Most people have probably indulged in a dream-house fantasy, but Brad Hagen and Linda Niehaus made theirs real six months ago, and may have created a beacon for the times.
Their super-insulated, super-tight, 1,204-square-foot Ashland home has its own 12-kilowatt solar power plant, advanced water-conservation features and a clothesline in the back. Welcome to modern homebuilding.
Smart windows: passive solar heating from south-facing windows. Double-pane, low-e windows help keep the heat where the owners want it, winter and summer.
Insulated like crazy: R-48 SIP (structural insulated panels) roof. R-48, super-insulated double walls, and rigid foam under the building's footings.
Rooftop power plant: 50 photovoltaic modules and solar hot-water system.
Scrimp on electricity: The clothesline is right out the back door. Energy Star appliances, and LED lighting throughout. HRV (heat recovery ventilator) keeps the air fresh and conserves winter heat.
Save on heating and cooling: The super-efficient, minisplit (ductless) heat pump has zone heating.
Conserve water: Low-flow plumbing fixtures. Gray-water system sends laundry, shower and bathroom sink to the yard; rainwater-catchment system stores 11,000 gallons for the garden.
"We like bright colors," says Hagen, regarding the purple, cobalt blue, green-roofed and shiny-metal exterior of the one-story house. Entering the red and gold kitchen signals an even more ambitious indoor palette.
For Niehaus, a doctor, and Hagen, a nurse practitioner, energy efficiency and water conservation are part of a long-standing pattern.
"We've always lived this way," she says, recalling her awareness of the importance of energy efficiency going back to college days. It was also one of the things they had in common when they met. Hagen has a long-time interest in solar energy and wanted their new house to be a non-contributor to climate change.
So, when it came to solar panels, they didn't want to scrimp.
"It was pretty important to us," Hagen says, so they installed enough capacity (50 240-watt photovoltaic modules) to exceed the estimated needs of their all-electric house. Ashland's city-owned electric utility encourages this by buying back all excess electric at year's end, a rare thing for utilities.
A handful of building certification systems have evolved in recent years to sort out what's green or not. The Niehaus-Hagen house has been certified by two of these: Energy Star and Earth Advantage, the latter of which gave the house a platinum rating.
Builder Gary Dorris says the new house on Liberty Street is "probably the greenest one" he has worked on, having the most complete package of environmental- and health-friendly design and technology features.
Dorris has been focused on green buildings since his first one in 2006, which won a national award. His company also had a large Ashland house certified platinum in the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) program in 2009. This new green building thing "was just a lot more interesting, and you just felt good about what you were doing," says Dorris.
But an even loftier achievement is in sight for the little purple-blue-metallic house.
Larry Giardina, city conservation specialist, says he believes the house and its solar array "will be a significant excess generator."
Based on his knowledge of the construction methods and the metering to date, he says, "This is, in my opinion, the first truly zero-net energy house" in Ashland.
This must be proven true over the course of 12 months (winter heating is the challenge), to gain that status.
"That was one of our goals," explains Niehaus — to have the rooftop solar systems, photovoltaic and hot water cover all their energy use.
To do this, says the house's designer, Patrick Sughrue of Structures Northwest in Vancouver, Wash., the building needs superior insulation and sealing of the building envelope. It is also greatly facilitated by a small building and use of passive solar heating in winter.
"Brad and Linda were extremely interested in doing the right thing," Dorris says, "and that's why that house is such a stellar house."
Hagen and Niehaus also specified a gray-water system, a clothesline, a rainwater catchment system — and mostly edible landscaping.
"We just like to eat out of our yard. There's nothing like going out in the backyard and getting your dinner," Niehaus says.
"They're just very green people," says Dorris.
David Chuse is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.