Building a Zero-Energy Community: Part 9

Building a Zero-Energy Community: Part 9

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 9: Social equity through green material selection Note from Brad Liljequist: Patti Southard has been involved in zHome since its beginning in 2006 and has helped inspire and leverage its core goal of market transformation in myriad ways. She'll be guest-posting for the next two installments of the zHome blog.

Creating local living economies through regional materials. The majority of major structural components in zHome came from sources within 500 miles of the site.

Visiting local Green Tree Mill with FSC President Corey Brinkema. Green Tree supplies both FSC and urban salvage wood products.

Structure as finish: low toxic and low-VOC concrete floors and sealers.

FSC-certified exposed framing and plywood was a resource-efficient step which helped to create modern ceilings.

FSC-certified bamboo stair treads and flooring.

It’s no small task to define values-based material selections and the decision-making that comes with it.

At zHome, we established benchmarks to not only be performance-based, but to also encompass a set of values that dig deeper into sustainability—specifically social equity. Buildings and the materials we use in them contribute roughly 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Considering these numbers, net zero energy was not enough for our team. We wanted to create a paradigm shift in market transformation on building materials.

When the zHome partners sat down to address our material selection and creating a replicable set of benchmarks and specifications, we found it simple to determine such things as percentage of water savings, mitigation of water resources, sourcing local materials, and what it meant to achieve net zero energy.
What was not so easy for us to define was purchasing for social equity. We wanted to create a brand promise with zHome, and social equity needed to be a key part of the brand. Sharing an integrated campus with an affordable housing project and in close proximity to a transit station helped us accomplish some of these community aspirations, but we still faced a challenge in our material selection.

We elevated these social equity values to the pinnacle of our decision-making hierarchy, and they helped guide us throughout the product-selection process, serving as a motivating factor for us to do a better job.

Decision-making started with identifying the values that were most important to the team—some of which were already embedded in our Built Green certification program. The zHome partners wanted to work from an understanding that the beliefs supporting our values, as well as identifying the behavior changes we wanted to encourage, would create the paradigm shift to help builders and homeowners embrace and live these values.

Although there are many certification systems available for materials, there is still a serious lack of consideration and transparency when it comes to defining a product that considers health, manufacturing practices, safety, natural resource extraction, indigenous rights and long-term environmental impacts, such as recyclability and biodegradability. Many third-party systems have a criterion that addresses one or more of these areas, but rarely do you find a system that takes a truly holistic approach.

The well-recognized and respected third-party certification from the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) became one of our tools and touchstones for addressing this issue.

FSC is an independent, non-governmental, not-for-profit organization established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests. FSC-certification provides a credible link between responsible production and consumption of forest products, enabling consumers and businesses to make purchasing decisions that benefit people and the environment, as well as providing ongoing business value.

FSC has three sets of criteria for examining members, including forests, mills, retailers and foresters. The review is based on the "three-legged stool" philosophy of sustainability: The balance of social equity, environment and economy.

In the five years from inception to completion, we found that it was much easier than anticipated to procure green materials for zHome. We were also delighted to have so many more options in countertops, tile, caulks, sealers and wood products.

In particular, we were able to do a lot with FSC. Finding FSC-certified framing lumber had long been a challenging issue in the earlier years of green building. But from the envelope to the floors and cabinets, we were able to purchase 78 percent FSC wood products for the project—and at a competitive price, too.

Another sustainability success story that has evolved under the FSC label is the availability of nontraditional wood products. We had originally anticipated using hardwood floors in zHome, but ended up installing bamboo flooring instead, because of the more affordable cost. We bought FSC-certified bamboo—a product that was unavailable in 2006 when project planning began.
The manufacturers of our structurally insulated panels and cabinets worked with us to go through FSC-certification to supply this project, which reinforced our goals for market transformation. As a result of all these great efforts by zHome partners and material suppliers, we were the recipient of the FSC Project of The Year award!

As an industry, we have a long way to go to reach any level of perfection when it comes to manufacturing, specifying and purchasing deep green materials but hopefully zHome can act as a model.

I get excited about where we are going and where we have come from and want to thank FSC US for the great leadership and acknowledgment to our project; in my heart it will be "FSZ"!

In post 10, Patti Southard will continue the zHome materials story with a discussion of design for disassembly and resource efficient materials and design.


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