How the city-owned utility plans to get more homes built more energy-efficiently

This week, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC) joined private developers in planning for a future when homes, businesses and public buildings could operate at zero-energy levels.

The WSSC is financing 43 net zero-energy buildings, a first for the community-owned utility. The new structures—which save energy and money—have been approved for 27 percent of Washington’s home building market.

Low-income customers can pay no upfront cost to build green, thanks to a federal tax credit worth up to $15,000. Some homes and buildings are using the credit when building communities that are currently non-profits, sharing housing and pooling assets to invest in green building systems. For example, builders of St. Peter’s Village, a public-private partnership, bought properties donated by the Church of St. John the Divine so they could team up to provide more affordable housing in DC.

WSSC President Robert Green says the utility will use savings it’s expecting to earn from the new projects to reduce customer bills. The utility invests about $3 million in solar power and other renewable resources every year, and in 2015, green projects also saved an average of $24 per month per customer.

One of the utility’s first private projects built to sustainability standards was the new St. Francis House home for women with children, which debuted in 2015 and earns WSSC’s Clean Energy Excellence Award.

The 15-story, 700-unit building, completed in time for its 10th anniversary in October, uses home heating to make it net zero—but never shutters on its windows, a change which saved more than 10 percent on heating expenses. Instead, the heating is drawn from a rooftop water tank and other infrastructure, while hot water is mostly provided from a system consisting of 11 skylights. Roofs are left partly shaded to capture energy during daylight, and a small tree grew on the roof that one resident planted as a reminder to leave a place for life.

The developers re-roofed the building a few years ago, and the new design also reduced the need for boiler fuel oil.

“We removed 60 percent of our boiler feeder that would otherwise have been used by the boiler,” says homebuilder LeBoeuf Young Harris’ Rafael Alvares. “From a cost perspective, it’s about 25 to 30 percent less to do that.”

The net-zero design draws on many industry terms for green projects, including Passive House, which uses lights, hot water and ventilation systems to make sure energy can be saved and consumed as little as possible.

New bi-directional filtration systems help the building cool the apartment areas, and smart timers automatically shut down motion-sensitive lights when the temperature is too high. Other innovations are basic: Install parking sensors to control a street view, and a wall-mounted universal signage system turns more heads to help with deliveries and potential parking.

“I knew there were programs to help people pay for green buildings, but I’d never seen one that supports the kind of neighborhood we have in Northwest DC,” says Julie Weingart, lead architect on the project. “It’s really helped us get better projects off the ground, particularly small ones.”

A building like St. Francis House typically requires substantial down payments—4.5 to 5 percent of the value of the home—as well as higher monthly payments. In some cases, buyers can use the tax credit to slash their up-front investment by 15 percent.

“For some buyers, it’s a very important factor in making a project happen,” says Stephanie Davis, a green building specialist at the WSSC.

The first homes to install solar panels on their roofs were many years ago, but Green says he hopes net-zero buildings become a norm in Washington soon.

“For us, it’s been a case of running towards these opportunities,” he says. “We’re almost there, where we can take advantage of something we need and we’re looking forward to introducing it even to new customers.”

This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Washingtonian.

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