More often than not, uber-green houses are vanity projects of the super-rich. They hire some architect to design a home with solar panels, geothermal heating systems and all the rest, and pay upwards of a million dollars (or two or three) to show the rest of us how it should be done. That's why it's interesting that some developers are coming along saying they can build affordable green homes.
Perhaps even more interesting are several dozen other homes also being built at Rainier Vista by one of the contractors working on the "future" house. Anthony Maschmedt, who runs a Columbia City firm called Dwell Development, is building what he claims are unusually green homes--completely unsubsidized--that are selling in the $400,000 to $500,000 range.
He says he uses an approach that adds only an extra two to five percent in construction costs, say $125 per square foot instead of $120. He doesn't attempt all the green bells and whistles, like costly solar panels and drilling down into the earth for geothermal heating. Instead, he concentrates on one thing: "the envelope, making the house airtight," he says.
In addition to putting in energy-efficient windows, he sprays the house with what he calls a "breathable membrane," a rubber-and-asphalt-based substance that fills in all the nooks and crannies and keeps air from escaping. He also splurges on one major product, a ventilation system that uses the warm air inside a house to heat the cool air coming in from outside. He says the system dramatically reduces ongoing heating costs.
But he says he wants to do more. So, next door to where the "future" house will sit, he's building something called a "passive house"--a super energy-efficient house that originated in Europe. (See design of Rainier Vista passive house above.) In the average house, Maschmedt explains, air leaks out of a house nine times and is replaced by fresh air. In a passive house, air leaks out less than once an hour. (See how Maschmedt tests for air leaks in King 5's recent coverage.)
To reach that level of efficiency, he says, "every screw and every nail is analyzed." Every time a builder penetrates the outside of a house, creating a possible leak, the area is "caulked and sealed." For the Rainier Vista project, he's hired consultants who specialize in passive houses, Seattle's Brute Force Collaborative.
The house will cost a little more to build and thus will sell for a little more, likely in the low 500,000s. But Maschmedt maintains that's still not vanity-house territory, a point underscored by the fact that it is being built on spec rather than customized for "some rich guy trying to make a statement."
"I'm all for it," says Clark Williams-Derry, research director of the environmental non-profit Sightline Institute, upon hearing about Dwell's project. He sees passive homes as a big step up in energy efficiency. And he says, "they're not that hard to do. They should be catching on." He also notes that it costs less to build green houses than it used to, thanks to the increasing availability of things like super-efficient windows.
Still, there are those that are bound to want more green bells and whistles. Maschmedt's solution to that is to build a house so that those features can be added later. For instance, he'll put in meters to be used with a solar power system. But he envisions that most homeowners will contemplate putting in solar panels when they're no longer so expensive.