Category Archives: Profiles

Dan Bertolet looks at success, cost efficiency of Issaquah’s zHome

This is a guest post by Dan Bertolet, founder of Citytank and an urban planner with Via Architecture.

Over the past few decades designers and policymakers have been working to increase the energy efficiency of buildings, and solid progress has been made. Still, today in the United States buildings account for 49 percent of energy use and 46 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Successfully tackling the dual challenges of rising energy costs and climate change is going to take massive reductions of building energy use.

A conceptual holy grail for energy-efficient building design is a building that generates as much energy as it consumes, a.k.a. a zero net energy building. And that’s the goal of a recently completed 10-unit townhome development in Issaquah, WA, known as zHome, touted as the “first multifamily, production, zero-energy, carbon-neutral community in the United States.”

Image courtesy Dan Bertolet

Spearheaded by the City of Issaquah, the zHome project was awarded to David Vandervort Architects in Fall 2007, but subsequently the real estate bust forced the original builder to back out. Howland Homes took over in Summer 2008, and the project broke ground that September. Faced with financing challenges and delays, Howland then partnered with Ichijo, a large Japanese builder known for energy-efficient production homes, and the project finished in September 2011.

zHome was designed to achieve zero net energy use through efficiency measures that reduce consumption by about two-thirds, and photovoltaics (PV) that generate enough electricity to cover the remaining third—approximately 5,000 kWh per year. That requires a hefty amount of PV, and indeed, the south-facing panels that cover the roofs are a prominent feature. During the sunny summer months the PV produce more energy than the buildings need, and the excess is fed back to the grid. If the building operates as expected, that “banked” energy will offset the energy consumed during the dark winter months when PV output is low, the result being zero net energy use on an annual basis.

Energy-efficiency measures incorporated in zHome include ground source heat pumps that provide space heating and domestic hot water, heat recovery ventilation, a tightly sealed and highly insulated envelope (R38 wall, R63 roof, U-0.33 double pane windows), efficient appliances, LED lighting, switched outlets to reduce phantom loads, and a real-time energy monitoring system. (The project is also designed to reduce water consumption by 70 percent.)

So how much did all that extra stuff increase the cost? Asking prices for the units are relatively high for Issaquah: $385k for 799 s.f. 1-bedroom; $530k for 1350 s.f. 2 bedroom; and $625k for 1694 s.f. 3-bedroom. Apparently the free land and significant logistical support provided by the City weren’t enough to negate the cost premium. Eventually the upfront investment in efficiency would be offset by savings in the energy (and water) bills, but given current energy prices payback periods are relatively long. Of course, if all the externalized costs of our energy were included it would be a different story, but unfortunately a carbon tax is not happening any time soon.

It remains to be seen if zHome will achieve zero net energy performance in the real world, and success will likely depend to some extent on the energy use habits of the occupants—one thing designers don’t have much control over. In any case, whether or not a building can produce enough energy on site to hit net-zero isn’t necessarily the be all and end all for sustainable design. Arguably, what’s more important is the practice of “efficiency first”—that is, first figure out how to fully minimize the building’s energy use, and then worry about how to supply the remaining energy demand.

Image courtesy Dan Bertolet

For example, the Bullitt Foundation’s Living Building is targeting zero net energy and incorporates cutting-edge energy-efficient design. But analysis suggests that it could have been even more efficient if it had been built to the European Passive House standard, in which case it would have required less PV, potentially reducing both cost and physical design constraints.

Furthermore, when you look beyond the single building and consider larger systems of buildings and energy production, in some cases powering a building from an offsite energy source may make more sense than struggling to max out on-site generation. And for buildings taller than about six or seven stories, there simply won’t be enough solar energy impinging on the site to meet demand, even for a hyper-efficient building.

In conclusion, while the concept of zero net energy buildings may have its limitations, projects like zHome and the Bullitt Foundation building remain hugely important for making progress on energy-efficient design. That’s because they challenge designers to (1) work within a highly constrained energy budget, and (2) explore the limits of on-site energy production. And then there’s also the potential for the big win as the designs move into the mainstream. Indeed, Ichijo has ambitions to ramp up the zHome concept to high-volume production. It won’t be a moment too soon.

