Super Efficient Energy

A Rainier Vallery homeowner employs the common sense - and human powered - Passive House standard.
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The first time Dan Whitmore welcomed a group of friends to the nearly completed Rainier Valley home he was building for his family, it was a bit like a treasure hunt.

“It was our first blower door test,” says the goateed contractor. (A blower door test is performed to check airtightness of a house and is done with a fan that creates a pressure change.) “There were 15 people running around looking for air leaks.” This summer, Whitmore completed Seattle’s first single family home to meet a super-energy-saving building standard from Europe called Passivhaus (or, in the U.S., Passive House).

Passivhaus, developed in Germany in the early 1990s, emphasizes building a structure so thickly insulated and carefully sealed that it requires little to no supplemental heating or cooling in any season. It was an idea that made sense to Whitmore, who grew up in Oklahoma with professor parents in a solar-powered home.

I like the idea of limiting the energy we use here in our country, so we don’t have to go looking for energy in other countries,” he says. Whitmore was also inspired by his work in the 1990s as a disaster assistance inspector for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Florida and Puerto Rico, where he learned the wisdom of keeping climate change and regional hazards in mind when building.

Like other houses built to the Passive House standard, this one should prove at least 75 percent more efficient than a standard, built-to-code house. Though Whitmore’s home has only been occupied for a couple of months, the house is built to remain a pleasant 68 degrees through the colder months, mostly by way of the heat radiating from a few appliances and the sun. The other source of energy? Us.

“We humans are giving off the heat of a 100-watt light bulb,” Whitmore says. “It’s enough to take care of the vast majority of our heating needs.”

To keep heat from escaping, house walls are 14 inches thick, rather than the 5.5-inch thickness of new construction.

The polished concrete floor on the main level is insulated with five times the standard amount of eco-friendly foam. House foundations aren’t usually insulated from below, but this one is, with another 4 inches of foam.

Windows are triple-paned, argon filled and specially glazed to trap the sun’s warmth. Passive houses also require special ventilation. Whitmore uses an Ultimate Air RecoupAerator, which constantly vents stale air from kitchen, bath and laundry, and brings in fresh outdoor air.

But does it really stay warm when it’s 20 degrees outside?

Whitmore has a couple of space heaters for the coldest nights, and he can always just invite those 15 friends back and trap their heat. “It brings new meaning to the phrase ‘housewarming party,’” he says.

What you can do:

Quick fix: Insulate and air-seal your outlets. As blower tests show, anywhere you have air leaks in your house you’re losing valuable heat, and outlets are an overlooked spot. Thin foam insulation pads, which fit beneath outlet covers (and go around sockets), are very cheap, easy to install and available at most big-box stores. (Don’t forget to turn off the power to the socket before beginning this project.)

Weekend project
: If you can see daylight around doors, window frames or your mail slot, you have leaks. Use caulk or weather stripping to fill the gaps.

Long term: Get an in-home energy audit subsidized by Seattle City Light. For approximately $100 (or free if you qualify), auditors come to your house and check for leaks, insulation and heater efficiency. Use the information to make changes that will cut heating costs (


Read about another eco-friendly home, featured in this story for being The Ultimate Water Saver.

Kitchen of the Week: A Bright Update for Seattle’s Gray Days

Kitchen of the Week: A Bright Update for Seattle’s Gray Days

An interior designer improves the flow, brings in light and adds unexpected touches in her family’s kitchen
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A small kitchen can work if you lay it out right,” says interior designer Harmony Weihs of Design Harmony. Unfortunately, her family’s small, dark 1960s kitchen wasn’t working. “The ceilings were under 8 feet high, the cabinets were falling off their hinges, and two people could not do anything in here at the same time without bumping into each other,” she says. By adding a modest extension and remodeling the rest, she brightened up the room and created a layout that functions without all that bumping.

Kitchen at a Glance
Who lives here: Interior designer Harmony Weihs and her family
Location: Seattle
Size: 170 square feet (16 square meters)

Here we are looking at the new portion of the kitchen, which extends just 7½ feet but makes all the difference. A view out a large picture window enlarges the space visually.

The 4-by-6-foot window provides a lovely focal point and is surrounded by a stacked slate accent wall. The slate is a natural stone veneer on mesh-backed tiles that can be installed by a tile installer rather than a mason.

