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Best Green Houses:

Take Care: Net-zero solutions set up an affordable housing community for long-term success.

Lopez Island, Washington

By David Sokol
July 2012
Photo © Juan A Hernandez

The San Juan Islands, an archipelago off the northwest corner of Washington state, enjoy the dubious distinction of having the greatest gap between household income and housing prices statewide. This dichotomy dates back several real estate booms, and in 1989 the Lopez Community Land Trust was established to combat the longtime imparity on Lopez Island, the third largest body in the San Juan archipelago.

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In constructing multifamily housing on the 2,000-plus-population island, Lopez Community Land Trust focuses on whole neighborhoods and retains ownership of its land holdings, so that site acquisition does not impact pricing for residents. Besides maintaining ground leases on its housing units, the nonprofit is unique in its sensitivity to community members’ access to sustainable agriculture, cottage industries, and other means of economic production: Ensuring livelihoods helps a trust-built neighborhood stay affordable.

Common Ground is the nonprofit’s fourth affordable housing development, designed by Seattle-based architectural firm Mithun. Of the 11 units on the 7-acre property, four were built for an Area Median Income (AMI) below 50 percent; six were for AMI of 51 to 80 percent; and one is market-rate. Residents include teachers, small business owners, a retiree, a self-employed person, and a construction worker.

With planning, architecture, and landscape design services by Mithun, Lopez Community Land Trust took another step toward ensuring long-term affordability with Common Ground. The project is the organization’s first neighborhood targeting net-zero energy usage, so that operations and maintenance costs would never catch residents by surprise.

The organization of the site demonstrates how Mithun harnessed sustainability performance to also benefit economic viability—in this case, through food production. According to Mithun architect Caroline Sneed, who manages special projects, this part of Lopez Island averages a limited 26 inches of rainfall per year. In response to scarce water supply, the design team successfully applied for permission to capture rainfall for toilets, washing machines, and irrigation, and then made a catchment tank, retention pond, and urban agricultural opportunities into key features of the property.

“We used the gentle slope of the site to move water from the parking area into rain gardens that would treat and infiltrate the water; a central swale runs through the open space in the middle of the homes, gathering water and bringing it to the stormwater pond where it is reused in the homes and for site irrigation,” Sneed says. Fruit trees and berries are planted throughout the acreage, while garden plots were configured adjacent to homes so that stormwater from the collection pond could be used for irrigation.

Most of Common Ground’s units have gardens, two of which provide their households with all spring and summer vegetables. Five of the families raise chickens or ducks for eggs. There are plans for a half-acre community garden—also serviced by the reservoir of treated stormwater—next year.

Of the individual buildings, “Small square footages were essential to obtaining sustainability goals,” Sneed says of going green without breaking budgets. She adds that frugal space planning also “helped the team afford higher-quality, more durable, and often-lower-maintenance materials, such as metal roofing, cedar shingles, and low-E, high solar heat gain co-efficient windows with insulated fiberglass frames.”

The structures are partially strawbale, which is another example of involving residents in the creation and long-term maintenance of their neighborhood. Lopez Community Land Trust interns as well as Lopez Island residents had knowledge of the construction technique, and both were involved in erecting the houses and finishing them in a breathable coat of lime plaster. “The non-strawbale walls were built with an exceptionally tight air and moisture barrier that helps reduce the size and cost of the mechanical systems,” Sneed adds. Trellises planted with deciduous vines, shades, and operable windows permit natural cooling in summertime.

By having household water and energy meters out in the open, Common Ground’s resource consumption a community-wide activity. In the first month of energy-use monitoring, usage ranged from 150 to more than 800 kilowatt-hours,” Sneed reports. “By learning to read the energy monitoring device, and understanding the information it was providing, many families learned to change personal habits and reduce their consumption.” The latest data indicate those reductions taking place, although household size and individual homeowner behavior varies. Not every household has achieved net-zero yet, but all homes are operating well below average U.S. energy consumption patterns.

Sneed concludes: “The key to success at Common Ground is the involvement of the homeowners from the very beginning. They bought into the project and helped to design it and build it, earning sweat equity and the knowledge of how to install and then maintain these technologies.” Even the highest-tech elements of Common Ground are the residents’ responsibilities. A subcontractor installed a 33.8-kilowatt photovoltaic array (adjacent to the forthcoming community garden) with a homeowner, who has become the local expert in all things PV. That residents have pitched in with such gusto proves that Lopez Community Land Trust can replicate Mithun’s strategies elsewhere, and perhaps even turn its beneficiaries into leaders of the green economy.


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