Tour Our House Tonight


What: Design Mix Happy Hour at the Ballard Zero-Energy House
When: Tuesday, June 21, 4:00 – 6:30 p.m.
Where: Please RSVP for address
Cost: Free

I have recently taken a job as membership programs manager with the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties. One of my duties is to manage several of their councils programs, including the Design Professionals of the Sales & Marketing Council. Some members of this council expressed an interest in net-zero-energy home building and design, so I offered to host their monthly happy hour series, Design Mix, in my home.

The event is free and open to the public. Come take a tour of the house, while mixing with Seattle-area architects, designers, and building industry folks. Todd Bell of Premier SIPs, the manufacturer of the panels that our house is framed with, will be giving a short presentation on this building method. Refreshments will be served.

Eventbrite - Design Mix Happy Hour - Ballard Zero-Energy House

Registration is free, but I encourage you to make a donation to the Code Innovations Database, a resource for code officials, the building industry and the public to share information about successfully permitted projects and evolving green codes. CID is raising money to conduct a detailed case study of the Ballard Zero-Energy Home.



We’re Building Another Zero-Energy House

It’s been nearly four years since Alex and I moved into our house, and in that time we’ve become true believers, so to speak, in the zero-energy concept. Living, cooking, and entertaining in our house has shown us the value of the pragmatic approach to green building. While our house may not be as aesthetically sophisticated as other homes, it perfectly meets our needs while requiring the bare minimum of resources, both material and financial, to operate. We find it beautiful for its simplicity, its value, and its comfort.

Is the Pragmatic Approach to Building Catching On?

We’ve also found that other people have been interested in this minimalist, lean approach to building. Many people have contacted us over the years who want to learn more about how to strip a house design down to its minimal functional elements and how to control costs while maximizing performance.

Is there a backlash brewing against the excesses (in square footage, finishes, and costs) that can be found everywhere from the suburbs to the pages of Dwell magazine? I’d like to think so.

Whether other people choose to embrace this pragmatic green approach as we have, we definitely see the world through a different lens now that we’ve lived in our zero-energy house for a few years. In fact, the experience of building our home and sharing what we’ve learned with others has made us want to do it again.

A New Zero-Energy Home

Over the last few months, we’ve started to act on an idea that we’ve been mulling over for a while. Alex and I love the Methow Valley in Eastern Washington, a very special place we’ve visited for nordic skiing, camping, hiking, and a marathon. It is also typically sunny, even when Seattle is shrouded in gloom.

We’ve always dreamed of having a home base out there, but the cost was prohibitive, and the idea of a house sitting unoccupied out there for long stretches had no appeal. After all, what could be less pragmatic than a second home?

The Sharing Economy to the Rescue

We’ve gotten involved in the so-called sharing economy over the years, starting two sailboat co-ops, renting out our house on Airbnb, and even, for a time, renting our car by the hour to strangers. We started to envision building another zero-energy home in the Methow with a group of eight or so friends.

We began the process by scoping out building sites with good solar exposure. We also started talking to friends and exploring different ways to finance such a project. Our friends Dave and Lisa were especially interested in the concept, and we made a trip out to the Methow together to view land. With the help of our excellent real estate agent, Frank Kline, we found a parcel just outside the town of Winthrop that had a lot of potential. Although it wasn’t as big as the typical 5-acre lots in the area, it was part of a small community with specific provisions for green building and responsible development.

Another unique aspect of the community was that it was zoned for nightly rentals, a rarity in the area. Our project suddenly started to take a slightly different shape. Instead of sharing the cabin with a large group of friends and co-owners, we would build it with Dave and Lisa and rent it when we weren’t able to use it ourselves.

We formed an LLC that we named Artemisia (after the sagebrush that grows in the area) and purchased the land together. We hired an architect, 10 Over Studio, to design a small, 1,100 square-foot two-bedroom house with a sleeping loft, and we are finalizing the plans now.

Already we have learned a lot about group decision-making, the legalities and financial implications of forming a partnership, and building a house in a small, tight-knight community versus Seattle. We’ve also had a lot of fun meeting with Dave and Lisa over home-cooked meals to discuss plans, traveling out to Winthrop together, and camping on our land.

