Almost ten years ago, Built Green, an environmentally-friendly residential building program of the Master Builders Association of King and Snohomish Counties, began a project to develop the first net energy townhome complex in the United States. The project was created to revolutionize green housing and prove that green building could be done affordably. To date, the project has been a huge success and seen amazing results: Ten units were built that actually go beyond net zero energy, have dramatically reduced their water use, use only low- and non-toxic materials, and have a 90% construction recycling rate. Learn more about the zHome project, the value of building green, and the future plans of the Built Green Program in our interview with Leah Missik, the Built Green Program Manager.
What is the zHome Project?
Designed to create affordable green housing, zHome was the first net zero energy townhome complex in the United States. The ten townhome units were designed in 2007 and certified by Built Green in September 2011. They adhere to rigorous environmental benchmarks, such as net zero energy use, a 90% construction recycling rate, and a 70% reduction in water use. A post-occupancy study done in 2015 found that the zHome units actually produce about 3.5% more energy than they consume (aided by a community trellis that generates an excess 562.8 kWh of renewable energy for the grid). Achieving its affordability goal, these units sold for slightly higher than standard prices but save the owner money over time. Varying based on unit size, the average monthly energy savings for zHome owners is estimated at $172. The net present value of 30 years of utility savings can range from $40,391 (2-bedroom unit) to $44,196 (one-bedroom unit).
In 2015, five years after the zHome project was completed, you did a post-occupancy study to see how zHomes actually perform. What did you find out from the study and what were the challenges?
Acquiring all of the necessary data for a thorough analysis was the biggest challenge. Happily, we managed to get almost all of the information we wanted, even though it took a lot of time and diligence. This goes to show why there aren’t as many of these post-occupancy evaluations as there should be. It is important to measure real building performance and learn from projects’ successes and shortcomings.
The success of the zHome white paper encouraged Built Green to pursue a much larger post-occupancy study that we are currently working on. It may be the largest of its kind so we are really excited to see what conclusions we are able to draw about the performance of certified versus non-certified homes with regard to their electricity consumption.
When I first started the evaluation with my team about a year ago, I did not imagine that the results would get as much coverage as they did – NPR syndicated the story nationally! The project was rewarding because of the attention it received, which proved there is an appetite for more studies of this sort. We were also able to validate our program’s work on zHome, which was a unique project that spanned over many years from inception to completion. Incredibly valuable was getting to know some of the zHome residents and hear from their perspective as well. Happily they continue to support Built Green by lending their perspective and sharing their stories.
Aside from energy savings and environmental benefits, what are the other great aspects of zHomes?
The zHome project has also had notable educational and social impacts. As of 2015, over 13,000 people had been educated about Built Green Green and other regional sustainability program through tours of zHome. In fact, one of the units was dedicated to education purposes for its first 10 years. What’s more, those living in zHomes find the experience to be “comfortable and enjoyable,” inherently encouraging positive “green” behavioral changes. According to two homeowners, Bryan and Karin, there is a very positive community aspect to zHomes. They love that the zHomes are located next to transit options and amenities (restaurants, grocery stores, and a movie theater) encouraging walking, biking, and public transportation.
Another significant aspect of this project is that it gave rise to the Built Green Emerald Star rating level, one of the highest “green” ratings. As the report concludes, zHome has helped chart progress for green building in the region. In fact, it helped change code and increased flexibility for green building innovations.
What does your current role as the Built Green Program Manager entail?
My current role involves a variety of tasks, and there isn’t really a typical day. I spend a lot of time building the program’s prominence and this happens in many ways. I work with local governments to support their green building objectives and to encourage incentives for builders who build to Built Green certification. I also work on different advertising campaigns that work to get our brand out to the public. We do member recruitment as well as provide member education, so I help coordinate all of that. We put on an annual conference, and that involves me seeking out interesting speakers, organizing everything, and promoting the event. I also conduct research, do data analysis, and write reports and articles to showcase cool Built Green projects or other work related to the program. And finally, I review documentation to certify homes as Built Green.
What advice do you have for women (and young women in particular) who have careers or are aspiring to have careers in your line of work?
Unfortunately, there are challenges for women in my industry (building) – and in general. I’ve had to deal with pretty egregious sexual harassment even in professional settings, starting when I was an intern in graduate school and continuing today. It is a sad reality at the moment. I have also noticed that I sometimes have not been given the respect or granted the authority many of my male peers automatically are. For example, it has been assumed that I am a server when in fact I am the manager of the program hosting the event. My advice to fellow young women is to not let anyone deter you. If you are harassed, don’t be ashamed. Tell human resources. If you feel safe, call it out when it happens. Many of the challenges will be more subtle, however. In my opinion, one of the most important things is not to let other people diminishing your abilities or assuming you aren’t as capable as you are get you down. Find peers who will help affirm your abilities and keep your spirits up. A lot of young women underestimate themselves or assume if they’re not 100% qualified for an opportunity, they shouldn’t even try. It can be tough to get out of this mindset, but try to build yourself up and trust that you’re a capable and quick learner so you reach for opportunities that will foster quicker growth.
A graduate from Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs, U.S. News and World’s Report No. 1 Best Graduate Schools for public affairs program, Leah has professional and academic experience conducting sustainability research, implementing renewable energy programs, and assisting with microfinance and other international development programs. Conversational in Russian and a lover of traveling and Northern Europe, Leah has recently been doing work to support her Russian environmental activist friends. She has future plans for helping them to share their stories – some of which are surprisingly dangerous.
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