A Look at the Nation’s First Zero-Energy, Carbon Neutral Homes

An interview with the project manager of the innovative zHomes, a new zero-energy, carbon neutral apartment community.

Issaquah, Wash.—There are green buildings, and then there are green buildings. In Issaquah, Wash., the first zero-energy, carbon neutral multifamily community has opened its doors.

These homes, called “zHomes,” use zero-net energy and 70 percent less water than other residences. They were built and developed by Ichijo USA and Seattle builder Matt Howland. It also included a private and public partnership between the City of Issaquah, in conjunction with Built Green, King County, Port Blakely Communities, Puget Sound Energy and the Washington State University Energy Program.

MHN interviews Brad Liljequist, zHome project manager with the City of Issaquah, on the environmental benefits of zHomes, and why they could be the future of green real estate.

MHN: What are some of the benefits to zero-net energy homes as opposed to “traditional” green home elements, such as Energy Star appliances?

Liljequist: About 40 percent of all CO2 emissions come from buildings in the United States. It’s the biggest single contributor to our carbon footprint as a country. We are basically showing how, if we want to think about if from a national CO2 climate change strategy, a very large sector of our economy can come down to zero, not with complete ease, but that it’s something we can do now. It’s not something that is an unattainable goal—we’re able to achieve it.

And our market prices for these homes are $400,000-$600,000 range. In terms of what each home will save, a typical electrical and power bill in this area is a couple thousand dollars for a homeowner, so essentially what we’re expecting is the homeowners will have over the course of the year zero energy costs.

So how the project is working is [the homes are] so efficient, and they have these solar panels on the top, that they will be basically be a mini-power generation plant in the summer, putting solar energy back out in the electrical grid, and then during the winter when the sun is lower it’ll be a net-energy user, and that’ll equal out to be zero over the course of the year.

MHN: How does the rent compare to other property in the area?

Liljequist: It is more, but it’s kind of like comparing apples to oranges because, for example, you’re basically pre-paying your energy bills and proofing them against future increases in power, which I think everybody is anticipating coming over the years, and people are basically rolling their energy bills into their mortgage instead of having that be a separate expense.

MHN: Any plans to build in other areas?

Liljequist: At this point it’s just this project. What we’re trying to do very carefully is provide something that could be a replicable template. We spend a lot of time in design and really investigated with the most cost effective way to achieve zero net energy would be in this region, and part of what we’re trying to do is show this information to the building community, and show them market excitement for zero net energy homes, and then also show them technically how to achieve them.

MHN: Tell me about your continuing education program for zHomes.

Liljequist: We have been doing local classes … like how to choose zero-net energy, some of the specific technologies we have, like zero-net energy, etc. But then we’re also using the whole project as a whole demonstration project so we have units available for folks to walk through and tours, and actually have a fairly deep educational experience. We have videos that are online, and really good tour guides that are really knowledgeable and green building professionals. We actually have a fair amount on our website (www.z-home.org). There’s a section called dig deeper that lets people get a behind the scenes view of different aspects of the project.

MHN: Anything you’d like to add?

Liljequist: The main thing we’re very excited about is that we’re really trying to show a market rate pathway to people really living much, much lighter on the Earth. Homes are really the number one part of each individual’s footprint, and what we’re showing is that footprint can radically be reduced in the housing sector and we’re just thrilled to show the example to the rest of the country.