Dan Bertolet is an Urban Planner with VIA Architecture. VIA thanks City of Issaquah Program Manager Brad Liljequist for generously providing a tour of zHome. All photos by the author.

P.S. The DJC’s Green Building Blog has written extensively about this project. To read more, and follow its progress, type ‘zhome’ in our search bar.

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GSA’s $72 million Seattle HQ requires performance

Somehow, I missed posting about a recent story I did on GSA’s $72 million headquarters for the Seattle District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The story appeared in the June 27 edition of the DJC.

From a sustainable viewpoint, it’s a fascinating project to consider. It’s designed

Image courtesy ZGF Architects
by ZGF Architects and is being built by Sellen Construction.

The project aims to inspire a new era of sustainable workplaces with a goal of being the region’s most energy efficient air conditioned building. Models say it will have an energy score of 100, placing it in the top 1 percent of U.S. buildings for energy performance. It may reach LEED platinum, uses geothermal heating and cooling combined with structural piles and is heavily daylit.

Federal Building_14_small
The team also focused on bringing new technologies to the area, including underfloor air and radiant cooling and a phase-change material that allows cold energy to be stored for future use.

But what I think is one of the most interesting elements is GSA knew how much energy it wanted the building to use and asked competing shortlisted teams to demonstrate how they’d get there as part of awarding the project.  It went a step further by also requiring the project prove its energy performance during its first year of operation, basically requiring a guarantee from the team.

Generally, anything like this is a big no-no, as I understand it. Under no circumstance, from a legal perspective, should a team guarantee to meet a requirement related to LEED or sustainability. But this is the GSA, the largest

The site in April of this year. Image courtesy Sky-Pix Aerial Photography.
landlord in the county. And the project is backed by federal funds. One doesn’t really have a choice, other than to not compete, now do they?

As LEED continues to proliferate and green building fades into the background even further as just a part of good building, do you think this type of performance requirement will become more common? Or is this just a one-time deal?

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Tom Douglas’ 3 new restaurants in South Lake Union historic renovation

I attended a press event this morning for the completion of’s fourth phase of headquarters work. Attendees were invited into the historic renovation of the Terry Avenue Building next door. Terry Avenue, located on Terry Avenue North between Thomas and Harrison streets,  is soon to be the home to three (!!!) new Tom Douglas restaurants. Terry was designated a historic landmark in 2008. It was built in 1915, and was a hardwood flooring and cabinetry warehouse until the 1950s.

Surprisingly, the press release doesn’t say much about the building’s sustainable elements (other than it has the first green roof on a historic building in the city). Terry was part of Amazon’s phase four and the release does say phase four buildings targeted LEED gold certification. From a sustainable standpoint, the fact that it is a historic renovation automatically buys the building some credibility. I asked Douglas why he liked the space. He pointed to the 1908 wooden pillar I was leaning against and said projects don’t get much better than that.

Douglas also said the building is the first place he’d head during an earthquake, due to the extensive seismic renovations that went into it.

The three restaurants will all be open by mid-April. Cuoco, on the ground floor, will serve fresh pastas made in an open kitchen and will seat 100. Ting MoMo, a Tibetan dumpling cafe led by longtime Douglas chef Deyki Thonden, is to the east of the second floor and will seat 40. The Brave Horse Tavern, to the west of the second floor, will seat 150 and serve Americana food. Cuouco should open the last day of March or first few days of April. The other two restaurants will open the following week.

At the event, Ada Healey, vice president of real estate at Vulcan, said a number of things still have to happen in the neighborhood, including an up-zone. I chatted with Seattle City Council President Richard Conlin briefly at the event and he said council is trying to balance the needs of a new urban neighborhood with the need to protect the area’s heritage. It is an especially pertinent time to discuss this topic as The South Lake Union Height and Density Alternatives Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which addresses this issue, is accepting comments until April 11. What do you think? Should South Lake Union be allowed to go higher? Or are there heritage elements in the neighborhood still to protect? Would love to hear your thoughts.

