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Seattle’s First Zero-Energy House Is Being Built on the Cheap

Posted on April 23rd, 2011

Construction is starting in Ballard next week on a new kind of house-one that produces more energy than it uses. But as impressive as this feat of green technology is, even more remarkable is who is behind this first-of-its-kind project. Hint: it’s not a real estate developer or Paul Allen. Rather, it’s a just-married young couple on a tight budget.

Eric Thomas and Alexandra Salmon moved into their Ballard apartment in 2009, and they fell in love with the neighborhood immediately. “I like how we can walk to everything here,” says Thomas. “It’s a very livable place.” But when they began looking for a house to purchase, they had trouble finding anything they were really excited about in their price range. “We wanted something with lots of natural light and most of what we were seeing was dark and drafty,” says Salmon, who grew up in sun-drenched New Mexico. That’s when they saw the pile of dirt.

“We were driving back from an open house, and we saw this big pile of dirt with a hand-made for-sale sign on it,” Salmon says. “We called the number thinking it was probably the dirt that was for sale, not the land.” But they were pleasantly surprised. The dirt, which neighbors had nicknamed Mount Ballard, was sitting on one of the last empty lots in the neighborhood. Thomas and Salmon set up a meeting with the seller and they signed a contract to purchase the lot.

“We had no idea what we were doing,” Thomas says, “but we knew this was our chance to build the kind of house we’d been looking for all along.” What they wanted was a house that was well-insulated, extremely energy efficient, had enough space to grow into, and had big, south-facing windows.

Knowing this list of requirements would be tough to fulfill on their limited budget (Salmon is a cancer information specialist at Fred Hutch and Thomas is a freelance marketing copywriter), they began searching for stock house plans. They contacted Zero-Energy Home Plans in Whidbey Island, WA, and spoke with founder Ted L. Clifton, who introduced them to the zero-energy home concept.

The true zero-energy home is designed to put as much energy back into the grid as is used to maintain and live in the home.  Until recently, such homes were often of strange design, oddly shaped, and requiring special knowledge or skills to operate. Today’s zero-energy homes look just like every other home on the block.  They are assembled of products readily available in the marketplace, by many of the same suppliers and sub-contractors used for other mainstream homes.

In keeping with this approach, the design that Thomas and Salmon chose consisted of an extremely well-insulated and airtight shell made of structural insulated panels (SIPs) manufactured by Premier Building Systems of Fife, WA, that will be assembled on site. A rooftop solar panel array will tie into the Seattle power grid and produce nearly 6,000 watts, enough to power all of the home’s appliances and other electrical needs. An electrical heat pump, also powered by the solar panels, provides hot water for the home’s radiant heat floors, faucets, and showers. No oil or natural gas is used.

The home sends power to the city’s electrical grid when the sun is out and draws it during the night or on cloudy days. (Contrary to popular belief, the Pacific Northwest is an excellent place for solar.) Averaged over the entire year, the panels produce more power than the house uses. Not only will Thomas and Salmon not pay any energy bills for as long as they own their house, which saves hundreds of dollars a month at today’s rates, but Washington State’s incentive program will pay them nearly $1,000 a year for the next nine years. They’ll also receive a 30% federal tax credit the first year, equal to about $9,000.

For their general contractor, they chose TC Legend Homes, of Bellingham, WA, owned by the son of the house’s designer. “When we found out that we could really make this happen for about the same price as buying an older single-family house or a townhouse in the neighborhood, we were absolutely thrilled,” says Thomas. To save on building expenses, Thomas and Salmon have taken on a larger role than usual in securing building permits, and they hope to be able to do some finish work themselves, such as tiling the backsplash in the kitchen. They also incorporated some reclaimed building materials, such as cast-iron tubs and sinks, and they opted for a very simple interior design to keep material and labor costs low.

“We’re hoping to spread the word to people in Seattle and elsewhere who care about saving energy and saving money that this sort of house is not out of reach,” Thomas says. “Green building is often seen as a luxury, but we’re trying to prove that it doesn’t have to be. We want to encourage as many people as we can to demand more when it comes to energy efficiency. If we can do this with a little creativity and very limited funds, just about anyone can do it.”

Work will begin on Seattle’s first zero-energy house the first week of May and construction will be completed by the end of August.

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About Ted Clifton

Ted L. Clifton has been a designer and builder for more than 45 years. Educated at Berkeley, California, Ted has worked in every phase of construction and knows first-hand what it takes to design and construct a quality home. Having built hundreds of homes as well as commercial and institutional buildings, Ted has the advantage of extensive knowledge of the means and methods used in all three. He has worked in three very different climate zones, from the foothills of California, to Ketchikan, Alaska, to Whidbey Island, Washington.

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