We’ve started a blog for our new zero-energy cabin, which I hope you will check out:

Since we think this is a somewhat unique project (the first net-zero nightly rental that we know of), we’ve decided to try something new: We are offering to test out and review a number of green building products in our new cabin. We would be very appreciative if you took a look at the list of the items we’re seeking and let us know if you can think of any distributors or manufacturers that might be interested in getting involved.

Most of all, we’d love to hear what you think of our new project. It’s already been a lot of work, even though we haven’t even poured the foundation yet. It’s also been a tremendously positive learning experience, just like building our first house in Ballard was.

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We will probably eliminate this bump-out for cost reasons.

We will probably eliminate this bump-out for cost reasons.

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For energy reasons, these huge north-facing windows will have to go!

The purple Mercury Sable ("Sablita") is an inside joke: It's the car that Lisa drove after college.

The purple Mercury Sable (“Sablita”) is an inside joke: It’s the car that Lisa drove after college.

We are still tweaking our porch overhang for shading and snow load engineering.

We are still tweaking our porch overhang for shading and snow load engineering.

These renderings don't show the final glazing. We will likely have fewer windows on the south side.

These renderings don’t show the final glazing. We will likely have fewer windows on the south side.

The Northwest Green Home Tour Is This Weekend


The annual Green Home Tour has been a big part of my life for the last few years. Back in 2012, my wife Alex and I wandered into one of the homes on the tour, a thoroughly retrofitted near-net-zero classic home in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge neighborhood, that became a big inspiration for our own home. We’ve been told that our house in turn helped inspire others to build their own net-zero-energy homes.

Over the years, I have gone from attendee of the tour to volunteer, and for the last two years, co-organizer. It’s been a lot of work, but it’s gratifying to see homeowners and builders pushing the envelope, inspiring visitors on the tour, who then build or retrofit their own homes and put them on the tour for others to see. It’s a virtuous cycle that keeps getting stronger.

There’s so much dedication and innovation on display in the 40 homes on this year’s tour, but I’d like to highlight the net-zero projects you can tour this Saturday and Sunday, April 25-26, 11am – 5pm. (Note that each house is open one day only.)

Free tickets and tour guide are available at

by Artisan Electric

5011 47th Ave SW
Seattle, WA  

This certified Built Green house offsets over 100% of its electricity needs. With its energy-conscious features like radiant heat floors, LED lighting, hot water on-demand, this home is a fantastic example of incorporating sustainability into everyday life. Read more

by Artisan Electric

2701 47th Ave SW
Seattle, WA

This net-zero, certified Built Green home has a custom 10kW Made-in-WA PV system. Includes open-plan living space, ultra-efficient energy systems, passive and active solar design, and whole-house energy monitoring. Read more

Greenhome Solutions | Dwell Development | Bluefrog Solar | Puget Sound Solar

1749 NW 61st St
Seattle, WA

This will be the first developer-built single-family house in the Northwest to be certified at the rigorous Emerald Star Built Green level. Built on the Passive House model, it has enough solar panels to achieve net-zero-energy. Read more

Sunergy Systems

612 NW 60th St
Seattle, WA

Our net-zero house, which we believe was the first of its kind in Seattle, will be back on the tour this year. It is an Energy Star certified, 5-Star Built Green home that produces as much electricity from the sun as it uses over the course of a year. Read more

Puget Sound Solar

5308 Baker Ave NW
Seattle, WA

Yes, a century-old home in Seattle can produce all of the energy that it uses and still retain its original charm. This is the Phinney Ridge that helped inspire us to build our own net-zero home. Read more

Abode Builders | Forecast Solar

10719 1st Ave NW
Seattle, WA

This net-zero home constructed on an infill lot with DADU (detached accessory dwelling unit) is based off of the same plans as our house. It features a 10 KW solar array, high efficiency air-to-water heat pump, in-ground 550 gallon cistern for rainwater harvesting, and SIP (structural insulated panel) walls. Read more

A&R Solar

23025 74th Ave W
Edmonds, WA

This home goes way beyond net-zero, producing 177% of its electricity for 2014. It’s an all-electric home with heat pump and heat pump water heater. There’s even enough juice left over to charge the owner’s Tesla Model S electric car. New this year, it has a 4,690 gallon cistern system to collect rainwater for reuse in the home. Read more

Another Net-Zero in the Neighborhood

There’s nothing more gratifying than seeing our home’s net-zero-energy-on-a-budget concept emulated, and it’s even sweeter when it happens practically right in the neighborhood.

