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Inside Bellevue’s Zero Energy Idea House

Photos by Dane Gregory Meyer

By Brad Broberg

After 14 months of sweat and sawdust, the dream is now reality. On a cool day in October, the Zero Energy Idea House finally became a home as Riley and Donna Shirey moved in with all the eagerness of any new homeowners — plus something to prove.

Perched high above Lake Sammamish, the Zero Energy Idea House features sweeping views, a cozy loft and a fabulous kitchen, but that’s not what thrills the Shireys the most. They get their biggest charge from opening their electric bill. The Shireys hope that over the course of the year their specially designed and equipped home — which makes use of three renewable energy systems — will produce as much power as it uses.

Since day one, the Shireys have invited the public to follow the progress of the Zero Energy Idea House by creating a Web site, providing guided tours to the public and through ongoing coverage in 425 magazine. Besides building themselves an amazing place to live, they’ve created a model to show people ways they can save energy in their own homes.

“This is the time to tell people,” Donna Shirey said. “People are finally understanding that power is going to do nothing but become more expensive.”

The Shireys, owners of Shirey Contracting in Issaquah, started building the Zero Energy Idea House in August 2008. However, they’ve emphasized eco-friendly construction practices since the 1970s when they built a home in Redmond with a passive solar energy system. “We’ve been building green since before it had a name,” Donna said.

The Zero Energy Idea House showcases everything the Shireys have learned about green construction over more than 30 years. Working with a savvy team of design professionals and material suppliers, they constantly sought green alternatives to conventional approaches — a commitment that focused on energy conservation but also drove countless other architectural and product choices.

Green construction is all about sustainability — the notion that resources should not be consumed faster than they can be renewed. Sustainable building means paying close attention to how components perform as well as how they’re made. That’s true in spades at the Zero Energy Idea House.

Example? The choice of alder molding and window casings from Windfall Lumber in Tumwater. Why alder instead of some other type of wood? Because the tree’s rapid growth makes it a highly renewable resource.

Recycled materials also contribute to the sustainability of the Zero Energy Idea House. The flooring consists of salvaged lumber from Shirey Contracting capped by a thin hickory veneer. And the bathroom vanity top is made from defective shower doors recycled by Glassworks in Seattle.

Were the Shireys ever stumped in their search for a green option? “Hmmm,” Donna said. “I’m going to have to think about that.” One thing the Shireys didn’t do is sacrifice style or comfort. Donna calls the Zero Energy Idea House “a well-designed little jewel box.” At 1,650 square feet plus a two-car garage, the two-bedroom home is compact without being cramped.

“We don’t need a lot of room,” Donna said. “That’s part of being green — having a smaller footprint.”

What the Zero Energy Idea House lacks in size it more than makes up for in performance, thanks to its emphasis on innovation — highlighted by three renewable energy systems located on the roof. A wind turbine (Helix Wind Air) and a collection of photovoltaic solar panels (Sun Power) produce electricity while a row of solar-heated vacuum tubes (Thermomax) heat the home’s hot water — backed up by natural gas.

Hidden but equally critical to the home’s goal are structural insulated panels that form the walls, ceiling and floor. Manufactured by Insulspan out of British Columbia, the snug-fitting panels feature a thick layer of foam sandwiched between sheets of wood, produced from small pieces of fast-growing trees. Shirey Contracting has been using such panels for years and has found that they can help cut heating bills by up to half.

With so much energy being both saved and produced, it seems odd that the Zero Energy Idea House remains tied to the grid. But it’s a two-way street.

When the weather interferes with the home’s renewable energy systems and/or causes energy use to spike, the Shireys can draw power from the grid. When those systems are going gangbusters and/or energy usage dips, they can return power to the grid — and earn themselves a check from Puget Sound Energy.

Whether it all balances out and the Zero Energy Idea House lives up to its name won’t be known until the Shireys experience all four seasons in their new home. Either way, they promise to keep sharing their story. “Stay tuned,” Donna said. “We’ll tell you next year.”

Builders/Homeowners: Donna Shirey, President/CEO, Shirey Contracting, and Riley Shirey, Chief Operating Officer, Shirey Contracting, shireycontracting.com – Architect: David Clinkston, AIA, Principal, Clinkston Brunner Architects, clinkstonbrunner.com – Interior Designer: Autumn Donavan, ASID, Principal, Autumn Donavan Design LLC, autumndonavandesign.com – Low-Impact Development Consultant: Dave Hilgers, LEED-AP, Landscape Architect of Triad Associates, triadassoc.com – Energy Consultants: Mike Lubliner and Andy Gordon, Washington State University Energy Office, energy.wsu.edu

See our other Idea House stories:

East meets West (Sept/Oct 2012)
Mid-Century Modern Masterpiece: Inside the 425 Idea House
Elegant Meets Rustic: Inside 425′s Coal Train Cabin
Finishing Touches: Picking Products for a Resort Home
Healthy Home: A Snoqualmie Family Goes Green
Seeing Green: Cutting-Edge Products in Bellevue’s Zero Energy Idea House (May/June 2009)
Ultra Green: Construction’s Under Way on Zero Energy Idea Home (March/April 2009)
Close to Home, Yet Far Away: Second Homes at Suncadia are Drawing People East (July/August 2008)

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