Building a Zero-Energy Community: Part 7

Building a Zero-Energy Community: Part 7

By Brad Liljequist
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 7: Finding a new builder partner. In our last blog, we described the early days of zHome. The story rolls on with us facing our first hurdle—finding a new builder partner. In Spring of 2008, we were informed by our initial builder partner that they needed to pull out of the project. After working so hard to push the project forward quickly, including design team selection, initial design charrettes, energy modeling and finishing schematic design, it was a rough blow.

We were impressed by the design quality of Matt Howland’s projects in Seattle, where he was working hard to provide architecturally designed, quality homes at a reasonable price. He immediately understood and embraced the core vision of zHome. This part of a community he built in 2008 in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle.

Our wonderful name and logo, created by egg communications in Seattle, to me is as good as anything created by Madison Avenue.

We also went guerrilla and the team recreated the logo to be an elemental sign—it just seemed to want that. We printed 10,000 stickers, some of which went worldwide. Here, one becomes part of Paris street art. If you’d like a sticker, email me at and I’ll set you up.

TV cameras, reporters, and stock market crashes: it all came together at zHome on September 29, 2008. Not the best day in my life. The project went on a year and a half exodus.

I knew we were dealing with a whole different league when I saw this photo of HRD’s (Ichijo’s partner manufacturing arm) testing of their seismic isolation system they co-developed with Bridgestone. The Japanese bring a whole different level of quality, research, and innovation to their building process, which is sorely lacking in the United States—frankly, we are stuck in a totally different era. It’s time for that to change.

With the market declining, we went back out to see if we could find a builder to take over the project. We found Seattle builder Matt Howland and his brother Doug, who ran a medium sized homebuilding company in Seattle. They immediately understood what we were trying to achieve conceptually—to create as near-to-zero impact living house as possible within the constraints and existing technologies of the production home marketplace. It was complicated renegotiating an existing contract, but after three months, we settled terms and assigned the contract over to Howland. 

That summer, we also went through a branding/logo process for zHome. Up until that time, we had called it "ZEP," for Zero Energy Project (we all liked the Led Zeppelin connection). But we realized that we needed a name that would stick conceptually, supported by a top quality logo. We turned to Marty McDonald and Hilary Bromberg at egg communications in Seattle, who specialize in brand development and communications. They took us through the branding process which resulted in the name zHome as well as our terrific logo. They did a great job—zHome has been the perfect name. It captures the core of what the project is about (zero energy/zero impact home). A little more obscure, but still interesting to those of us in the know, is that Hilary and Marty were both intrigued by pronouncing zHome as "zoom," as in rhizome—rootstock that grows a much larger plant. This fits into the idea of the project being the seed to a revolution in deep green housing. People ask about the name and I tell them about the alternate pronunciation and they seem to like it.

The logo itself has also been great. The zHome "bug" to me is dreamy and easy to create a ton of associations from—the sun, a flower, a mobius strip, infinity—and I also love the font, Avenir, which we use for all our communications. To me it is pretty European in style (its creator is Adrian Frutiger, a well known Swiss typeface designer), conveying the English and Swedish communities which inspired zHome like BedZED, Hockerton, and Malmo.

Similarly, we put our website together. We used Design Commission, located in Pioneer Square in Seattle. They did a great job and cranked out a very complicated website in just three weeks.

With the market continuing to decline, that summer we also ramped up the design process to top speed. Our building permits were submitted and the City reviewed them in record time—less than one week for initial review. We were primed to start construction in late September, and held a ceremonial groundbreaking on September 29th. 

I will always remember that day. It was the culmination of so much work and vision, and there was incredible excitement that we were finally getting under construction. But about midway through the groundbreaking, someone came up to me and whispered, "You know, someone just called from the office and said the stock market is crashing."

That’s right: September 29th, 2008, the day of zHome’s groundbreaking, and the day the Dow dropped 777 points.

For those of us in the residential building world, things truly went through a tectonic shift during that week. zHome encapsulated what was happening in the larger world—despite the downturn in the market and in housing prices, going into that week, we had a number of banks competing to provide the loan to the project. It was a great marketing opportunity for them. But during that week, all the doors slammed shut. The financing discussions being finalized were terminated. The uncertainty in the market was too great. The greater truth of problems in the mortgage financing world were yet to be revealed.

Like the rest of the construction industry and much of the economy, zHome went on exodus. Matt Howland and I approached dozens of potential lenders, ranging from banks to venture capitalists. We were even approached by someone who by the end of our conversations sure seemed like a scam artist. It seemed like every time there was no hope, another tantalizing lead emerged that would require many hours of response and preparation, only to not pan out.

By the summer of 2009, I was burned out and very tired. I still believed in zHome with all my soul, as did the rest of the team.  We had created a lot of visible excitement, expectation, and momentum in the regional community, with nothing but a design. It was hard.

So when we were approached by Ichijo USA in July of 2009, it seemed like it must be another mirage. A huge Japanese homebuilder loves zHome and what we’re trying to achieve and wants to fund and help build it? It was just too much to believe. But it turned out to be true, and by the end of 2009 Ichijo was on board as our builder partner, in joint venture with Matt Howland.
Ichijo USA has been a superb partner on the project from day one. Most importantly, they embraced the vision of a low ecological footprint home from the start. Ichijo is the second largest homebuilder in Japan, and there they build the "i-cube," a panelized home which uses about half the energy per square foot of a home built to the Washington State Energy Code.  They have been incredibly supportive throughout the project, and in particular have embraced its educational aspects.

Next installment: zHome gets built, we get lots of media, and 10,000 people take the tour!


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