Dean Kahn

This snug Bellingham home is a certified power producer

Jeff Aslan checks the solar power inverter on the side of his Net-Zero Energy house Wednesday, July 6, in Bellingham. Solar electric panels on the roof provide all the home’s power needs.
Jeff Aslan checks the solar power inverter on the side of his Net-Zero Energy house Wednesday, July 6, in Bellingham. Solar electric panels on the roof provide all the home’s power needs.

Jeff Aslan and Annie Honrath’s house in Bellingham’s Birchwood neighborhood doesn’t look like a world-class building.

Granted, it’s a pleasing two-story home with a front lawn converted into a lush yard of flowers, fruit trees and other edible and ornamental plants. Peek at the south-facing roof and you’ll see a full array of solar panels, but that’s an increasingly common sight in Whatcom County these days.

Behind the charming appearance, however, lurks a certified powerhouse of a structure.

The couple’s home is one of just 15 residences in the world – and one of 34 buildings of any kind, anywhere – to gain Net Zero Energy certification from the International Living Future Institute.

That means their all-electric house – with its solar panels and its array of common-sense energy-saving devices and building components – generates more electricity than it needs over a year’s time. Much more.

From May 2014 to May 2015, the house generated 6,691 kilowatt-hours of electricity, but needed only 2,881 to warm the residents’ rooms, heat their water, cook their food, and power their lights and appliances.

Their surplus power that year amounted to nearly four months of electricity consumed by Puget Sound Energy’s average residential customer. There were only three months that year, in the chill of winter, when their house used more electricity than it produced.

For Aslan, the energy program manager at Sustainable Connections, he’s living the life he works for at the green-minded nonprofit.

“I always dreamed of living in such a house,” he said.

Many buildings carry one kind of “green” certification or another, but the institute, with offices in Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Vancouver, B.C., says it’s the only program in the world that verifies net-zero energy status by tracking a building’s energy use for a year.

Land Trust project

Constructed four years ago, their home was the 100th built by Kulshan Community Land Trust, a Bellingham nonprofit that develops affordable and energy-efficient housing.

Designed by architect Greg Robinson and built by Cascade Joinery, with a solar system installed by Ecotech Solar, the 1,150-square-foot house was designed to generate as much electricity as it used. The two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bathroom house didn’t meet that goal with its original owners, but Aslan and Honrath, an attorney, made several changes after they bought it two years ago.

They couldn’t add more solar panels – the roof was already covered – so they made other changes, some with new hardware, some with their lifestyle.

On the quick-and-easy side, they changed most of the lighting to LED bulbs, and installed thermal blinds on all of the windows.

They also supplemented the attic insulation, installed a highly efficient heat pump water heater, and installed a heat recovery ventilator, which exhausts stale inside air as it brings in warmed and filtered fresh air from outside, an important feature for snug, energy-efficient buildings.

As to lifestyle, Aslan said he and his wife didn’t want to skimp on warm showers and wanted to keep cooking a lot, but they found simple, daily ways to clamp down on their power consumption. They use dimmers on their light fixtures, time their laundry so they can dry their clothes outside when possible, and put their electronics on switchable power strips and turn them off overnight and when they’re away.

Those changes complement the house’s energy-smart design. The walls are deep, with extra insulation, and the house sits on an east-west axis, providing good southern exposure for the solar panels and for windows to let in natural light and warming sunshine. Inside, the ground-floor concrete slab, stained a pleasing crimson, absorbs and radiates the sun’s warmth.

“It keeps the place nice and toasty,” Aslan said.

The slab floor has buried pipes for a radiant-heat system, but Aslan and Honrath haven’t had to set that up. They usually keep their thermostat at a steady 68 degrees, and wear slippers if the floor is a touch cool in the winter.

Their power-producing house is also notable for what it lacks. The south-facing windows are not unusually large, so their living room doesn’t feel like its set inside an aquarium. And you don’t need an engineering degree to control their thermostat and other energy devices.

“You can have simple yet efficient building components,” Aslan said, sounding like a true-blue energy program manager.

Dean Kahn: 360-715-2291