A Zero-Energy Community: Final Post

Project Manager Brad Liljequist chronicles the building of zHome, a ten-unit townhome in Issaquah, Washington—the first multifamily zero-energy community in the United States. Part 11: The Last Post This will be my last blog post for Dwell. It’s been a lot of fun to share zHome and I know from the web traffic coming to the zHome site that a lot of you have been reading this. I hope you’ve enjoyed it! zHome has been an incredible amount of work for all involved, but here at the end there is a ton of satisfaction that we’ve achieved and surpassed our goals. Even in this down market, the project has inspired many thousands of people. 10,000 people have received on site tours, we’ve held over 100 classes throughout the region, and hundreds of thousands have heard about zHome nationally through various media. The spring sales effort has begun, and one family is already moved in.

Ichijo USA is pursuing new, highly energy efficient projects elsewhere. They will be building all future homes to a level of energy efficiency which is less than half that required by the Washington State Energy Code, and are looking at zero net energy projects beyond zHome. Having a major player, such as Ichijo, in the regional builder mix setting that type of standard would have been unimaginable just three or four years ago. Photo courtesy of Daniel Umbach Architect and Ichijo USA.

A number of people from the local green building community are working on the House of the Future, in conjunction with the 50th Anniversary of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair (I am part of an energy design subgroup). We are expecting hundreds of thousands to tour the home. This home will be on display at Seattle Center but then be moved to Rainier Vista in south Seattle as a Habitat for Humanity home. Photo courtesy of The Miller Hull Partnership.

A model of the original House of the Future, 1962 World’s Fair, Seattle.

The Daikin Altherma air source heat pump system is a cutting edge new heating, hot water, and cooling system that delivers similar levels of performance at a lower cost. Photo courtesy of Daikin.

The Bullitt Center goes beyond zHome and aims to fully achieve the Living Building Challenge standard. This inspiring building, designed by Miller+Hull Architects, is being built by one of the preeminent Pacific Northwest environmental philanthropic organizations, the Bullitt Foundation. It is located squarely in the Pike/Pine corridor of Seattle, close to Seattle University, and is sure to impact the future of building regionally and nationally. It is slated for completion later this year. Photo courtesy of The Miller Hull Partnership.

More broadly, zHome set a new bar for the Built Green residential certification system. zHome so far surpassed their point level for 5-star certification (exceeding the required 500 points by 350 points) that Built Green will be creating a new certification level based on zHome’s environmental benchmarks.

Though zHome is a major player in the catalyzation and acceleration of deep green housing in the Pacific Northwest, however, I feel a broader sea change happening here which is really encouraging. Six years ago, when we first started zHome, the concept of true zero energy homes seemed like a far off dream. At about that time, the AIA 2030 Challenge was being championed with a vision for zero energy, zero carbon buildings being mainstream by 2030. At the time that seemed like an aggressive, if not impossible goal. Now, I personally think that timeline is too far out in the future.  

Today I see breakthroughs happening everywhere. Numerous buildings, like the Bullitt Center and the Seattle Center House of the Future, are following on zHome’s heels showing deep green buildings in other contexts. But these high profile efforts are also paralleled by a realignment in more basic, mainstream building as well. Built Green 5 Star homes and LEED Platinum buildings are moving out of the "rare" category and popping up with greater frequency.

There are also very encouraging trends in cost and technology. While the ground source heat pump system is still the gold standard in efficiency and quality, lower-priced air source heat pump based heating and cooling technologies have become available in just the last few years which are less expensive but provide a similar level of efficiency. Forest Stewardship Council wood is much more available and less expensive, making a home that is predominantly or entirely FSC certified possible.

The Cascadia Green Building Council is also championing the Living Building Challenge. zHome will be partially certifying under this program in the future. The LBC and zHome developed conceptually in parallel, but the full LBC certification goes even further than zHome, and provides a roadmap for where our buildings need to go to be fully sustainable and additive to the environment. Cascadia has done a great job providing a conceptual, research, cultural, and organizational framework for a community breakthrough in advanced, deeply sustainable buildings. Their annual conference, Living Future, is an international caliber event which inspires and catalyzes each year.

