At-Home Getaway: Designing for Net Zero Energy and Raising the Bar

Photo courtesy of Watershed Architects

Photo courtesy of Watershed Architects

Virginia Beach is one of the most popular getaway destinations in America, but many people make the resort area their home year-round. Yet homeowners know that when you live in the Tidewater region, any new construction or renovation must abide by the Chesapeake Bay Preservation Act, created to protect the bay’s water quality. In 2008, Patrick Farley, LEED BD+C of Watershed Architects in Richmond, Va., was hired to transform a 1960s-era ranch house on a bay tributary ― the Lynnhaven River ― into an ecologically sustainable, energy-efficient residence that raised the bar for what a high-performance home could be.

Farley’s client had two specific goals in mind for her home rebuild: it had to support her physical disability and it had to be as “green” as possible. “In fact, she set the agenda that she wanted to achieve a LEED Platinum certification before it was all said and done,” says Farley. “So we had two major drivers: the need for Universal Design and a high degree of ecological performance and integrity.”

Watershed Architects took a design-build approach, completing the project in 2012. In addition to achieving the goal of Platinum certification under LEED™ for Homes, the residence received the best HERS (Home Energy Rating System) score possible. Designed as a net-zero energy building, the house is capable of producing more energy than it consumes, realized primarily through solar energy enhancements, rain water harvest systems, passive survivability, and bioclimatic design.

“In this case, our micro-climate is waterfront, coastal. It gets hot and humid. There are wind issues. We are in a hurricane zone, so we designed this house to resist a category five hurricane,” says Farley.

Ecologically restorative design measures include rain gardens and vegetative buffers. More than half of the roof area on the house is also vegetated. “The rest of it, or at least the south face of the remaining roof, is actually a solar power plant,” says Farley. “Most of the building’s covering — the envelope that’s covering it — is either an ecosystem or a power plant.”

In the event of an energy breakdown, the home has built-in power redundancy. “The solar plant actually has battery banks. In addition to battery banks, we have a generator that runs off the city gas supply, so the generator backs up the batteries,” he says.  A 1,400 gallon underground cistern tied to the city’s water system adds to the building’s resilience. “We’ve even incorporated a vegetable garden for food production on one side of the property,” says Farley. “So if you think about energy, water, food… it’s the idea that a building is designed to not only withstand extreme weather conditions but to actually support survival, at least to a point, following any kind of disaster.”

A biophlic sensibility, where architecture responds to humanity’s innate biological affinity for affiliations with nature, was another layer in the project’s design. “The house is intended to facilitate health through its connections to natural systems, which are literally integrated into the building” says Farley.

The technologically savvy home now sets the bar for how a healthy home — whether vacation or permanent — should be built. “That was part of our intention going into this project, to set a standard, bring awareness to strategies and approaches that one could take to build, frankly, a high-end home,” says Farley. “In fact, I would think if you are building a vacation home you would be even more apt to take this approach.”

Jennifer Pullinger 

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