In Issaquah, Washington, just west of Seattle, there’s a 10-home development looking to upend the way homes are designed, built, sold, and lived in. Designed to radically reduce its environmental impacts, zHome is aiming to prove that homes that use zero net energy and 60 percent less water, emit net zero carbon emissions, have clean indoor air, and use only low-toxicity materials are not only possible but are scalable to mainstream home production. And zHome recognizes that the only truly sustainable housing option is multi-family, so in this development you’ll find no single-family residences.
For an industry that still thinks of “green” as futuristic, expensive, and not necessarily important to the consumer, what zHome is promising is highly unusual—and way overdue. So too is its impressively serious education program, designed to transform builders and buyers alike into eco-advocates. There’s even a field trip program for kids. “Modern homes are about as innovative as the Model T,” says Project Manager Brad Liljequist, “but to me the home is the lowest hanging fruit of potential environmental innovation … zHome is having already having a catalyzing effect regionally, and we’re not even complete.”
A term still unfamiliar to most, zero net energy simply means that the project will use no more energy than it generates over the course of a year. This, and any other net zero project, is tied to the electrical grid, and trades energy with it. As Liljequist explains, “During the summer, zHome will be an energy producer (more sun for the solar panels and less heat demand), and during the winter, an energy user, averaging to zero. Of course, how the residents use energy inside the units is outside of our control, so we will be helping them with information and also an energy feedback monitor that will let them know how well they’re doing relative to achieving zero net energy.”
Gaining an understanding of the concepts behind net zero is only part of the battle. zHome will also need to demonstrate to potential buyers with visions of single family homes in their heads how it can deliver the promise of the American Dream, albeit in a slightly different form.
Liljequest isn’t worried. He thinks, in fact, that Puget Sound residents moved beyond that hesitation at least a decade ago. “A major portion of our growth, including in suburban cities, is in multifamily buildings,” he explains. “Issaquah Highlands, the urban village where zHome is located, is nearly half multifamily. People regionally have really become more urban and urbane. Living in community, being able to walk to the local coffee shop, and not have to take care of a big unused lawn are very attractive to a large part of the population here. People would rather be kayaking or hiking than fussing with their house.”
For Liljequist and his team, the real question is one of needs and values. How many people really need (or want) the three-car garage and the bonus room? He argues that the zHome is what many people want and need—a well-sized, quality, beautiful, incredibly green home for a relatively affordable price. “People are so tired of incrementalism and lack of progress on the environment,” he says, “and the thought of taking a huge step forward toward a radically reduced living footprint in a reasonable way just makes a lot of people very happy. It’s time for us to move past talk and show some real examples—it just moves the whole conversation forward.”