Hand holding small house with green plant sprouting from chimney

The boldly modern Genesee Park net-zero home stands out from its mid-century neighbors, but its most impressive features are not immediately obvious. The first Built Green net-zero house in the Seattle area, this 3,700 square foot, 4-bedroom home produces as much energy as it uses. Whether you are building your dream home or just trying to make the one you already have better, you can borrow some ideas from this ultra-sustainable home.

Solar Water

Heating water accounts for almost one-fifth of the average household’s energy costs. Many people remember the old solar water heating systems that gave scalding water on sunny days and cold showers on cool days. The Genesee Park net-zero house uses a newer system by Silk Road Environmental. It uses a nontoxic thermal gel that stores the sun’s warmth, instead of heating water directly, to maintain a consistent hot water temperature.

Solar Electricity

Seattle may be cloudy and high latitude, but solar panels can operate with greater efficiency in cooler climates. With a rooftop covered in solar panels, the Genesee Park house will produce between 9,000 and 10,000-kilowatt hours a year. That’s enough to power an energy-efficient house like this one.

Solar power systems are highly individualized to the circumstances; it can take between six and fifteen years to recoup the cost of a solar energy system. However, the federal solar tax credit allows you to deduct 30 percent of the installation cost from your federal taxes.

Triple Pane Windows

Efficient energy use is equally important to reach net zero as energy generation. The Genesse Park house used triple glazed windows for maximum efficiency. For many people, the added efficiency may not outweigh the cost premium. But if your single- or double-pane windows are old, new Energy Star rated windows could save up to $465 dollars per year.

Water Saving Appliances

Any homeowner can use common but effective features like water-saving fixtures and low-flow toilets. Many municipalities and utilities offer rebates for purchases of WaterSense labeled toilets, showerheads, and faucets. Even renters can save water by adding aerators to their faucets and can reduce the water in their toilet tank with a water-filled plastic jug.

Bigger Is Not Better

Most houses have one green advantage over the Genesee Park net-zero house: a smaller footprint — literally. The size of the average American home has more than doubled, but most of us still occupy fewer than the 1,850 square feet per person that the owners the Genesee Park net-zero house use.

Smaller houses are inherently greener, using fewer materials both in construction and maintenance, and generating less storm water runoff. No matter how efficient a house is, the same level of efficiency over a smaller area will be greener. By starting with less space to begin with, it’s easier to have a sustainable home.

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.