In the mean time, here are pictures! To see more, check out my Facebook page here.

The Terry Building from the outside, amongst projects. Images courtesy Katie Zemtseff.

Inside of The Brave Horse Tavern. That's Tom Douglas, behind the horse.
Inside of TingMomo Cafe (Tibetan dumplings!)
A bull statue in Cuoco.
Shuffleboard at the Brave Horse Tavern.
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King Street Station rehabilitation on track for platinum

This week, I toured King Street Station. For those of you who aren’t aware, the 1906-built-station is in the midst of a $50 million renovation. The project is absolutely, totally and utterly incredible.

The main thrust of the project is a much needed seismic renovation. Seriously, the tons of steel being put into this project are indescribable. But King Street Station is also a historic building and must be maintained as such. Once the rehabilitation is complete, it will be very sustainable: it’s on track to meet LEED platinum, up from a goal of LEED silver. Last year, the project’s sustainable efforts were honored by AIA Seattle with a gold level award from the What Makes It Green event. ZGF Architects is the architect. Sellen Construction is general contractor.

Obviously, the most sustainable thing about the project is the fact that it is a historic renovation of an old structure, which retains the embodied energy inherent in the building. But the team went much further. Geothermal wells in the building will likely provide all heating and cooling. The main waiting room will return to its 100-year-old state of being naturally ventilated. Incredible effort has been spent to save, clean and better old building materials. All of these elements will be detailed in a future DJC story.

For now, I’ll whet your interest with some photos of the space. As you can tell, I got to tour the inside of the clock tower, which is not part of the current project’s phase. However it is really cool. To see more photos of the clock tower or tour, follow my page on Facebook here. And if you haven’t voted for this blog yet as best of the web, please do so. For more info on that, see the post below.


The brown section above is original plaster work. The white part below is where the original plaster was ripped out and replaced mid-century. The white section will be renovated to match the brown section. All images copyright Katie Zemtseff.

This entryway has been hidden for decades. It will be cleaned up and opened to the public as part of the rehabilitation.

This is me behind one of the clock faces in the clock tower. This is not part of the current rehabilitation project (but it is awesome!)

Water pouring down a staircase that has been closed to the public for decades. It will be opened up as part of the project.
This is the office space on the station's third floor. In recent years, it has been the home of pigeons and dust.
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Read the DJC’s free Building Green Special Section

If you don’t have a subscription to the DJC or don’t click on our articles as they are locked, you might not know about our free special sections.

Special sections, written by people in a targeted industry for people in the industry, are free to read, meaning even you non-subscribers can access valuable information. Special sections come out about once a month and each section focuses on a different topic. This month’s excellent topic is Building Green and I am thoroughly impressed with the breadth of this year’s coverage.

The free special section is here.

In it, you’ll find this excellent article by Michelle Rosenberger and Nancy Henderson of ArchEcology called “Watch out for ‘greenwashing’ by service providers.” Among its interesting points, the article examines whether consultants can truly bring a LEED approach to a project without rigorous third party LEED certification.  Interesting item to bring up.

There’s this article by Constance Wilde of CB Richard Ellis reflecting on her personal experience of  becoming a Certified Green Broker, and its values and benefits.

There’s this great article by Joel Sisolak of the Cascadia Green Building Council called “Two Seattle projects set ‘net-zero’ water goals,” which looks at the region’s water infrastructure and two living buildings (The Bertschi School’s Science Wing and the Cascadia Center for Sustainable Design and Construction, both covered previously in this blog)  that plan to go off the water grid and their challenges in doing so.

Then there’s this article by Elizabeth Powers at O’Brien & Co. on whether green parking lots can be (gasp!) green. I’ll let you read the article to learn more.

The section also has articles from representatives of Skanska USA Building, Mithun, MulvannyG2, GGLO, Scott Surdyke, Sandra Mallory of the city of Seattle and CollinsWoerman on topics ranging from the city’s role in evolving practices to big box stores, student housing and public housing.

So go ahead, check it out and enjoy!

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