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: www.artemisiacabin.com.
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.
We will probably eliminate this bump-out for cost reasons.
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.
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.