Published on May 9th, 2017 | by UC&D Magazine


Defying The Norm

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Living Zenith Project Creates First Net Zero Community in Utah

Redfish Builders may currently be riding the crest of the energy efficiency wave in Utah, but the husband-and-wife team behind the innovative company trace inspiration for the Beehive State’s first net zero community to a float down the Mekong River in Laos.
Living Zenith, a $2.5 million housing project near Salt Lake City’s Liberty Park, held its model home ribbon-cutting on Jan. 24. While the planned five-home community may be relatively small
in number, it is large in potential and possibility.
As Utah’s first net zero community – meaning each home when completed will generate as much renewable energy as it consumes over the course of a year – Living Zenith is a proving ground zero for environment-friendly housing innovation going forward.
“We’re gleaning as much information as we can to build the tightest and healthiest homes in Utah,” said Mitch Spence, who runs Redfish Builders with his wife, Tiffany Ivins. “It all hinges on a tight envelope with renewable finishes and solar energy production.”
Spence and Ivins were already environmentally conscious, having seen their share of pollution while consulting in developing countries over the past 20 years, but it was a trip down the Mekong River last year that really crystallized their commitment and dedication to making a difference with their projects.
“We had an awakening on the Mekong River,” Ivins said. “Mitch and I had both visited the headwaters of the Mekong in Tibet where it’s crystal blue glacier run-off. So we were looking forward to seeing the river downstream.”
What they found instead – after the river had passed through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – was a river rife with pollution, flowing in a thick brown sludge.
“What really hit home is the fact that our demand for products in the USA is directly impacting production and pollution in Asia,” Spence said. “We came home sobered. We committed to defy the norm. We committed to greener building for better living.”
Living Zenith was approved by the Salt Lake Planning Commission in June of 2016, with a groundbreaking of Sept. 30. The planned homes range from 2,400- 2,900 square feet with four bedrooms and three baths. Sales prices start in the high $500,000’s – but it is estimated that the average homeowner in Utah would save $152,000 in utility bills over the course of a 30-year loan.
The homes will rely on an array of strategies to achieve net zero status. A central feature is an airtight envelope that uses energy-efficient, eco-friendly architectural material and styles. These include a foundation of 14-inch foam (instead of concrete), solar photovoltaic arrays, thermal windows, high-density blow-in insulation, low-flow water fixtures and toilets, high-efficiency LED lighting, Energy Star appliances, HRV and split systems, steel garage with rigid insulation and a home-energy manager that provides something akin to a central nervous system which monitors energy use.
Utah’s Office of Energy Development learned about the project during the groundbreaking stage of development and reached out to Redfish directly. “When we first reached out to Living Zenith, we realized the best way to help them accomplish their goals was to serve as a facilitator of sorts,” said Shawna Cuan, Managing Director of Energy Efficiency and Energy Education in Utah.
Cuan’s office helped Spence and Ivins evaluate their home designs and put them in touch with local and national architects that specialized in net zero and who were willing to mentor and guide them in the process.
“Our office views affordable, reliable energy as critical to Utah’s long-term success and a net zero community can help us meet that objective,” Cuan said, noting that Utah is expecting to double its population in the next few decades. “Not only does net zero benefit the individual, but it also benefits the wider community. A homeowner gets an extremely low power bill and demands less from the electrical grid that serves the whole community. Net zero means reduced emissions that improve air quality inside and out. The air in your home is better, which means you feel better, your overall health is better, and you put less into the air outside, which improves Utah’s air quality.”
Wheeler Machinery Co. in Salt Lake City partnered with Redfish in designing the photovoltaic systems and providing the systems’ componentry. Wheeler Cat views participation in the Living Zenith project as a way to expand its energy offerings beyond traditional resources, such as mining, oil and gas.
“Renewable energy is a market that is here to stay, and beyond PV, microgrids incorporating energy storage are the next logical and technologically feasible step,” said Meghan Dutton, the Renewable Energy Segment manager for Wheeler Machinery Co. “Wheeler Power Systems is thrilled to be part of this pioneering, cutting-edge project. Projects like this, that challenge those involved to scratch their heads and consider whether there may be better ways of doing things — and that end in the real deployment of the innovative solution — are unbelievably exciting.”
Dutton said Wheeler Cat is now pushing beyond the initial milestone to explore additional ways that Living Zenith can benefit the surrounding community – such as using its PV systems to charge a central battery bank that would provide emergency preparedness and resiliency benefits to the neighborhood.
“It really is a project that continues to evolve and surpass conventional thinking and the status quo,” Dutton said. “Working with Redfish Builders on this project has been truly inspiring. They possess a remarkable ability to dream big and think way outside the box. They are not deterred by challenges that arise from being the first to do something. They find the right partners, they find a solution and they push ahead.”
In addition to Wheeler and Utah’s Office of Energy Development, other collaborative partners include Salt Lake City’s Sustainability Department, Portland Energy Conservation, Inc., Utah Clean Energy, the University of Utah, and others. Naturally, not everyone has been immediately onboard with the overall process. Spence said that many large developers lobbied the state legislature this year to reject greener building codes.
“It’s not popular for builders to build this way,” he said, “since it’s more expensive up front. I’ll take a hit in profits with these first few subdivisions. But we hope it’s the beginning of buyers demanding better options with greener buildings.”
“Net zero building involves a steep learning curve,” Ivins said. “As the developers, we’re doing a ton of research and learning with experts from all over the world. We’re teaching our sub-contractors to use new methods and try different strategies. There’s sometimes pushback. We had to teach our designers, architects and neighbors what we’re doing. It’s an intense education for everybody involved. But it’s exciting to see it happen.”
At present, Ivins said that three of the planned five homes are under contract. Redfish is currently working with the buyers to customize designs and construct their homes.
“It’s exciting to see their interest in these homes,” Ivins said of the buyers. “It feels like we’re all part of this big family who is creating something like Noah’s Ark. Most people don’t understand what we’re doing, but everyone stops to check out the ark.”

Living Zenith
What: Utah’s first net zero community Project cost: $2.5 million
Scope: Five net zero homes
Developer: Redfish Builders
Collaborative partners: Wheeler Machinery Co., Utah Office of Energy Development, Salt Lake City Sustainability Department, Portland Energy Conservation, Inc., Utah Clean Energy, the University of Utah, and others

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