SEDRO-WOOLLEY — Martha Rose has built her career from the ground up.
The Sedro-Woolley builder, who walked onto her first residential construction site in 1972, was recently honored when the U.S. Department of Energy selected her Abbott’s Alley Net Zero project in Sedro-Woolley as a 2021 Housing Innovation Award winner in the Custom Spec (Speculative) category.
At an awards ceremony Sept. 14 in Denver the Abbott’s Alley project was also selected the category’s Grand Award winner.
“I was surprised,” Rose said. “Sure I wanted it, but I didn’t necessarily expect it. One of the other builders in my category, he had won the award four other times. I am kind of a late arrival to this event.”
Abbott’s Alley is a six-unit enclave of what Rose calls city cabins. Each of the Metcalf Street units has living space upstairs and work space downstairs.
The units boast energy-efficient features.
“My electric bill has never been higher than the base charge to hook into the grid, $7.97 per month,” said Rose, who has lived and worked in one of the units for three years. “In case it isn’t clear, these are all-electric homes.”
Rose said one or two of her neighbors have reported similar electric bills. The solar panel arrays on the Abbott’s Alley homes give the owners the capability to produce all of their own power.
“Many people today want to do something about their carbon footprint,” Rose said. “Living in a home like this is a tangible way to make a difference.”
Rose was 19 years old when she walked onto her first construction site, and was immediately enamored with the industry.
That despite spending 10 years as what she referred to as a “nail-pounder.” It was during those years she learned every aspect of home building, from foundations to finish work.
Describing herself as restless, independent and with a desire to keep learning, she spent four years as a Seattle building inspector, and a decade as a freelance project manager before starting her own business.
In 2003, she learned about and became part of the Built Green program, in 2006 became an Energy Star partner, and in 2008 learned about the Department of Energy’s Building America Program.
The Department of Energy program was the most rigorous.
“More importantly, they were seeking out builder partners who wished to strive for net-zero and they offered technical advice,” Rose said. “One of the homes I built under their program and lived in for eight years was monitored for two years by their mechanical engineers. This offered a wonderful learning experience.
“That, coupled with attending numerous conferences promoting environmentally sound building practices, gave me a solid basis to keep improving my building practices to achieve what I hoped would be net-zero.”
That net-zero goal was achieved at Abbott’s Alley. And when it was, the actual energy efficiency numbers were somewhat shocking.
“The surprise came when my independent verifier, Tom Balderston, did his analysis and found our energy score on this project is a -13, which means the energy model suggests there will be a 13% surplus of energy produced due to the conservation features and the rooftop solar array,” she said. “This puts Abbott’s Alley homes in a category known as net positive.”
For reference, a net-zero home has an energy score of zero and a typical new home is 50 or higher. Older homes can be 150 or more.
It has taken Rose years to get her buildings to this point.
“Abbott’s Alley is a culmination of learning how to properly air seal, eliminate thermal bridging, insulate well, mechanically ventilate and choose the right equipment,” she said. “The concept is called building a house as a system.”
The benefits are beyond financial.
Rose said her buildings are healthier to live in and maintain more comfortable temperatures year-round due to added insulation.
“While I spend extra money on insulation and ventilation, I have learned ways to offset those costs so Abbott’s Alley was able to be priced at the same square footage price as other market rate housing built for the spec market in this area,” she said.
Rose hopes that the building practices used at Abbott’s Alley become the norm, though she understands that change of his magnitude can come at a slow pace.
She said she has tried to convince other builders in Skagit County to use the building practices used at Abbott’s Alley, but that there has been resistance.
“We now have the knowledge, so it’s up to the builders to deliver to the market housing that can help solve our environmental problems,” she said. “The question is this, Do they have the will?”