Dan Allison contacted us at the end of 2013 and said he and his wife had a lot near Seattle’s Carkeek Park, about three miles north of our house. We gave him and his a wife a tour of our home, and it wasn’t too long before Dan wrote back to say that he had broken ground on a home very similar to ours.

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He worked with Ted Clifton Sr. of Zero-Energy Plans to come up with a design that would incorporate an existing small structure on the lot as a detached accessory dwelling unit (DADU). The new structure would resemble our house and would have enough solar photovoltaic panels on the roof to cover the power needs of both houses.

“We are going to build the first (I believe) NetZero rental home in Seattle,” he wrote to me in July.

Dan started excavating back in September and came by to take a closer look at our radiant heating system. After some initial questions about building with structural insulated panels (SIPs), the Seattle Department of Planning and Development asked if they could use his house as a way to learn about that building material.

“They want to know more about how a SIPS panel house works as they are looking to encourage energy efficiency in new building,” wrote Dan. “We will be working with the inspectors and planners to help everyone understand how this house goes together. As a result we will be able to forgo special inspections that are done by third party and add to building costs.”

Perhaps the coolest thing about this project–even more than that it’s partly inspired by our house or that the city is studying it–is that Dan is serving as the general contractor to keep costs down. He’s even doing much of the labor himself and enlisting the help of friends to raise the SIPs walls. Very inspiring!

Follow Dan’s progress here.

Radiant heating system powered by a heat pump.

Radiant heating system powered by a heat pump.

Dan enlisted the help of friends to raise the walls.

Dan enlisted the help of friends to raise the walls.

These SIPs walls look familiar.

These SIPs walls look familiar.

Join Us for Ballard Green Building Talk #8: A Uniquely Ballard DIY Green Building Tale

Our neighborhood of Seattle is full of what some call “Ballard boxes,” tiny cottages that are short on space and insulation. These drafty old homes are often purchased by developers or homebuyers and torn down.

The owners of this particular box went in a different direction. They commissioned Heliotrope Architects to design a sister structure that was faithful to the neighborhood’s small-scale, peaked-roof homes. Regional builders Hammer and Hand completed the high-performance shell, drawing on their expertise building Passive House structures to create an air-tight, highly efficient new living space and updating the old. The homeowners, who come from a design background themselves, took on all the finish work to keep costs under control.

The result is a visually interesting home consisting of two wings, classic and modern, connected by a breezeway in the middle.

The designer, the builder, and the homeowners will all be telling the story of how this house came together and offering tours. The event quickly sold out, but we just released a few more tickets. Space is extremely limited, but I hope you can join us if you are in the Seattle area.

Eventbrite - Ballard Green Building Talk #8: A Uniquely Ballard DIY Green Building Tale

Hammer and Hand + Heliotrope Invite

loyal-heights-02 loyal-heights-exterior

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The Tour That Sparked My Interest in Net-Zero Building

What: The 2014 Northwest Green Home Tour

When: Saturday, April 26, 11am – 5pm

Where: 47 homes and commercial sites throughout the greater Seattle region

Info and map:

Tickets: Free event, no tickets required. Official tour program printed in Seattle Natural Awakenings magazine

Since last January, I’ve been hard at work organizing the 2014 NW Green Home Tour, but my history with the event starts much earlier than that.

Back in 2011, shortly after Alex and I moved to Seattle, we saw a sign on the street for the tour while we were taking a walk. We were looking for building ideas at the time and wandered into a beautiful 100+ year-old home that the owners had substantially renovated and insulated to the point where their solar panels almost produced all their power. This was still a somewhat novel concept for us at the time, and it  helped inspire us to build our own net-zero-energy house a few blocks away.

In fact, the next year our house was complete, and we had made the last-minute decision to include a full PV array in our construction loan and target net-zero ourselves. I got involved as a volunteer with the tour, and it eventually occurred to me to try to give something back to the Seattle community by putting our own house on the tour. Another nearby resident, Becky Chan, toured our house that year and eventually went on to hire our builder, Ted Clifton, to substantially renovate her own fixer-upper house into a modern net-zero-energy home, which, you guessed it, she put on the tour to inspire yet more potential home builders and renovators to take on the net-zero goal.

