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Friday, April 13, 2012


Spring had not yet arrived when I first visited the site of the Clearwater Commons. This deep green, low impact co-housing project sits alongside North Creek, near Bothell, Washington, and is considered by many to be the most comprehensive of its kind. I came as a reporter for the online journal Neighborhood Life on a chilly February morning, pulling onto a wooded road that would lead me to a great discovery, one well worth the drive from Tacoma.

  Clearwater Commons from across the wetland, while under construction.       
photo by Candace Brown
There in a meadow surrounded by wetlands stood the beginnings of a deliberately planned, eco-friendly neighborhood, complete with a restored salmon stream. I was about to meet a few members of the Clearwater Commons LLC and learn the fascinating story of how this project came to be. You can read the published article here: Clearwater Commons -- Co-housing Where Nature and Nurture Meet

Even though it was still officially winter when I visited in February, I could see signs of new green growth everywhere, in the form of housing under construction. Deep green construction was taking place all around me. I learned about new technologies that not only make homes more energy efficient, but also more comfortable, healthy, and better for the earth. I also learned a lot about determination and what it takes to stay true to your principles. The people involved with this project would never give up in spite of the downturn in the economy, countless regulations, and piles of paperwork. Now they can enjoy the reward.

photo by Candace Brown

Tom Campbell is a member of the LLC and also the project's manager. His background in urban planning, his dedication, and his perseverance, mattered most significantly in the six-year-long effort required to create a neighborhood from scratch in an environmentally sensitive area. It took the determination  and vision of all the members. (Please be sure to read the article on Neighborhood Life for the full background on this deep green development.)

"It's great to see how the unique story of the Clearwater Commons is providing lessons on how to create communities that blend values of green building, shared community design and decision-making, and environmental restoration," Campbell said. He and everyone else involved with the Clearwater Commons will celebrate their neighborhood's grand opening during the weekend of April 21-22, as part of the 2012 Green Home Tour, presented by the Northwest EcoBuilding Guild. It includes a home show style Expo on Saturday. 

"We're very excited about the 2012 Green Home Tour," Campbell added, "because it will be the first time that we will be able to showcase the entire project, including stream restoration, completed new green homes, solar hot water, low impact development, and one of the first certified passive houses in the state!"

A duplex at Clearwater Commons       photo by Candace Brown
Home by Cascade Built at Clearwater Commons, using green building materials and techniques  
 photo by Candace Brown
The architectural firm that designed Clearwater Commons is Banyon Tree, and the builder creating all of these first exciting homes on the site is Sloan Ritchie, owner of a green building company called Cascade Built. During a phone interview, he taught me a great deal about green building practices and materials and revealed his enthusiasm for the Clearwater Commons project.

"We specialize in sustainable construction and we try to have as small of an impact on the environment as possible," he said. "So these houses fit perfectly with what we do. It’s an interesting and committed group of individuals and we share the same values, so it’s working out great."

Pin pier foundation.         photo by Candace Brown

Detail of foundation  photo by Candace Brown

One of many differences between Cascade Built houses and conventional construction is seen in the style of foundations used on this site. The houses at Clearwater Commons, in keeping with the low impact idea, sit on pin pier foundations, for the least interruption of natural ground water flow. Ritchie describe the situation this way:

"It’s in a very wet zone. It’s not so much that you’d have it free flowing under your house, but the sub-surface water could flow uninterrupted in the top couple of feet of topsoil, like it could have two years ago before there was any kind of development there.
"In normal construction, with foundations and footings systems, you just dig a hole and you to a strip footing, and put a stem wall on top of that. It’s solid concrete and there’s no more potential for any site water to be moving around under that footprint of the house. It’s completely blocked. Water could build up.
"That type of foundation system would be inappropriate for these soils. And we don’t have to bring big excavation equipment out there to dig these holes and put the cement in and back fill."

A home being built by Cascade Built, showing pin pier foundation.
Ritchie saw an important difference between members of Clearwater Commons and other clients he has worked with, in terms of how they prioritized green building standards. "When we were going through the process we said, 'Okay, how can we save tens of thousands of dollars on this house? What can we do, because it’s just too expensive?'" Ritchie recalled. "A lot of people say, 'Well, let’s just take away the green features.' But we didn’t do that. Instead, we made other things more streamlined. I think many of the things that can be done to make your house last longer and be more efficient are not very costly things, like insulation. Insulation is very cheap."

Ritchie no longer uses batting type insulation, going strictly with the blown-in type, as well as rigid foam, in which the entire house is wrapped, even underneath. He has some strong feelings on this subject.

"It’s almost criminal," he said, "that we’re still allowed to put batt insulation in, because it just can’t do a good job. The performance of your house is 25% less than your neighbors' who picked blown in insulation. It’s a thousand dollar upgrade, and after a year you’ve paid that thousand dollars because your heat bills are way more."

photo by Candace Brown
Obviously, moisture is a concern when you live in a wetland, in a wet climate, but Ritchie knows how to deal with that:
"Clearly, there’s bulk water and rain, but vapor is more challenging  to keep out of the house. So we create an air barrier and we build the house very tight. On the bottom of the house there’s a crawl space. In this case and that’s what you’d be concerned about. So we insulate that space, and we add rigged foam insulation all the way across the entire underside of the house.
"Then we put pressure-treated plywood sheets and we screw those up to the underside of the house. Then we caulk the seams. So we’ve created a pretty tight air barrier between the earth and the house itself. The plywood is graded for ground contact but it doesn’t touch anything. It’s about two feet off the ground. It’s probably more than we need to do but they wanted to be thorough, so that’s what we’re doing."
verything sealed to the point that these homes are nearly air tight. They are amazingly efficient to heat or cool, but still have fresh air circulating to prevent indoor air pollution, thanks to heat recovery ventilators. Metal roofs and 100 series Anderson windows are just two more features that mean they are built to last. The houses come pre-piped for the addition of photovolatics in the future, if owners want to add that. They're even wired for electric cars.

But don't look for a garage. You won't find one anywhere. A permeable road runs through the houses for emergencies and other situations, but residents will use a communal parking lot on the property, also made with a permeable surface. That's part of the plan.

Ritchie on the lack of garages: "Correct. Not a single garage. It’s really not very far. Personally I kind of like walking anyway. You get to see the neighbors and say "Hi" and chit chat and get the mail, maybe stop at somebody’s porch and hang out instead of going all the way home. That’s sort of what I envision. It’s an intentional part of the community. They certainly could have put the parking by the houses but then you just pull into your garage and disappear into your house. But with this, I think it could have a good effect on the interaction between people."

Road leading from parking lot.         photo by Candace Brown

Maybe it isn't a "lack" as much as "luck" when it comes to Clearwater Commons. These folks like to meet and greet the neighbors. If you think you might like to be part of the neighborhood, come to the open house on April 21 and 22, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. I can hardly wait to visit again now that those first houses are nearly finished and painted. No matter how many different sites you visit on the Green Home Tour, don't miss this one. There's nothing else like it.

P.S. Don't miss my next blog post with more news about the
2012 Green Home Tour!

Restored salmon habitat on North Creek       photo by Candace Brown

Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

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