By Jack Stubbs
“To me, the projects are a bellwether of the future. They’re showing us that we can achieve carbon neutrality in a way that is still very beautiful, functional and allows us to thrive as people,” said Brad Liljequist, director of the Zero Energy Program with the International Living Future Institute (ILFI) about two projects in Seattle that were in early March 2018 given zero energy certifications.
Sustainability issues in the built environment in Seattle and the surrounding region continue play a key role in shaping developers’ and architects’ decisions in how to design their buildings, with initiatives like LEED and the Living Building Challenge becoming part-and-parcel of any discussions around new developments. In early March, Dwell Development, a Seattle-based company that specializes in green home building, saw two of its projects—Ballard Energy Star in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood and Cork Haus located in Columbia City—given the Zero Energy certifications by ILFI’s Zero Energy Building certification program. According to Dwell Development, the two projects are the second and third residential projects in Seattle to be certified by ILFI and the tenth and eleventh projects in the world.
According to ILFI’s web site, zero energy is recognized as one of the world’s highest aspirations in energy performance in the built environment. The program certifies that the building in question is truly operating as claimed, harnessing energy from the sun, wind or earth to produce net annual energy demand through an analysis of performance data. The program ensures that one hundred percent of the building’s energy needs on a net annual basis are being supplied by on-site renewable energy, according to Liljequist. “What the certification means functionally from a performance standpoint is that the buildings generate as much power as they use over the course of a year; they do that through radical energy efficiency. Typically these certified buildings reduce energy use by anywhere between half and three-quarters of a typical home,” he said.
Dwell Development received the Zero Energy certification for two of its projects, two single-family residences in Seattle. The Ballard Emerald Star home is a three-bedroom, 2,218 square foot building completed in 2015 (the team for the project also included Caron Architecture, energy engineer Evergreen Certified and subcontractors Puget Sound Solar, Washington State University and Built Green). The building combines cutting-edge green technology, renewables and recycled materials to meet the requirements for the Emerald Star certification developed by Built Green, a green certification program for homes in King and Snohomish Counties.
The second project was Cork Haus, a two-bedroom, 1,711 square foot home in Columbia City built in January 2015 (the team for the project included JW Architects, Evergreen Certified, Puget Sound Solar, Washington State University and Built Green). The structure meets the Passive House standard, which reduces the ecological footprint of a building. Cork Haus was built using 100 percent natural cork siding from Portugal, and also includes a heat recovery ventilation system, high-performance windows and solar technology.
Dwell Development focuses on sustainability in its design of homes, an approach that drives all of the company’s projects including Cork Haus and Emerald Star. And the decision about whether to build spec or to code in the current real estate market was not something that entered the developer’s mind, given this emphasis on sustainability, according to Anthony Maschmedt, principal of Dwell Development. “We didn’t built [the projects] for a current environment in the marketplace or for a buyer or a specific reason; only to challenge us to see if we could push these limits. No one was doing this two years ago, but you don’t know how the building performs until you have all the data,” he said.
Even though the two projects were completed in 2015, the hope is that they will serve as a promising example of the sustainability goals that can be met at the spec-build level in the future, according to Maschmedt. “We want these projects to showcase that these things can be done at a spec home level. We’re on a shoestring budget, and we’re trying to do this and compete with homes that are being built to code. We’re showing people this can be done right now.” One of the main challenges with creating Zero Energy-certified homes is the higher cost associated with the necessary materials and infrastructure needed for the buildings.
As is often the case with design and construction decisions, the economic climate often has a bearing on builders’ decisions about whether or not to build spec or to code, according to Maschmedt. “People won’t jump on board unless there’s an incentive to do so. The people in the building environment, those who build spec homes in Seattle, have very short memories,” he said. “The [economic] downturn happens, they come out of it, and then it’s business as usual where they want to build the most inexpensive, code-compliant home and sell it for as much money as quickly as possible.”
Apart from the financial considerations, Maschmedt thinks that home builders in Seattle should be given greater incentives to build sustainably. “My motivation is to convince the city to give these builders a little incentive to build higher sustainability homes rather than penalizing them. If the city and government can come up with a solution to incentivize builders to build this way, I think that will be the big change.” However, Maschmedt predicts that these incentives will not ultimately be provided, due in part to the fact that single-family homes go through a standard submittal review process rather than the city’s design review process.
Given the currently climate of the multifamily marketplace—which is characterized by constrained inventory—the market will likely continue to be pressurized. “With no inventory in this marketplace, it’s a scary formula for continued appreciation and affordability issues…this combination of record low inventory—less than two weeks of inventory, when a healthy market is 4-6 months of inventory—won’t change for awhile,” Maschmedt said. Another factor exacerbating the relative lack of new construction is a new project portal that has just been announced by the city, wherein it has been taking home builders between six and eight—rather than two—months to get their single-family homes permitted. “That’s going to exacerbate the issue in terms of getting more homes under construction,” Maschmedt added.
And in the bigger picture, while the two projects represent that strides are made when it comes to implementing sustainable design into single-family homes, there is still significant work to be done. “I think it’s increasingly clear that we need to shift to a fossil fuel free thriving economy; these buildings essentially represent that,” Liljequist said. “The UN recently stated that we need to accelerate our adoption of buildings like Dwell Development’s projects by a factor of six. So, we need to start stepping it up to make these buildings the norm.” Liljequist was referring to the Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2018 report, which highlighted a critical shift towards green renewable energy sources from fossil fuel-based power production sources.
While projects like Dwell Development’s represent a step in the right direction when it comes to highlighting the benefits of sustainable design goals like Zero Energy certification, Liljequist thinks that a greater shift in mindset might be needed to enact change on the broader scale might be needed. “In terms of how this becomes massively scaled, I think a lot of different factors need to come together, like knowledge about the availability of zero energy, how to achieve it, and the market demand,” he said.
In the bigger picture, the evolution and adoption of zero energy certification is still in its relative infancy, according to Liljequist. “In terms of being a mainstream concept, the idea of Zero Energy has only been in the marketplace for about a decade, which isn’t a ton of time for people to assimilate that in a big industry like the construction and design industry. For a developer who’s worried about a lot of other factors like increasing construction costs, this is another factor that they have to consider,” he said.
Seattle’s real estate market, in particular, took a hit after the recession of 2008, but ever since that time, the trajectory of the market has been on the up and up. “If you look at the short-term history of what’s happened in our marketplace, we kind of went from the depths of despair in the downturn, and someone flipped a switch, and [Seattle] became a boom town once again. When we went into recovery mode, people were mostly still focused on surviving economically,” Liljequist said.
Over the last two to three years, there has been a more widespread recognition on behalf of the architecture/engineering/construction community of net zero as a more viable option. However, the currently-booming local market means that less time and financial resources can be dedicated to pursuing net zero certification. “I have heard from a number of sources, especially in Seattle, that the market is so overheated in general right now and construction costs are so high, that that’s taking a lot of oxygen out of the room unfortunately,” Liljequist said.
In spite of rising rents and construction costs—and the seemingly incessant amount of development activity in the residential sector—the hope is that projects like Cork Haus and Ballard Emerald Star will spur the creation similarly environmentally-conscious projects in the future: according to Liljequist, King County has committed to creating 10 living buildings by 2020, and the future looks bright for the adoption of net zero. “People are starting to realize that zero energy buildings are really power solutions to environmental issues. I really feel like we’re at a tipping point; I actually think that we are going to see many more projects like these.”