Sure enough, Ted Clifton is back this year with another net-zero house, this one designed to power not only itself but the owners’ electric car. Another impressively renovated home on this year’s tour does the same.

Last year, the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild and Built Green hired me and a colleague at Sustainable Ballard, Jenny Heins, to organize the tour. It’s been a ton of work, much more than I had anticipated, but an honor and a pleasure to organize such a fantastic event.

If you live in the Seattle area, I hope you’ll consider touring some homes on Saturday. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the next to continue the virtuous cycle of taking inspiration from what you see and building your own net-zero house.

We’re also still looking for about five volunteers, and we’d appreciate your help. More info.


NW Green Home Tour


Come to our next Ballard Green Building Talk, Nov. 13

SustainableWorks Invite 

RSVP here.

Hope you can make it!

Doppelgänger House Spotted on Whidbey Island

Our Ballard net-zero-energy house is not just in Ballard anymore. Mark and Diane Leganza are about to move into a house built to almost the same plans as ours on Whidbey Island.

Attendees of the recent SICBA Home Tour got a close-up look at their home, which is projected to be net-energy-positive, just like ours. Unlike our home, however, this one is decidedly rural, set in a beautiful treed lot. Because they weren’t restricted by the setbacks of a small urban lot like ours, they were able to build the wraparound porch that the design originally called for and a large workshop/garage. I only have a few photos, but the house looks great amongst the trees.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to attend the tour, and we were out of town Mark and Diane did a walkthrough of our house a couple of years ago, but we want to congratulate them on their almost-completed project.

The house was built by Ted Clifton Sr., who sells a full builder’s set of plans for just $1,275. We’d love to see more people build this affordable, high-performance design in other parts of the country as well.

The Leganzas have a blog detailing the building process.


The Leganzas’ house under construction. Notice the 26′ x 24′ attached, heated garage, to be used as a studio.

Arial shot of the building site.

The radiant slab under construction. Notice how the lines avoid spaces that don’t need to be heated, like under where the kitchen cabinets will go.

The large lot gave the Leganzas space to install the 1,400 feet of line required for their Bosch geothermal heat pump. Because we didn’t have enough yard to bury the lines, we had to install a slightly less efficient (and cheaper) air-to-water heat pump.


Lots of visitors during the tour.


The Leganzas’ lot is a wee bit bigger than our 50′ x 75′ Ballard postage stamp.


Mark also helped install the wood flooring, choosing a 5/8″ strand bamboo versus our fir.

Just as in our house, the largest wall in the great room make a great movie screen. While we’ve screened such movie night gems as “Troll Hunter,” the Leganzas showed a clever time-lapse movie of the construction process during the home tour.

Our House Wins a U.S. Department of Energy Housing Innovation Award

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We want to congratulate our builder, Ted Clifton Jr., for winning a prestigious national award for our home. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Housing Innovation Awards recognize the very best in innovation on the path to zero net-energy ready homes. The designer of our house, Ted Clifton Sr., also deserves much credit for helping our house perform so well.

Interestingly, our house won in the “Affordable Builders” category. I see it as a real testament to Ted Sr.’s innovative design and Ted Jr.’s cost-control chops that our net-zero-energy custom home was able to compete and win in a category filled with public housing projects and Habitat for Humanity houses. Way to go guys!

Check out what the US Department of Energy had to say (or go to the full article here):

The owners of a U.S. Department of Energy Challenge Home in Seattle, Washington, are so excited about their high-performance net zero energy home they have become “energy evangelists,” blogging about the design and construction process, organizing a series of community talks on sustainability, and hosting several local green home tours since construction started in 2011.

Homeowners Eric Thomas and Alexandra Salmon are not the only ones excited about this ENERGY STAR-certified, 5-Star Built Green home, which is one of Seattle’s first true net-zero energy homes (a home that produces as much electricity from the sun as it uses over the course of a year). The home has garnered a lot of media attention from local TV and radio news shows and newspapers and national magazines and web sites as well.

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Thomas and Salmon didn’t set out to become local green celebrities. The newlyweds were just looking for a house to buy and couldn’t find anything they liked in their price range. When they came across an empty lot for $180,000 in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle, they decided to build.

