A Zero-Energy Community: Part 6

A Zero-Energy Community: Part 6

By Brad Liljequist
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 6: The Backstory... Having already gone into the nitty-gritty of green materials and stormwater management, and chronicled the making-of a zero-energy building, I thought I'd back up even further, and talk a bit about how zHome originally came to be. The project officially started life in March of 2006, when I brought a small group of regional green building innovators together with a common vision to build a community which radically redefined the environmental footprint of production housing. We each played leadership roles in green building in our respective organizations, which included the City of Issaquah (represented by David Fujimoto and me, working as a consultant with GordonDerr to the City), Built Green (Aaron Adelstein), King County GreenTools (Patti Southard and Katie Spataro, who now works for the Cascadia Green Building Council), and Chuck Murray (then with Washington State University Energy Program, now with the WA State Department of Commerce).

Patti Southard manages the King County GreenTools program, one of the foremost governmental green building programs in the US. She brings a wholistic focus and a deep, long term understanding of the world of green materials. She has been a true believer in zHome from beginning to end and as a Gladwellian superconnector has helped the project be exposed to the larger world!

My first view of BedZED, located in the southern London suburbs. This 82 unit mixed office/townhome community continues to impact my thinking about where our communities need to evolve to this day. It is beautiful, livable, durable, and uses nearly zero energy on a net annual basis.

Not nearly as well known, but no less impressive, the Hockerton Housing Project in north-central England is a five home rural community self-developed by five families. Completely passive solar (at the same latitude as Edmonton!), Hockerton is a net energy producer. It is a hidden gem and a great example for aggressively green co-housing projects.

The site we negotiated with Port Blakely Communities. zHome is the community to the left of the photo with the concrete pumper and the larger podium and framed community is the YWCA Family Village.

Dennis Rominger works in energy efficiency for Puget Sound Energy and has been a real project advocate, bringing a fantastic center of gravity of pragmatism and can-do. His steadfast support has been critical in the completion of zHome.

At our very first meeting we created basic working specifications that really set the parameters for the development of zHome. These specifications took a performance based approach that reflected the impact of buildings as a portion of our overall ecological footprint (much like the Living Building Challenge, which interestingly started at nearly the same time as zHome). For example, 40% of all US CO2 emissions are created by building operations, and so we created a zero carbon specification. Recently, the team re-looked at those specs and was really happy to see that other than becoming a larger project, zHome stayed almost entirely consistent with them. 

But all of us in the group came to the table with early experiences that shaped our expectations and vision for the project. Each of us had wanted to push the envelope a lot further than was happening in 2006. Patti and Aaron had been involved in other demonstration projects that they’d wished had gone further and accomplished more. Chuck, through his work on the State Energy Code, was familiar with energy innovations around the world. I had been on sabbatical in 2005 and had visited several zero or near-zero energy projects in Europe, including BedZED and the Hockerton Housing Project, and came away with a firm sense that an actual project on the ground would help redefine the scale of what was possible in the Pacific Northwest.

With the project conceptualized, we then set about making it happen. On one hand, we didn’t want to directly act as developer, since none of the organizations had that as a core competency, but on the other we wanted to have enough skin in the game to maintain control over the design and performance of the project.

We concluded that if we were able offer land at no cost to a developer, that would give us adequate contractual muscle. We then spent a number of months working with Port Blakely Communities, the overall master developer of Issaquah Highlands, to provide the no-cost transfer of a three acre parcel adjacent to the Issaquah Highlands Park and Ride for zHome and a larger affordable housing project (which became the YWCA Family Village, but that’s another story).

As we worked out details of the land transfer, in Summer 2007 we set about finding a developer partner, which we accomplished through an RFQ process. We negotiated a detailed contract, which put into more detail the ecological benchmarks for the project. Through a second RFQ process with the developer, we selected a design team headed by David Vandervort (see Part 3 of this blog for our interview with him).

All the while, we were conscious of the declining market, which had started ironically the month we signed the initial zHome development contract. Early evidence of that happened in March of 2008 when our first builder approached us and said they could no longer proceed with the project. Six months after our official start, and two years from our first meeting, we faced our first of many crises. The very rough ride had only begun.

NEXT INSTALLMENT:  zHome rises, falls, and rises again to become the first zero net energy multifamily community in the United States.

Aaron Adelstein is the Built Green Executive Director and has been an essential contributor to the project from the beginning. The Built Green program is now planning to make a new certification level based on zHome.


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