This is all not to say that there aren’t areas that need improvement or greater focus. Here are just a few that I’ve been thinking about:

zHome has influenced a number of other projects. Fire Station 72, built by the City of Issaquah, reduces energy use to about 1/3 of that used by the typical fire station. It shares a number of zHome technologies, including ground source heat pumps, heat recovery ventilation, a high performance thermal envelope, and nearly 80% FSC certified wood. It goes even further than zHome with solar hot water heating tied into the ground source heating, and a 9,000 gallon cistern. Photo courtesy of TCA Architecture-Planning.

Micro heat pumps 

It is very difficult to find heat pumps small enough to match the required load for a small, highly insulated, well-sealed home. The heat pumps at zHome were actually twice the size of what we needed, and they were the smallest available. I am personally intrigued by extremely small mini split ductless heat pumps which might connect directly through the wall and allow more dispersed, highly efficient heating.

Better industrial design 

Deep sustainability must also be deeply beautiful, and wherever something sustainable in the home is present, it must be attractive and fit the aesthetics of the home. I am going to again single out mini split ductless heat pumps—the heating/cooling wall units of those on the market today are generally just not attractive, and put people off of this otherwise fantastic technology. I’d like to see a design competition for improving these.

Better living through chemistry, or not 

Right now there is huge concern around toxicity in the indoor environment—and for good reason. Yet I continue to feel like true knowledge around toxicity of materials is on a fairly basic level. The level of rigor of evaluation must improve—too much is based currently on rumor and innuendo. Many mechanical engineers are deeply involved in the Northwest green building movement, but I have yet to meet a professional chemist or toxicologist in these circles. I love the conceptual simplicity of the LBC’s Red List, but such efforts must be supported by harder, more scientific information, and not be created by generalists. Strong efforts have been made to eliminate VOCs, vinyl, and formaldyhyde (including in zHome), but do we really know that other plastics and man made materials aren’t just as bad?  

Deep green remodels and retrofits 

We won’t work our way out of our building-caused environmental problems if we don’t also make deep retrofits the norm. The unfortunate reality of most of our buildings is that they can limp along for many decades, providing basic shelter, but demand massive resource inputs to sustain them. A typical building goes through little basic change during its lifetime (and I’m not talking kitchen remodels here). Deep core building restorations and renewals which massively improve the building envelope, ventilation, and daylighting, and completely replace outdated, inefficient heating, cooling, and lighting need to become more the norm.

* * * * * * *

I personally feel a very strange mix of emotions these days.  From a risk management perspective, we are truly playing chicken with the future of planetary habitability. I was a history major, and I focused on Medieval Europe—roughly 500 to 1,000 years ago. It really wasn’t that long ago—most European cities have numerous buildings from this era. If you look at some of the most critical environmental issues of today, such as climate change, ocean acidification, persistent and increasing toxins in the environment, and nuclear residue and fallout, it feels like we are miles away from any sort of deeply bedded cultural and social compact to address and resolve them. We seem culturally and psychological able to respond to outside threats such as the Soviet Union or terrorism, and yet these environmental issues are over the long term are just as great a threat to future human viability. It sometimes feels like making it another 500 years will take a major act of God.

Yet I also feel hopeful, for all the reasons above. We are undergoing a revolution in building performance, driven mainly from a grassroots, local and regional community. It is truly exciting and inspiring. We can change, fundamentally and quickly.

The reality, however, is there is such a long way to go. This can’t be a fad or even a trend. This needs to be a fundamental, bedrock change planetwide. zHome is just one small step along the way—I believe we can get there, but the revolution must continue.

I end my Dwell blog with the very first photo I uploaded on the zHome blog. This is a picture of my niece. She is a budding gymnast and gardener, and loves cats. We all put so much love and time and money into growing our next generation. Yet we have such a disjunct when it comes to the state we’re going to leave the planet in for them. We will spend tens of thousands of hours nurturing our kids, and save hundreds of thousands of dollars for their education, but any decent climate scientist or oceanographer will tell you that unless things change basic planetary systems will be fundamentally different in their lifetime, let alone their kids’. Do we put as much energy, money, and time into leaving an intact planet as we do other things? We’ve got the tools—let’s act.


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