The New Home On the Block That Uses 90 Percent Less Energy
It sounds like a punch line: Welcome to Seattle, where even the houses are smart and passive. In a city known for its progressive politics, it’s no surprise that a Seattleite would build a hyper-efficient Passive House–certified structure with a prototype operating system to connect all its home automation features.
What’s perhaps less expected is that this particular home in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood wasn’t built by some gadget-loving tech-industry millennial, but rather by a boomer-aged grandfather of three.
Homeowner Dave Bowie spent his career as a chemical engineer for energy companies. So when it came time to settle down for retirement, Dave and his daughter, Tiffany Bowie of Malboeuf Bowie Architecture, agreed he should build a house that pushed the boundaries of energy conservation.
The potential of the project electrified Dave. He describes with excitement how the house "substantially exceeds the standard energy code" and notes with pride that the house will use 90 percent less energy than its neighbors consume.
This efficiency is managed by a Kirio operating system that connects and controls the ventilation, lighting, heating, and energy metering. Tiffany discovered Kirio when she met its founder, and Dave’s house is one of the few test homes to try it. Using the Kirio app on his phone, Dave can do everything from monitor the home’s heat-recovery ventilation system to track the electricity usage down to a tenth of a volt.
Despite commissioning a so-called smart house, Dave is learning about the system as he goes. So far, he uses it to turn lights on and off and to adjust the heat recovery ventilation (HRV) system. "I’m particularly interested in collecting the data to see how the home is performing energy-wise," he says.
This enthusiasm for technical details runs in the family. Tiffany dove into Passive House design with both her client and a consultant. "I took the PHIUS [Passive House Institute US] class, so I had the understanding, but my dad and I also worked with Dan Whitmore from Hammer & Hand," she explains.
"I did the initial design, and Dan would say things like, ‘Oh, you have too many windows on the north side.’ It was a collaboration."
Greenwood, like most of Seattle, is in a state of development friction, with many older homes being torn down to make room for modern construction that some locals refer to as "Eastern Bloc bleak." Comple-menting the neighborhood was important for Tiffany. "I wanted to stay away from the exterior of the house feeling trendy, like you might think about some of these other new homes in Seattle."
Tiffany’s decision to go with a herringbone pattern on the exterior helped gain the favor of certain locals. At first, the boards came out very dark; they have since faded to a lighter shade as the sealer has been absorbed. When it was still looking a bit darker, Tiffany recounts, "some high school kids drove by and shouted, ‘Your house is cool!’"
They’re not wrong. The dramatic design catches the eye from the street, with the steeply pitched roof making it immediately clear that this is not a bleak block. Inside, the main floor is almost completely unbroken, with the broad kitchen open to the west-facing living space. It’s undeniably modern, but the view through the sliding doors to the deck (built by Dave himself) reveals an artist’s old Chevy van across the alley—a reminder that the city still has a bohemian side.
The space was designed with Dave’s three grandchildren in mind, with plenty of room to run and ample natural lighting, even on cloudy Seattle days. The only walled-in spaces on the main floor are a dining room near the entryway and a small bathroom.
It was actually one of the grandkids who led Tiffany to meet Franck Rougier, the French founder of Kirio—their children were in kindergarten together. They quickly realized that Dave’s energy-conscious Passive House project lined up with Kirio’s functionality.
It’s an exciting experiment, but walking on the bleeding edge of technology can result in getting sliced. Startups get acquired, products fizzle out, and technology can quickly become obsolete.
Rougier explains that the technology that runs the Kirio platform is made up of many open-source components, and the company has already generated multiple application program interfaces (APIs) that make its inner workings expandable. This nod to the open-source movement suggests that the system may age in ways that many proprietary platforms cannot.
So far, Dave has enjoyed the convenience it provides. "Kirio is programmed so that I don’t have to do much," he says. "I use it to adjust the heat pump operating-temperature settings." And that’s when you know Dave’s happy with his house. Minimalist design, room for the grandchildren, and a hyper-efficient remote-controlled heat pump fit for an engineer.
Ariel Meadow Stallings
Ariel Meadow Stallings is a Seattle-based tech and lifestyle writer who's been internetting since 1992, starting blogging in 2000, and founded her web publishing company Offbeat Empire in 2007. Author of Offbeat Bride: Creative Alternatives For Independent Brides, Ariel's work has been featured by the New York Times, Today Show, and The Guardian.