A search for house plans turned up Zero Energy Plans LLC, a design firm started by pioneering zero energy home builder Ted L. Clifton who builds highly energy- efficient custom homes on and around nearby Whidbey Island in the Puget Sound. The couple was very attracted to the idea of building a home that produces at least as much energy as it consumes. Clifton encouraged them to also go for a DOE Challenge Home certification on the home. Clifton was one of a group of builders who provided suggestions to DOE for formulating the Challenge Home program. He has committed to meeting the Challenge Home criteria on all of his new homes.

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The home was built by Ted L. Clifton’s son, Ted W. Clifton, whose Bellingham, Washington, firm TC Legend Homes is gaining a reputation for highly efficient green construction. The couple selected a design for a three-bedroom, two-story 1,915 ft2 home with an open floor plan. They asked Clifton to modify the plans slightly to let in more light and to save on construction costs. For example, they didn’t build a garage. The couple didn’t even own a car when construction started and on their small urban lot, the only available spot for a garage would have been underneath the house, which would have required the considerable added expense of excavation.

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Instead of a basement, they chose a slab foundation. The builder applied an acid stain to the concrete, which resulted in a beautiful, durable floor that saves on flooring costs and works well with their in-slab radiant floor heating. The concrete also acts as a thermal mass to absorb heat from the home’s many south-facing windows during the day, providing a source of passive solar heating.

The radiant heating system consists of PEX tubing in the first-floor slab, which circulates water that is heated by an air-to-water heat pump. The 3-ton heat pump has a capacity of 35,400 Btu/h with a heating efficiency HSPF (heating season performance factor) of 9.2 or a COP (coefficient of performance) of 3.0 to 5.5. Thanks to the home’s open design, well-insulated shell, and air-mixing ventilation system, this first-floor hydronic heating system is all that’s needed to keep even the second-floor bedrooms warm, with the exception of a small electric-resistance in-floor heating mat in the upstairs bathroom.

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The air-to-water heat pump also preheats the home’s domestic hot water. The hot water system has three tanks: the first tank (a standard 50-gallon water heater with its element removed) is kept at a constant 105 degrees by the heat pump; it serves as a reservoir for the radiant floor and the rest of the system. When needed, a small circulating pump sends hot water from the first tank to the second tank. The second tank acts as a heat exchanger that preheats domestic water before it enters the third tank, a standard electric-resistance hot water heater.

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The home’s building envelope is insulated and air tight to levels approaching Passive House standards. The slab-on-grade foundation is separated from the ground by four inches of extruded polystyrene (XPS) rigid foam, providing an R-20 insulation value. Two inches (R-10) of XPS rigid foam insulation covers the exterior of the foundation walls down to the footing.

The walls and roof of the home are composed of structural insulated panels (SIPs). For the walls, these panels consist of two pieces of OSB sandwiching a 5-5/8-inch layer of rigid expanded polystyrene (EPS) that, together with siding and drywall, provides a total wall insulation value of R-26. The walls are covered with a corrugated house wrap that provides a drainage plane and a slight air gap for ventilation. The home is sided with durable, rot-resistant fiber cement siding.

The EPS roof is built with thicker 10-1/4-inch SIP panels providing an R-41 insulation value. The SIPs are manufactured locally in a factory 30 miles south of Seattle and come to the site precisely cut for the home design, which enables quick assembly with much less construction waste than is typical of site-built framed walls.

Windows can be the weak spot in a home’s thermal envelope, but the builder selected high-performance triple-glazed windows sourced from a company in nearby British Columbia. The windows’ vinyl frames have extruded internal chambers that provide thermal breaks for insulating properties allowing them to outperform many more expensive wood- and fiberglass-framed products. The windows have an insulating argon gas fill between the glass panes and the glass is covered with an invisible low-emissivity coating to minimize winter heat loss and summer heat gain. The windows have a rare combination of low U factors (U=0.15 to 0.20) meaning they are highly insulating, and a high solar heat gain coefficient (SHC=0.50) meaning they let in a lot of solar energy, which is important for a home designed to make use of passive solar heating.

