Lopez Community Land Trust: Common Ground, A Net-Zero Neighborhood

Building an affordable neighborhood in and of itself is a challenge. Making it net-zero energy is even harder. But the Lopez Community Land Trust (LCLT) has proven that the results are more than worth the effort. LCLT built Common Ground, a straw-bale, earthen-plaster, rainwater-catchment neighborhood that’s the first net-zero energy neighborhood in Washington State. It was designed not only to provide affordable homes, but also to lower the costs of running and maintaining them.

Common Ground is LCLT’s fourth affordable neighborhood project, and the first one designed for net-zero energy. It’s located in Lopez Island, a town that faces some unique economic challenges. According to LCLT, salary and wages within the county make up only 33 percent of household income compared with 61 percent statewide. These conditions give Lopez Island a high cost of living coupled with low wages. With these problems in mind, LCLT began their work to reduce the cost of living through affordable, ecologically intelligent homes.

Innovative Ecological Design

The project kicked off with a three-day design charrette, during which LCLT coordinated the experience and skills of a variety of professionals. Architects, planners, builders, county officials, water and energy consultants, attorneys, and permaculture designers contributed their input and creative thinking to develop the community’s plans and blueprints. Once the charrette ended, LCLT hired the architects, engineers, and designers to get the project off and running.

Construction officially began in May 2008. Preconstruction modeling estimated that weatherization and passive solar design would yield the highest energy efficiency. So, to that end, Common Ground was built with many standard and not-so-standard weatherization features. The walls of the homes are constructed with straw bale, a strong, well-insulated, yet cheap building material, and covered with earthen plasters made of straw, clay, sand, and manure. Builders also installed a dual water system using a rainwater catchment and a natural well for dishes and toilets. They used a soy-and-water-based stain on the concrete. The wood trimming was milled from trees on site. The splashboards and showers are made with Tadelakt, a ground marble in a lime plaster finished with olive oil. And each home comes with a solar hot water heater and a photovoltaic array to net meter home energy use.

Photo by Benjamin Drummond

The homes also include more standard, yet still highly effective, weatherization materials such as Corbond and blown-in cellulose insulation, dual flush toilets, fiberglass foam core doors, cellular insulated shades, insulated concrete slabs, and eco-paints. Builders also installed high solar heat gain coefficient fiberglass windows built specifically for the Northwest climate and customized based on the direction each faces and how much sunlight each receives.

To keep the houses affordable, LCLT needed a variety of funding sources and assistance. The major public funding came from the Washington State Housing Trust Fund and HUD’s Self-Help Housing Opportunity Program, while private funds came from 13 private institutions and more than 200 individuals. These funds, along with bank financing, accounted for roughly one-third of the total costs, bringing the final price of the homes remarkably lower. To cut costs even further, LCLT trained volunteers, interns, high school classes, and even the prospective homeowners themselves, to help with construction. By the end, more than sixty interns, seventy volunteers, and the eleven future homeowners worked on the project.

In June 2009, only fourteen months from the starting date, Common Ground was completed with eleven homes, two studio apartments, and an office. The homes received a full energy audit to verify energy efficiency and are governed by a 198-year lease that assures they will remain permanently affordable. And to cap things off, LCLT published a comprehensive manual detailing the making of Common Ground, clarifying the issues they dealt with and outlining for other organizations how to create similar sustainable, net-zero energy building projects in their own communities.

LCLT attributes the project’s success to a combination of vision, good design, generous donors, and dedicated volunteers and field workers. It not only provided affordable housing, but was also a valuable teaching and training experience for the many students, interns, and contractors who worked on it. Their contributions not only helped eleven families find permanent housing, but they’ve paved the way for other organizations to follow in their footsteps.

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