy-efficient engineering would have to be modified depending upon that, but the design process they used is transferable anywhere."

There is no rating system to determine if housing really is "zero net energy," as advertised. And many zero-net-energy homes have fallen short of their goals.

But in this case, says Liljequist, utility bills at the end of the year will show which townhome-owners have reduced their utility bill to zero — or better. "We'll have an energy monitor screen in a prominent place to give home-owners readouts so they can see how they're doing on conserving energy," he says.

"It's a great experiment," says Howard Schwartz, energy analyst with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council's Washington division. "Some homeowners may even send their energy meters backwards, beyond zero."

The wild card, Nelson adds, is how religiously the homeowners take their mission of energy saving — avoiding, for example, the purchase of energy-consumptive appliances. The proof may also be in how well the technology performs, just as automobile EPA mileage ratings come with a caveat.

So far, Howland says he's surprised to find that the prospective buyers of his z-Home townhouses aren't Prius-driving, uber-green, sustainability-seeking Seattleites "seeking every extreme green trendy thing."

"Rather," says Howland, "my waiting list seems to consist of the more mainstream, move-down buyer who has raised kids and is drawn to sustainability in the sense of saving money, walking around town, and sharing in the community."

Innovative developments like this show that positive advances can be made in the Puget Sound, say Schwartz and Nelson. "So many people say they want to do "zero-energy" but then stop short when they do the math," says Nelson. "Maybe the biggest advance here is just the fact that a bunch of activists, bureaucrats, city and county officials came along, got together, and got this off the ground. That's astounding!"


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About the Authors & Contributors

Francesca Lyman

Francesca Lyman is a Seattle-based journalist and author of The Greenhouse Trap: What We're Doing to the Atmosphere and How We Can Slow Global Warming.