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Washington State Governor Jay Inslee Tours Built Green zHome Neighborhood

By Bryan H. Bell, zHome homeowner and Built Green Executive Committee member

When Washington Governor Jay Inslee made plans recently to visit Issaquah, he specifically asked about seeing the zHome neighborhood while he was in town. The zHome project, completed in 2011, was the first net zero energy townhome development in the United States. Each zHome uses a solar panel array to generate enough electricity to offset all the energy residents use over the course of a year.

The zHome townhome in Issaquah owned by the author and his wife
The zHome townhome in Issaquah owned by the author and his wife

Governor Inslee has long been a supporter of reducing human impacts on the environment. He wrote a book about it in 2013: Apollo's Fire—Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy. In his 2018 State of the State address, Inslee unveiled his proposal for a carbon tax, with part of the revenue to be spent helping Washingtonians pay for energy-saving insulation in their homes. The Governor's visit to the zHome neighborhood was partly designed to raise awareness for his carbon tax proposal since the neighborhood is, among other things, a good example of the benefits of energy-saving insulation. Here's a policy brief on his proposal.

My wife and I purchased a zHome townhome in July of 2014—our first home purchase. Energy efficiency was not on our list of wants when we set out to buy our first home, but the zHome met so many of our other criteria that we purchased it. To our surprise, rather than making concessions with our quality of life to live in a net zero energy home, we have found our zHome to be a significantly more comfortable living space than any place we have ever lived.

So when David Fujimoto, sustainability director with the City of Issaquah and one of those involved in building our zHome neighborhood, contacted us to ask if we would be willing to give Governor Inslee a tour of the inside of our zHome when he visited our neighborhood, we of course agreed!

On February 2, the day of the Governor's visit, Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly was the first to arrive. She brought David Fujimoto and City Administrator Emily Moon. We got a chance to talk to Mayor Pauly for quite a bit before the Governor arrived. She's quite friendly and knowledgeable about green building. Her husband Karl recently built their new home, which was Built Green 5-star certified.

Next, the media arrived, including Essex Porter from KIRO News 7, Jim from KOMO News 4, and Tim Smith from the City of Issaquah's ICTV 21. Here's some video Tim shot. There was also newspaper reporter Nicole Jennings from the Issaquah-Sammamish Reporter. Here's her news report.

At about 3:30 p.m., Governor Inslee, his wife Trudi, his Northwest Regional Representative Julia Terlinchamp, his Communications Director Simon Vila, and his Senior Policy Advisor on Energy Lauren McCloy arrived. After being introduced to our neighborhood by Mayor Pauly, Governor Inslee spoke to the media, then joined Karin and I for a tour of our home.

We started in our living room, where we shared with the Governor that we had watched his recent State of the State address and were impressed by the passion with which he spoke about the need to address global warming. We told the Governor that our favorite aspect of our home is the heavy insulation and air-tight envelope; those features make it easy and cheap to keep every corner of our home the same comfortable temperature without cold or hot spots. The Governor asked how our homes were heated (hydronic heat in the floors and ground-source well system—the majority of the wells are at the front of our neighborhood, along NE High Street). Karin and I also shared how, instead of paying for electricity, we net about $900 a year selling excess energy generated by our solar panels back to the grid.

We paused to take a few pictures with the Governor and Mayor. Inslee remarked that he was impressed by our large video collection, joking that he didn't understand why we would watch the State of the State when we had so many movies and TV shows to watch instead.

Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly, zHome homeowners Bryan Bell and Karin Weekly, Governor Jay Inslee
From left to right: Issaquah Mayor Mary Lou Pauly, zHome homeowners Bryan Bell and Karin Weekly, Governor Jay Inslee
Governor Jay Inslee talks to the media beneath the zHome neighborhood's community solar array
Governor Jay Inslee talks to the media beneath the zHome neighborhood's community solar array
On our top-level deck discussing solar panels and microinverters
On our top-level deck discussing solar panels and microinverters
 

Moving upstairs to our top-level bedroom, we explained our heat recovery ventilator (HRV) in the attic and how we use the clerestory window and the stack effect to keep our place relatively cool in the summer without an air conditioner.

From our top-floor deck, we looked at our view of the entire zHome neighborhood. The Governor asked if our solar panels combined power for the neighborhood. I told him no, that each of our buildings were powered separately by our own arrays. I added that we did have a community array at the entrance that powers shared things like our ground source pumps and path lights. The Governor asked if we've had to do much maintenance on our solar panels. I told him very little, but that recently we had to replace a few microinverters, as did our neighbor James. Our solar panels each have their own microinverters instead of one for the entire array, which provides greater reliability.

The Governor had to get to his next meeting, so we all filed back out into the courtyard. Inslee spoke again to the media and with some onlookers, including our zHome neighbor Shirley Njos and Tiffany, a very smart high school student who lives at our next-door YWCA Family Village. The Governor and his staff then left to attend other meetings in Issaquah.

Overall, it was exciting to have Governor Inslee visit our little zHome neighborhood and home. I suppose the whole visit did feel short; we didn't have time to talk about nearly as many of the features of our zHome as we wanted. But I guess we could always go on longer about the home we love. And hey, it does make you feel pretty good about your home purchase when the governor takes an interest in it!

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