Will Tyler
Eric Thomas and Alex Salmon envisioned a home that was well-insulated, extremely energy efficient, had enough space to grow into, and had big, south-facing windows and now, despite their limited budget, they get to build it.

Young couple on a budget builds Ballard's first zero-energy house

Construction has started on Ballard's first zero-energy house. This house is so efficient that it will produce more energy than it uses.

Behind this one-of-its-kind home is a young, just-married couple who have been working hard since last October to make this project happen on a tight budget.

“We’re hoping to spread the word to people in Seattle and elsewhere who care about saving energy and saving money that this sort of house is not out of reach,” said owner Eric Thomas.

“Green building is often seen as a luxury, but we’re trying to prove that it doesn’t have to be. If we can do this with a little creativity and very limited funds, just about anyone can do it.”

Eric Thomas and Alexandra Salmon moved into their Ballard apartment in 2009, and they fell in love with the neighborhood immediately.

"We’ve been interested in finding ways to cut our personal energy use for as long as we can remember, but the idea of building a zero-energy house came to us relatively recently," Thomas said.

Wanting to move out of their apartment, the couple started looking at houses and condos around Ballard in 2010. But even at that low point in the housing market, there wasn’t much in their price range that appealed to them.

Driving home from an open house one day, the couple saw a pile of dirt with a hand-made "For Sale" sign on it. Dubbed "Mount Ballard" by the neighbors, this pile of dirt sat on a vacant lot.

"When we saw the lot for sale here in Ballard, it got us thinking about the prospect of building," Thomas said.

What they wanted was a house that was well-insulated, extremely energy efficient, had enough space to grow into, and had big, south-facing windows, while not exceeding their limited budget.

"We looked at lots of possibilities—prefab houses, conventional houses, and even a kit that we could build ourselves—but nothing was a great match," Thomas said.

After some research, Thomas found a Whidbey Island company called Zero Energy Home Plans which builds net zero-energy houses. Thomas went to Whidbey Island and visited with Ted Clifton in October of last year.

"He took hours to drive me around to a bunch of houses he had built or was building, which was amazing because I had come to him with a budget that most architects and builders would have laughed at," Thomas said.

Clifton recently built a house in Oregon that after producing all its own electricity with solar panels, still has enough energy left to power a Nissan Leaf for 3,400 miles.

"Buildings that can power themselves and maybe even cars really seemed like the direction we need to be heading. Alex and I are tremendously concerned about the effects of climate change, and this seemed like a good way to drastically cut our own emissions," Thomas said.

“When we found out that we could really make this happen for about the same price as buying an older single-family house or a townhouse in the neighborhood, we were absolutely thrilled."

Working with Clifton, Thomas and Salmon chose a design of an extremely well-insulated and airtight shell made of structural insulated panels and a rooftop solar panel array. Despite the misconception that Seattle weather is not sunny enough for solar power, Thomas said solar panels are the best practical way to produce sufficient energy.

The solar panel array will tie into the Seattle power grid and produce nearly 6,000 watts, enough to power all of the home’s appliances and other electrical needs. An electrical heat pump, also powered by the solar panels, provides hot water for the home’s radiant heat floors, faucets, and showers. No oil or natural gas is used.
 
The home sends power to the city’s electrical grid when the sun is out and draws it during the night or on cloudy days. Averaged over the entire year, the panels will produce more power than the house uses.

Working with a limited budget means Thomas and Salmon are looking to save money wherever they can. To save on building expenses, Thomas and Salmon have taken on a larger role than usual in securing building permits, and they hope to be able to do some finish work themselves. They also incorporated some reclaimed building materials, such as cast-iron tubs and sinks, and they opted for a very simple interior design to keep material and labor costs low.

"Working on the design was fun," Salmon said. "Securing the financing and the building permit, not so much. Banks were extremely hesitant to issue a construction loan. This had nothing to do with the style of house we had chosen and everything to do with the economic climate."

Once the house is built, Thomas and Salmon will save hundreds of dollars per month because they won't have any energy bills. Additionally, the Washington State’s incentive program will pay them nearly $1,000 a year for the next nine years. They will also receive a 30 percent federal tax credit the first year, which comes to about $9,000.

Thomas and Salmon's home will cost $220,000 to build, excluding the price of land.

"We expect to break even in about seven to ten years, and after that, it’s like a tax-free raise of a couple hundred dollars a month," Thomas said, adding that the net-zero energy performance of the house doesn’t depend on the subsidies, but it does help cover the solar panel system installation cost.

The couple said it's been a long process and they're really happy to start the fun process of seeing the house be built.

"It’s exciting for us to be a part of what we consider to be a very innovative approach to homebuilding," Salmon said. "We’re trying to use our experience to encourage our neighbors and others to attempt projects like this of their own, or at least take a closer look at how they might reduce their home energy consumption. If this project can spark a broader conversation about housing and energy use, then we’re happy to be guinea pigs."

Thomas and Salmon's house will be built on 612 NW 60th St and should be finished by Halloween.

For more information, visit the couple's blog at zerohouse.wordpress.com.

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