Clifton recommended against a heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) and instead incorporated a balanced ventilation system that he has used successfully in several homes in the Northwest climate. The system makes use of several exhaust fans: one in each bathroom, the laundry room, and the kitchen. The exhaust fan in the upstairs bathroom is motion-activated; it runs steadily at a low rate and ramps up when someone enters the room. When the powerful exhaust fan in the kitchen is switched on, it also activates a supply fan that brings fresh air into the home from outside, sending it through a HEPA filter and to all three bedrooms and the living room. “We keep the house at 69 degrees in the winter, and the air stays at a comfortable 55% relative humidity,” said Thomas.

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The home has no air conditioning and, in an August 2013 blog post, Thomas wondered, with all the south-facing windows, “would we find ourselves baking in our personal greenhouse in the summer?” But the homeowners have been pleasantly surprised to find they can stay cool, even without resorting to running the heat pump in reverse to chill the floors, thanks to a simple trick Clifton showed them. They leave the windows open to let in the cooler night air and turn on the exhaust fan in the kitchen (which also activates the powered HEPA ventilation system) for about 15 minutes first thing in the morning. When the outside temperature starts to rise at midday, they close the windows and lower the double-honeycomb cloth blinds; the indoor temperature stays low all day without any air conditioning. This technique is especially suited to the Northwest’s dry summers with cool evenings.

All of these energy-efficiency measures have added up to a house that performs remarkably well from an energy standpoint. Even without counting in the solar panels, the home earns a home energy rating system (HERS) score of 37 and would have projected utility bills of about $740 a year. For comparison, a home built to the 2006 IECC would typically have a HERS score of 100 and the average HERS score for typical older homes is 120. With the 6.4-kW photovoltaic power system installed on the roof, the home’s HERS scores drops to -1 and utility bills for the all-electric home drop to zero. The home has actually performed better than predicted, hitting zero on the net electricity meter three months ahead of schedule. By January 2013, after 15 months of living in the home, the home owners had a credit of $230 with the utility company. They chose to leave it in their account to cover winter months (November through March) when the bi-monthly electricity bills could get as high as $90. In contrast, from March through October, bimonthly bills ranged from -$12 to -$125.

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With a custom design, high-end appliances and equipment, and so much performance, one would expect the price tag to be pretty steep but the very average price is one reason the unique home has attracted so much attention.

The cost to build was only $124/ft2 (or $114 if you count the rebates and incentives), whereas the average cost for new residential construction in Seattle is $200/ft2. The $124/ft2 included the costs for design, construction, materials, PV system, taxes, and permits (which totaled $237,000, including $32,696 for the PV system before rebates). The land cost $180,000. After subtracting a $9,000 federal tax credit for the PV system, and $9,000 for state solar production credits (paid out over 9 years), the total came to about $399,000. On top of that, the homeowners won’t be paying for utilities, which come to about $150 per month, or $1,800 per year, for the average Seattle household.

“Now that we’ve lived in the house for a year, we’ve found it to be warm in the winter, cool in the summer (even without air conditioning), and comfortable overall. By keeping the design simple and minimizing expensive finishes, we were able to keep the cost of building down … we think our project demonstrates building green need not cost more than traditional construction. Now that we have settled in, we hope to play a role in inspiring others to build or retrofit existing Seattle homes to the net-zero-energy standard,” said Thomas.

Catch My Presentation at the BuiltGreen Conference

BuiltGreen Conference Big

If you’re planning on attending the upcoming BuiltGreen Conference, Nov. 6, in Woodinville, WA, be sure to check out the panel I’ll be speaking on. Spoiler alert: ours is one of the houses that succeeded in reaching its net-zero-energy goal.

Online registration is here. Hope you can make it!

Zero Energy Homes: Evaluating Post Occupancy Energy Performance
Eric Thomas, Senior Copywriter, IOOC and Publicity Coordinator, Sustainable Ballard
George Ostrow, Founder, Velocipede Architects
Nick Neid, Project Manager, Ichijo USA
A new age of high performance building has taken place, and zero energy is more possible today than ever. However, homes that are designed and built with aspirations that are too lofty do not always realize their zero energy goals. This session will examine three projects from our region that attempted net-zero energy that now have been lived in for over a year. Find out how each of these projects have been performing and what the key factors are of the projects’ success – or lack thereof. Learn what works, what doesn’t work and what some of the pitfalls are in designing and building innovative high-performance projects.