“When you’re designing for yourself, you’re able to take more risks,” Weihs says. “Not having the sink in front of a window with cabinets on either side is not typical of what clients usually want, but I wanted the new design to focus on the evergreens outside.”

Refined Midcentury

A poppy-red Dutch door provides access to the deck. “It’s better to do the riskier things less expensively,” she says. She can always paint the door another color down the line if she wants a new look, whereas something like a bold backsplash would be more involved and expensive to replace.

Related: More Storage and Light for a Seattle Kitchen

To the right of the door is a coffee and tea station. She placed it out of the way of the main work zone so that there would be no more bumping into each other. The drawers are just the right size for supplies like coffee filters and tea bags.

BEFORE: “When the range door was open, you couldn’t even fit by it,” Weihs says.

Kitchen of the Week: A Bright Update for Seattle

AFTER: This plan shows the existing kitchen on the left side and the new addition on the right.

Refined Midcentury

From this vantage point, we are looking toward the existing part of the kitchen. The ceiling had been under 8 feet high. The new vaulted ceiling extends the entire length of the kitchen, tying the new addition into the existing room seamlessly. She outfitted the ceiling with four skylights and white, 5½-inch tongue-and-groove paneling.

“We have a lot of gray days in the Pacific Northwest, so making things light and bright is important here,” the designer says.

“Kitchen design is moving toward less upper cabinets with more windows. We had enough cabinet storage in this design to make this possible,” Weihs says. She strategically added open shelves for glassware above the sink. “They keep a clear, open and airy look, and it’s really convenient to put them away because the dishwasher is right there,” she says.

She left enough room for a window and a small wine refrigerator.

A two-tone cabinet strategy means that the top half of the kitchen can stay light and bright, while dark lower cabinets deliver the bold contrast the designer loves. “Originally I wanted walnut cabinets, but there was too much movement in the pattern on the original oak floors — they would have clashed,” she says. Instead, she opted for alder with a dark espresso stain.

Related: Remodeling Your Kitchen? Browse Cabinetry

Cabinets: Cabinet Connection

Refined Midcentury

“I like to incorporate older elements into my designs, and we have great architectural salvage places here in Seattle,” Weihs says. This slate was from a UPS office; she had it fabricated into three panels to cover this wall. Weihs loves it because it adds an element that doesn’t look “all squeaky clean” and is the same material she used on the picture window accent wall.

“We wanted a TV here, but I didn’t want it to be a black hole on the wall when we weren’t using it,” she says. Placed on a swing arm, it disappears visually into the slate wall. She can make lists and notes on it, and her 5-year-old son and daughter, 2, can doodle with chalk.

“I wanted an island in here, but it wasn’t possible, so I designed the peninsula to function in the same way,” she says. The TV swings out for viewing cooking shows or football games while working in here, and the kids can cozy up on the stools on the other side.

You can see how the kitchen relates to the dining area, above.

Related: DIY Chalkboard Paint

Weihs located the pantry strategically so that when they come in with groceries, they can place them on the peninsula and put them away right here. Deep pullouts blend in with the home’s architecture on the side facing the dining room. On the refrigerator side, the cabinets and drawers are shallow — no digging to find things. The lower drawers are filled with snacks for the kids so that they can help themselves.

Refined Midcentury

The peninsula plays an important role in the work area, as it’s close to the refrigerator, range and sink. It also provides a spot for a microwave drawer.

“I see herringbone patterns in Europe a lot and noted how timeless it is.” Weihs says of her backsplash choice, which extends up the entire wall. “By using white tile with a white grout, the movement in the pattern is more subtle.” The scale of the 2-by-16-inch tiles stands up to the height of the ceiling.

Refined Midcentury

“I love the look of marble counters, but I also love red wine — the two aren’t a good mix,” Weihs says with a laugh. Instead she used a quartzite with a beautiful veining that looks like marble but is more durable. She had the veins on the edges matched up to the tops and mitered so that the countertops appear to be 2½ inches thick.

A six-burner Wolf gas range is a dream realized. In the old kitchen, Weihs used to hit her head on the low vent hood. Now there’s plenty of headroom and a pot filler to boot.

36-inch range: Wolf