A Zero-Energy Community: Part 1

Project Manager Brad Liljequist chronicles the building of the zHome, a ten-unit townhome in Issaquah, Washington—the first multifamily zero-energy community in the United States. Part 1: Introduction to the project. I am writing this as I sit in the zHome Stewardship Center, which will open later this Fall as a hub of education and market transformation for radically green housing in the Pacific Northwest. I’m surrounded by the sounds of typical construction wrap-up on a residential community—the clink of rebar being laid down for the concrete walkways, Motown being played on the radio by a cleanup crew, and a trackhoe moving larger trees into place. There’s also non-typical sounds—those of drills on the roof, where the solar panels are being installed, and ground source heat pumps starting up for the first time.

The ten homes orient around a common courtyard.

The three curved walls form our urban rain garden—a series of weirs where rainwater not otherwise used on site will filter back into the ground, rather than being piped to a large, unattractive detention pond. In the foreground is a solar trellis feeding community energy loads.

zHome is the first zero-energy townhome community in the United States, and it completes construction next month. It has taken over five years from initial conception to completion. Located in Issaquah, Washington, this ten-unit townhome project has been a huge team effort, with dozens and dozens of people touching it in significant ways. 

This community was conceived of as a template for housing in the 21st century, a century where environmental degradation finally is staring us square in the face. One of my favorite quotations is by Stephen Ambrose:  "In the 19th century, we devoted our best minds to exploring nature. In the 20th century, we devoted ourselves to controlling and harnessing it. In the 21st century, we must devote ourselves to restoring it." zHome provides an example of beautiful, reasonably-priced housing which has a radically smaller environmental footprint, including net-zero carbon emissions, zero net energy, a 70% reduction in potable water use, 78% FSC wood use, very low toxic materials, and a stormwater system which emulates the natural forested state.

To achieve zero net energy, zHome is tied to the electric grid. During the summer, when the homes use less energy than is produced by rooftop solar panels, zHome is a net energy generator. In the cold winter, when solar production is lower and energy demand is higher, zHome will draw energy from the grid. Based on our commercial grade energy model, the electricity generation and use will average out to zero over the course of the year.

Over the coming months I will blog for dwell.com on a variety of aspects of the project, including:

•    The road to zero: how and why we made decisions about the best way to achieve zero net energy and carbon neutrality.
•    An architect’s perspective on a modern organic aesthetic at zHome:  an interview with David Vandervort and Mark Weirenga, project architects.
•    "Deep green materials: a guest blog by Patti Southard with King County GreenTools, detailing how deep green materials can be mainstream, including 78% FSC wood, one of the highest of any project in the country.
•    The flow of water: how the project is using stormwater to flush toilets, wash clothes, and recharge the aquifer.
•    A focus on ground source heat pumps and solar photovoltaic panels, two advanced energy conserving technologies: the ins and outs of our system design and installation.
•    The zHome public-private partnership: the people and organizations behind the project. How we built the project through the worst recession since the Depression.
•    The future of building: where do we go from here? How does zHome become a model for mainstream housing in the future?
This project has been a labor of love for me and the many people involved.  We are really proud of what we’ve done and look forward to sharing it with you. 

I have a bit of a fetish for concrete inlays. This is our project logo.

The layouts are open, simple, beautiful, and modern; we call the style "modern organic." Pictured is a two bedroom unit; studio and three-bedroom homes are also included in the community.

Each home includes a solar photovoltaic panel array adequate to offset the home’s annual energy use.

This is our ground source heat pump wellfield drilling rig: primitive but very effective.

Our extensive on-site education program included monthly construction walk-throughs.


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