Can Net Zero Re-Energize the Homebuilding Industry?
In Issaquah, Washington, just west of Seattle, there’s a 10-home development looking to upend the way homes are designed, built, sold, and lived in. Designed to radically reduce its environmental impacts, zHome is aiming to prove that homes that use zero net energy and 60 percent less water, emit net zero carbon emissions, have clean indoor air, and use only low-toxicity materials are not only possible but are scalable to mainstream home production. And zHome recognizes that the only truly sustainable housing option is multi-family, so in this development you’ll find no single-family residences.
For an industry that still thinks of “green” as futuristic, expensive, and not necessarily important to the consumer, what zHome is promising is highly unusual—and way overdue. So too is its impressively serious education program, designed to transform builders and buyers alike into eco-advocates. There’s even a field trip program for kids. Modern homes are about as innovative as the Model T, says Project Manager Brad Liljequist, "but to me the home is the lowest hanging fruit of potential environmental innovation ... zHome is having already having a catalyzing effect regionally, and we’re not even complete.”
GOOD: Net zero gets tossed around a lot but it’s still a term unfamiliar to most. Can you explain it for us?
BRAD LILJEQUIST: Zero net energy means that the project will use no more energy than it generates over the course of a year. The project is tied to the electrical grid, and trades energy with it. During the summer, zHome will be an energy producer (more sun for the solar panels and less heat demand), and during the winter, an energy user, averaging to zero. Of course, how the residents use energy inside the units is outside of our control, so we will be helping them with information and also an energy feedback monitor that will let them know how well they’re doing relative to achieving zero net energy. During our energy modeling, we made some assumptions about the residents—down to how many hours of TV they’d watch per day—we didn’t assume hairshirts at one extreme, or complete energy slobs on the other.
G: The American Dream is so tied to the single-family home. Are people ready to embrace multifamily living?
BL: I started working around here as an urban designer and planner in the 1980s, and I think at least in the Puget Sound region, where zHome is located, we moved past that question in the 1990s. A major portion of our growth, including in suburban cities, is in multifamily buildings. Issaquah Highlands, the urban village where zHome is located, is nearly half multifamily. People regionally have really become more urban and urbane. Living in community, being able to walk to the local coffee shop, and not have to take care of a big unused lawn are very attractive to a large part of the population here. People would rather be kayaking or hiking than fussing with their house.
G: There's a huge misperception, about which I'm sure you're well aware, that green homes cost more. How will zHome cost out compared to "normal" townhomes?
BL: I think a ton can be done with smart and knowledgeable design and specification, particularly in the area of materials and appliances. But at a certain point, you are just going to spend more per square foot. Photovoltaic panels and ground source heat pumps are expensive. For zHome, we set a benchmark at 20 percent more per square foot relative to a similar townhome in the local marketplace.
I think the bigger question, though, is one of needs and values. How many people really need (or want) the three car garage and the bonus room? zHome is what many people want and need—a well sized, quality, beautiful, incredibly green home for a relatively affordable price. It all flows in the same green direction—right sizing the home is inherently green and allows us to redirect that money into a home with a much, much smaller footprint.
People are so tired of incrementalism and lack of progress on the environment, and the thought of taking a huge step forward toward a radically reduced living footprint in a reasonable way just makes a lot of people very happy.
G: Because of overbuilding, foreclosures, collapsing housing prices, and the like, we're in such a period of readjustment in our attitudes about housing. Can the market be transformed?
BL: What tells me that the market can be transformed is the response people have had to our project. We had nearly 40 people at our last construction walkthrough, and the positive vibe was incredible. Every time I present about zHome, I get completely recharged, and can palpably feel the excitement. There is clearly a pent up demand for this type of housing. People are so tired of incrementalism and lack of progress on the environment, and the thought of taking a huge step forward toward a radically reduced living footprint in a reasonable way just makes a lot of people very happy. It’s time for us to move past talk and show some real examples—it just moves the whole conversation forward a lot.