City plugs in energy-saving zHome, leader in ‘green’ living

September 13, 2011

By Warren Kagarise

Family spends night at zero-energy townhouse to test innovations

Some of the 10 carbon-neutral townhomes of the zHome community glow in the setting sun along Northeast High Street in the Issaquah Highlands. By Greg Farrar

The steeply angled roofs and street-side rain garden attract attention to the townhouses along Northeast High Street.

The effect is deliberate, because the 10-townhouse complex, called zHome, is designed to encourage people to explore and rethink notions about “green” living. The project is the first carbon-neutral and zero-energy multifamily community in the United States.

“The way I think about it is, people don’t go out and buy a 1920s adding machine if they need a computer, they don’t go out and buy a Model T if they need a car,” zHome Project Manager Brad Liljequist said. “They go out and buy a 1920s bungalow, sure, and, partially that’s because they’re not all that different from a new house.”

But zHome, from the pebbly floor surface made from recycled tennis balls to the glinting photovoltaic panels on the rooftops, is meant to upend traditional ideas about homebuilding.

The homes’ net carbon footprint is meant to be as minimal as possible. The complex is designed to use 60 percent less water than a traditional counterpart.

Builders constructed fortress-thick walls, a solar array on each unit and a heat pump to pull heat from the earth to achieve carbon neutrality and zero net energy use, hence the name zHome.

“During the summer, each zHome will be, actually, a net energy generator. It’s going to create way more energy than it uses in the summertime,” Liljequist said. “Then, in the wintertime, which is when most of the energy use happens in our climate because of lighting and heating and everything, it’ll draw from the grid.”

What to know

People curious about zHome — the first carbon-neutral and zero-energy multifamily community in the United States — can step inside the Issaquah Highlands townhouse complex during free tours from Sept. 17 to Oct. 30. The complex is open for tours any time on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and any time on Sundays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. The site is located along Northeast High Street, just east of YWCA Family Village at Issaquah and the Issaquah Highlands Park & Ride.

The city spearheaded the project and developers shouldered the $5.5 million construction cost.

The complex is in the same mold as the house-of-the-future exhibits at past World’s Fairs. Only, unlike the dioramas rooted in science fiction, zHome is ready for occupants. Organizers expect residents to settle in after the open houses conclude.

“When people talk as the future, they talk about it in the theoretical sense without being able to attach that theory to practice,” Built Green Executive Director Aaron Adelstein said. “This, I think, gives people a tangible demonstration that it’s been done and this is how you do it.”

Built Green, a nonprofit offshoot of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, is a partner in the zHome project.

“Part of what we’re trying to do is get the building industry up to speed with the rest of the sectors of the economy,” Liljequist said. “What’s interesting — and it’s part of what we found with the project — is that you can do that.”

Overnight guests discover zHome

Before the official opening, Salmon Days Festival Director Robin Kelley, husband Oscar and 18-year-old son Kelley Hailstone spent a night in No. 1739, a unit furnished as a sales center.

The city invited the family in part to demonstrate the differences between a more traditional Issaquah home and zHome.

The overnight occupants joined Liljequist on a tour and then received a key to the 1,700-square-foot home.

The smell — or lack thereof — attracted attention early. The zHome team required strict limits on volatile organic compounds — the chemicals responsible for the distinctive smell of paint — and other indoor pollutants.

“I keep thinking about how fresh the air smells in here, not having the off-gassing of the newness,” Oscar Kelley said.

Robin Kelley admired the black switches in each room to cut power to idle electronics still using energy.

“From a consumer point of view, we have so many things at our house — electronics and different things — that are plugged in, that I would love to have that option to have an on-off switch,” she said.

Recession imperils ambitious project

Mayor Ava Frisinger and other dignitaries gathered to launch zHome’s construction in September 2008, on the same day the stock market imploded. The collapse imperiled zHome, as banks refused to finance construction.

“There were numerous banks and people who would say, ‘Gosh, love it; can’t do it,’” Frisinger said.

The fortunes changed last year, after Ichijo USA, a subsidiary of a large Japanese homebuilder, and local developer Matt Howland agreed to build zHome. Crews started construction at the Issaquah Highlands site in April 2010.

Robin and Oscar Kelley (left) learn about the energy-efficient radiant floor heating from Brad Liljequist, zHome project manager, as they arrive for an overnight stay in a carbon-neutral townhouse Sept. 9. By Greg Farrar

“It’s been a long and difficult road to finally get the project completed, so it’s part excitement, part relief,” Adelstein said. “We’ve put so much of our hearts into making it happen — not just Built Green but all of the partners.”

The project presented dual challenges for zHome architect David Vandervort. The townhouses needed to please the eye and foster a comfortable environment, but zHome also required additional attention to bring to fruition.

“Trying to do any kind of a project that’s out of the box in that sense through the maze of jurisdictions and design review and putting this into a community that’s not used to this kind of a project, I think brought some challenges to the fore that we were able to meet,” he said.

Stay nurtures ideas for improvments

In the morning, Robin Kelley climbed to a ladder the loft above the master bedroom to proof some festival documents.

The family noted the abundant natural light pouring across the open floor plan, and only used lights during daytime in the bathroom.

“Before the sun really got hot, we were able to have the south-facing windows and sliding doors open, and we had a nice, little breeze, but when it started getting hot, we closed that side and left the back side open, and you can feel the airflow,” Oscar Kelley said.

Robin Kelley said a flush on the low-flow toilet could use more oomph, but she said she did not notice a difference due to the low-flow showerhead. The zHome units employ filtered rainwater to flush toilets and wash clothes.

Throughout the stay, the Kelleys kept notes for possible home-improvement projects at home on Squak Mountain.

“We’re having to learn this and shift our consciousness — because all of the things that we’ve done for 20 and 40 and 60 years, all of the chemicals, all of the different things we did that were improvements, or that we thought were improvements — because now we’re finding that some of those things are detrimental,” Robin Kelley said.

Warren Kagarise: 392-6434, ext. 234, or Comment at

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One Response to “City plugs in energy-saving zHome, leader in ‘green’ living”

  1. City, King County leaders flip switch on zHome in Issaquah Highlands : The Issaquah Press – News, Sports, Classifieds and More in Issaquah, WA on September 14th, 2011 5:03 pm

    […] collaborated to open the 10-townhouse complex in the Issaquah Highlands. The project is meant to serve as a model for incorporating “green” elements into mainstream […]

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