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Passive House: Homeowner Interview

I recently caught up with DT North to interview him about his experience so far in building the second Passive House in Washington State:

Describe the home project you are involved with at this time.

We are building a 2300 square foot house in the Northeast Olympia neighborhood, it’s currently in framing stage. The house is being designed as a Certified Passive House and Built Green Level 5. The house will be twice the size of our current home and use 15% of the energy. It is a 3 bedroom 2 1/2 bath with understated, modern styling. The exterior design was inspired partly by the classic farmhouse shape and the interior was inspired by great rooms you see in city lofts where the kitchen, dining room and living room are all connected. The vaulted ceiling is 17 feet at it’s peak; the great room will be naturally daylighted by large southern exposed dual-purpose windows. There is an ‘away room’ off the great room that will be used as a family room and transformed into a guest room when needed. We thought it was more useful to have a room like this instead of a 4th bedroom that would not be used 90% of the time. The master suite is on the main level and has a good sized bathroom which is a barrier-free; as we age, the house will function well for us–even if we become disabled. There are two bedrooms upstairs for the kids and they have their own bathroom. The home will have tons of built in storage.

The home is being built on our current property. We are fortunate to have purchased a double lot in 1999. We love the neighborhood but have outgrown our current house. We have a 15 year old boy and a 9 year old girl and our current home, at 1200 square feet with poor use of space, motivated us to upgrade. We looked at remodeling and at purchasing a larger home. The two problems that came up were that we could not find anything in our neighborhood that suited our needs. When considering remodeling, we were told that we may find issues with the current home that presented some problems: the house was built in 1929 and poorly remodeled twice in the last 40 years. We even looked at purchasing a lot and building but found that permitting and new construction costs were prohibitive.

You and your wife are early adopters with this building standard, prior to building a Passive House, was ultra energy-efficiency and sustainable design at the top of your ‘must have’ list?

It is certainly the case that whether purchasing a car, a home or any appliance that uses energy, we consider efficiency and sustainability. It has simply been within our paradigm since we were quite young.

You have two children, are they interested in this really cool new house?

They are always interested in “the new”. They are going to have a lot more room in the new house but are pretty accustomed to Kim and I being intentional and conscious in our purchases and lifestyle.

Did you know about Passive House prior to coming to The Artisans Group?

No, Tessa Smith, the designer was the first to raise our awareness. Over the years, Kim and I have looked at home building methods such as geodesic domes, earth houses, structural insulated panels (SIP), straw- bale, etc. But none of the other methods had a quantitative performance-based design built into them.

Has The Artisans Group been a good choice for designing and building your new Passive House?

No question. The quality, creativity, expertise and service have been second to none. We had tried to build a home a year ago and the deal went south after we learned that our needs weren’t being met. Artisans was empathetic about our prior experience and since working with them we have been extremely happy.

What was the project development process like? Was/Is there much of a learning curve for you?

We started with talking with Tessa about our life style, values and design elements that we liked using magazines, books and internet sites. Tessa used that information along with the parameters such as budget, building in the space on our current lot to come up with the design. We provided Tessa with feedback on the design and made some minor tweaks. She adjusted and we had two more iterations of the basic design. We got a “ball-park” figure on a cost that we could live with. This included a couple of options. After we selected our ball park options we started to work on energy modeling through Passive House Institutes complex software system. Randy Foster and Tessa met with us during this process in order to further tweak the design to meet the performance criteria. Simultaneously, we began work with Diane Gassman to make selections such as cabinets, lighting, fixtures etc.

We fortunately did not have much of a learning curve on the basics as we had been through the whole process a year prior with another builder. The team at The Artisans Group was great at helping us through the process and asking for feedback on how the process was serving us. Julie Buzzo, the drafter, let us “play” with the computer rendering. We were able to see inside the house and look at rooms from different angles in the computer program. It was like walking through a virtual house. Diane was a wealth of knowledge in identifying vendors. When we tried to find those “hard to find” items, she gave us contacts all the way from Olympia to Bellevue and Portland. The vendors she referred us to had the products in stock so we could see them first hand. Tessa was always there to give feedback on how any particular selection would fit with the style and design element (there is was a learning curve here as Kim and I have never been into interior design). You can really get bogged down by the shear volume and minutia in making selections. Tessa and Diane were great at helping us see the forest through the trees. Randy was there to meet, discuss and advise on the more pedestrian, yet crucial issues involving cost implications and impact on the energy consumption. For example, Randy was instrumental in pre-wiring the house for installation of solar panels down the road.

How has it been living on a construction site?

I really thought it was going to be more difficult than it has been. One of the benefits of living at the site is you get to see the progress daily. The only drawback has been the space that the construction takes up. The new house is being built on our driveway and we no longer have access to our garage. The dirt from excavation is being stored on the side of our house. This will be used to back fill around the house once it is completed. We have temporary stairs to our porch that we use until construction is done. The crew arrives anywhere from 7:00 a.m to 8:00 a.m. and stay until the end of the day. We have a separate entry for our cars that was cut through the existing hedges. Mark Dixon, the lead carpenter has been great at explaining the construction process. About once a week, I spend a few minutes talking to him about the progress and next steps.

We know Passive House is the most sensible way to achieve net-zero, particularly in our region, do you think you’ll pursue solar electricity for your new home?

We hope to install a system that will feedback power into the grid. I learned just this week that there currently is no Washington State sales tax for solar power systems. There is a 30% federal tax credit. And, if we buy Washington State built products, the power company will buy any energy we feed into the system at 6 times the rate we pay them for energy. We currently pay 8.5 cents for a kilowatt hour for the first 600 kilowatt hours per month. Any energy we feed back into the system, they will pay us 54 cents per kilowatt hour up to $5000 per year. Our house is expected to use 4000 kilowatt hours per year. If we buy a system that produces 8000 kilowatts, we will be an energy producer. We will be able to pay it off in 3 to 6 years (depending on energy price increases) and have no direct energy costs.

You’ve been a very engaged participant in every aspect of development, has this been fun for you?

It has been a lot of work. But that is the cost of living intentional and conscientious. This is the biggest purchase we will likely ever make and will likely only do it once. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It has been a great journey so far.

You’re creating history with this seminal project, it will be the second Certified Passive House in WA state, how does that feel?

I’m not sure how to answer that question. I leave it up to others to determine whether we are creating history.

We feel fortunate to have this opportunity available to us. One year ago we did not know about this option. It just so happens that we are the first in the area. I think if there were many PassiveHouses in the area we would have selected this option. There are obviously some risks to being leading edge but given the information available through the Passive House Institute and existing Passive House owners across the county show that the design works. The certification process is rigorous and we are confident that it will work.

Thanks so much DT!