Points of Light for Green Construction

October 5, 2011   By BRYN NELSON   Miller Hull Partnership. A rendering of the Bullitt Center, which will produce as much energy as it consumes. Net-zero energy buildings are breaking new ground in the Pacific Northwest. As I write in Wednesday’s…
October 5, 2011
Miller Hull Partnership. A rendering of the Bullitt Center, which will produce as much energy as it consumes.

Net-zero energy buildings are breaking new ground in the Pacific Northwest.

As I write in Wednesday’s paper, developers of the Bullitt Foundation’s future headquarters in Seattle are hoping to shake up commercial building practices with a six-story structure that produces as much energy as it uses. Many of the innovations and the source lists for this “living building” will be shared with other projects, and the mechanical equipment in its lower levels will be visible to the public.

But Seattle isn’t the only place pushing the envelope on ultra-efficient buildings. A few weeks ago, I drove out to Issaquah, a fast-growing bedroom community about 18 miles east of the city and the site of what’s being hailed as the nation’s first net-zero-energy town home neighborhood.

The project, zHome, is a newly completed cluster of 10 town homes arranged around a central courtyard atop a plateau called the Issaquah Highlands. Beyond its energy self-sufficiency through solar power, said Brad Liljequist, the project manager with the city of Issaquah, the development should cut water use by 70 percent, yielding an estimated annual utility savings of $3,500 to $4,000 per homeowner when solar power incentives are included.

Francesca Lyman wrote about zHome’s run of bad luck two years ago here on the Green blog, and getting to last month’s ribbon-cutting ceremony has involved several more near-death experiences for the venture.

After two builders went out of business, the project persevered in large part through its many public and private partnerships and direct financing by a third builder, the Japanese heavyweight Ichijo. ZHome also jettisoned the strategy of pre-selling the town home units in favor of waiting until last month’s completion before putting them on the market.

“No one has taken this risk before in the region,” said Patti Southard, a manager at the King County GreenTools program and a central player in the zHome project. The team’s endurance, though, might help inspire other residential builders and public officials, and Ms. Southard said that the entire green building community had rallied around the project.

One recent kudos was its winning the Forest Stewardship Council’s 2011 Design and Build With F.S.C. awards competition.

Together, zHome and the Bullitt Center reflect a few other notable trends in green building. First, technology and know-how are spreading so rapidly that they are no longer the primary barriers to high-impact projects.

The 99-home BedZED (Beddington Zero Energy Development) in London and the five-home Hockerton Housing Project in Nottinghamshire, England, provided some early inspiration to Mr. Liljequist when he was dreaming up zHome in 2005.

Virtually all of the Issaquah development’s technology has been used before, he said. The difference is that few other projects have concentrated so many features under a single roof.

In another example, a partnership between Architecture 2030, based in Santa Fe, N.M., and the American Institute of Architects in Seattle has yielded a wildly popular instructional course on energy reduction in the building industry.

The AIA+2030 Professional Series teaches architects, engineers and other professionals how to construct buildings that use 60 percent less energy than current standards. Introduced in 2009 in Seattle and taught by some of the same experts who have led the Bullitt Center project, the 10-session course has since expanded to nine other locations throughout the United States, with four more on the way.

Susan Mason, an associate professor of political science at Boise State University in Idaho and an expert in green building trends in the Pacific Northwest, told me that she sees both zHome and the Bullitt Center as invaluable opportunities to educate the public and industry on what is now possible. “And then that turns more people into thinking, ‘What else can be done?’”

For many developers, at least, the will is already there. In a recent study, Professor Mason found a surprising level of environmental altruism within the region’s construction industry.

“What we’re finding is that at least the first entrepreneurs in this are doing it because they think it’s the right thing and then they are finding out that it is profitable,” she said.

Profitability, of course, requires buy-in from potential tenants or residents who will be called upon to help structures live up to their net-zero-energy billing. Developers of residential properties must maintain a particularly difficult balance between conceding to potential homeowners’ demands and staying true to their environmental vision.

The Bullitt Center, for instance, will include a garage for bikes but not for cars. Despite being within walking distance of a transit hub, zHome’s location in a suburban community does not permit it the same luxury. Its garages, though, will be pushed to the edge of the site along a permeable driveway, and only subcompacts will fit in a small visitors’ lot equipped with electric charging stations.

ZHome’s developers also debated what to do about each unit’s first-level floor, finally settling on concrete with radiant heat. “Not putting a carpet in a speculative home is a risk,” Ms. Southard conceded — one that might have been unthinkable even five years ago. The developers are now pitching the lack of carpeting (other levels have bamboo) as a plus for improved indoor air quality.

Finally, there’s the matter of price. In the Issaquah Highlands master development, other three-bedroom, 2.5-bathroom town homes built within the last five years go for about half the $625,000 list price of a comparable zHome unit. Then again, having ownership in a pioneering community has a certain cachet, as the Bullitt Center has demonstrated by using its ultra-green credentials to help line up potential tenants.

Other cities are keen to get in on the action, and some building industry leaders are already turning their attention south, to Portland’s Oregon Sustainability Center.

Assuming that financing falls into place for the roughly $60 million project (still not a sure thing), the eight-story, 130,000-square-foot building could raise the bar yet again when it breaks ground sometime late next year.

zHome. The newly completed zHome project in  Issaquah, Wash.