The revolutionary thing about zero energy homes: They’re kinda normal.

I went on a tour of zHomes expecting to see exotic, futuristic technology and experimental building systems – Tomorrowland stuff.  Their website says:

“zHome is a revolutionary, 10-unit townhome development that uses smart design and cutting edge technologies to radically reduce its environmental impacts.”

Now, I don’t want to screw up their marketing, but the most amazing and inspiring thing about zHomes is that they’re not so whizbang at all.  They’re almost ordinary, in the best possible way.

Yes, they have some construction features that most homes don’t.  Yes, they have solar panels and ground-source heat pumps.  But none of this is eye-poppingly unusual.  I was expecting some kind of high-tech advanced building envelope system, until I walked in and saw the wall cross section display:  a well-insulated 2×6 stud-wall with foam on the outside.  Nice, tight, snug – but nothing fancy.

They have efficient CFL and LED lights – off the shelf; hydronic heating in the slab (hot water in tubes); Energy Star Appliances; energy monitors that are pretty cool but less sophisticated than most video game apps.

The components of a zHome are not unfamiliar.  But the result truly is extraordinary – beautiful, comfortable, affordable homes that use no net energy.  Zip. 

Demonstrating awesome performance, however, does not a revolution make.  The revolution is when everybody starts doing it – when the awesome thing becomes the done thing.

….and lo and behold (CSN fans), “there’s something happenin’ here….”.  What it is is becoming clear.

Brad Liljequist, the Project Manager (and heart and soul) of zHome, says in a terrific post in Dwell:

“Six years ago, when we first started zHome, the concept of true zero energy homes seemed like a far off dream. At about that time, the AIA 2030 Challenge was being championed with a vision for zero energy, zero carbon buildings being mainstream by 2030. At the time that seemed like an aggressive, if not impossible goal. Now, I personally think that timeline is too far out in the future.

Today I see breakthroughs happening everywhere. Numerous buildings, like the Bullitt Center and the Seattle Center House of the Future, are … showing deep green buildings in other contexts. But these high profile efforts are also paralleled by a realignment in more basic, mainstream building as well. Built Green 5 Star homes and LEED Platinum buildings are moving out of the “rare” category and popping up with greater frequency.”

Commercial sector greening too…

Meanwhile, McGraw-Hill Construction reports that the share of green buildings in the commercial sector will rise from 2% in 2005 to 48% by 2015.  Stephen Lacey at ThinkProgress reports that the industry will have to scramble to build up a qualified workforce fast enough to keep up with the demand.  These are the right problems to have.

The Bullitt Center is going to change the game — again, not just by demonstrating what’s possible, but by pushing what’s possible toward what’s done.  Stay tuned….

One Response to The revolutionary thing about zero energy homes: They’re kinda normal.

  1. ericandalex says:

    Thanks for the great article. We took the same approach with our own net-zero-energy house in Ballard: low-cost materials, off-the-shelf technology, and an emphasis on simplicity and value. Net-zero building is doable right now, and the payback period for the slightly higher building costs is much shorter than most people might imagine. After rebates and production credits, our single-family house came in at about $400,000, which is the same price as a smaller townhouse in the neighborhood.

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