Longtime green builder builds energy-efficient homes with ease
July 5, 2022
Martha Rose has a vision: A future where ALL new homes are healthy to live in and produce as much or more energy than they consume.
A board member of the Skagit/ Island Counties Builders Association (SICBA), Rose of Martha Rose Construction says building healthy and energy-efficient homes at an affordable cost is not only viable, it’s the right thing to do.
And when you visit her job sites, you can see how she does it.
Net-zero, solar-powered, live-work units
Rose lives and works out of one of the homes she built in Abbot’s Alley near downtown Sedro- Woolley in Skagit County. It’s one of six townhomes that make up her community of solar-powered live-work units.
When she started construction of the community, she had a lofty goal: Meet the requirements of the US Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home program while building units priced comparably to other entry-level housing in Skagit County.
The end result? Six units with Home Energy Rating System scores of -13 for the roughly 1,800-sq. ft. homes. The homes, equipped with a full solar array already installed, sold for $377,500 in 2019.
The project epitomizes Rose’s philosophy and her passion.
The ‘house as a system’
“Forty-five years ago, I believed the Washington State Energy Codes were rigorous enough,” Rose said. “Compared to the East Coast, and even Portland, our state was leading the pack. “Then, in 2008, I started hanging out with the building scientists and my world opened up,” she continued. “They taught me about thinking of a ‘house as a system.’ This simple concept is the basis for creating affordable, energy-efficient housing.”
Exploring the trade-offs
Rose says that builders can construct energy-efficient, net-zero homes in the same price range as other market-rate housing, but they must learn where the trade-offs are.
It starts with the design, she says. A central plumbing and mechanical core that allows hot water runs to be very short is a good start, she explained, showing how the design worked in her own downstairs kitchen area.
In one of her newer projects, Rose demonstrated how slab-on-grade addresses multiple concerns all at once.
“Easy, no-step entries are appreciated by parents with kids in strollers, the grandparents, and those in-between,” she said.
“Slabs can be really nice finish floors—either stained and sealed or polished. They make it easier to achieve air-tightness. And they’re just healthier for the occupants.”
In a departure from most new residential construction, Rose loves the idea of an all-electric home.
“Skipping the gas saves thousands and eliminates an insidious form of indoor air pollution,” she said. “Going all-electric allows for a truly net-zero home.”
She recognizes that the code’s higher insulation values for floors, walls, windows, and roof may increase costs.
“But then the fancy heating system goes away,” she says, demonstrating how her homes use ductless mini-splits and cove heaters as simple, efficient heat sources.
Rose is a big fan of Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV) systems, which can replace all other fans in a home and improve overall health, she says. HRVs are ventilation units that continuously replace indoor air with fresh outdoor air.
The HRV recovers available heated energy in the winter and recovers cooled energy in the summer if the homeowner has central air conditioning. HRV units help reduce unwanted air pollutants, address high humidity levels and save money on energy costs.
“The cost to install will be higher, but this one item will improve the health of the occupants, which is priceless,” Rose said.
Saving with solar
Rose recommends installing a full solar array immediately upon energizing the home or handing the proposal over to the eventual buyer.
“One thing that my experience has taught me is that buyers really like to buy a home that has solar panels installed,” Rose said.
Education over resistance
It’s short-sighted to fight evolving energy codes, Rose says. She’d like to see more residential builders learn how to build high-performance homes at market-rate prices instead.
“Good energy codes are good for everyone,” Rose said. “We can save energy by insulating our homes better, and we can make a difference in our future. It’s the right thing to do.”