Japanese cash kickstarts Highlands zHome project

We’ve got Ichiro. And now we’ve got Ichijo.

After nearly two years of delay, developers and City of Issaquah will finally begin construction April 6 on what’s billed as the nation’s first zero-energy, carbon-neutral community — all thanks to an investment made by a new project partner, Japanese homebuilder Ichijo Co., Ltd.

Conceived by the city and developers Howland Homes in 2008, the zHome project is a private-public partnership in pioneering “green” building technologies for 10 new homes in the Issaquah Highlands. The homes will use zero net energy and 60 percent less water, have clean indoor air, and use only low-toxicity materials.

The project finally got the go-ahead after after Ichijo USA, a subsidiary of Ichijo Co., Ltd., stepped in with $5 million in financing to build it. The two companies are now moving forward with the project in a joint-venture as Howland Development Issaquah, LLC.

“We are thrilled to add a builder of international caliber in Ichijo USA to our zHome team,” said Issaquah Mayor Ava Frisinger. “It’s fitting that zHome has evolved into a joint effort that spans the Pacific. By sharing our different skills, technologies and cultures, we can find tangible solutions for a worldwide problem: climate change.”

The project held a ceremonial groundbreaking on Sept. 28, 2008, but was temporarily shelved after financial partners backed out in late-2008 during the banking crisis.

Howland Homes owner Matt Howland said his company contacted about 25 local banks and lenders to find alternative financing – all to no avail. City project manager Brad Liljequist tried to secure funding through Federal Stimulus grants last year for energy efficiency improvements, but that proved equally fruitless due to the project’s for-profit business plan.

Instead, Howland discovered an interested investor in the Japanese company — with a name that sounds similar to Issaquah resident and Mariners baseball player Ichiro Suzuki — by way of his own Rolodex. Both Ichijo and Howland shared a common contact in Oregon-based Lumber suppliers Vanport International, who suggested a meeting between the two companies. Ichijo was also seeking a U.S. partner in sustainable, green home construction — something that matched Howland’s profile. For much of 2009, Howland Homes and Ichijo courted each other until the Japanese committed to the deal last month. It’s the Japanese company’s first investment in the U.S. market.

“I’m excited about it,” said Howland. “The goal is it will really influence building practices regionally and nationally.”

Ichijo established itself as a home building business in 1978. And according to Akinobu Ohno, CEO of Ichijo USA Co., Ltd., the future is more energy efficient houses needed all over the world.

“We believe our responsibility as home builder is to maximize our effort to provide highly energy-efficient homes at reasonable prices,” Ohno said.

As part of the deal, Ichijo will not only reap their returns from the home sales, but will also source some of the materials used in construction and also gain valuable experience in building “green” homes in the Pacific Northwest.

Liljequist said he was excited by the prospect of working with Ichijo USA and adapting some of the highly energy-efficient technologies used for homes built in Japan. The company’s high-efficiency model home in Japan, for example, uses heavily-insulated exterior wall panels and extremely efficient heat pumps and modified versions will be used on the zHome project. The walls, manufactured by Ichijo in at a factory in the Philippines, will be custom made for the zHome project.

“They completely get what zHome is about, and have been real leaders and innovators in their home market,” Liljequist wrote on his blog about the project, zBlog. “If we are going to be serious about addressing climate change, it is going to be these sorts of international partnerships that are going to do it.”

Last year, Ichijo Group of Japan built about 8,000 homes with a total sales value of $2.1 billion.

Other high-efficiency zHome innovations include incorporating solar panels into the home’s power supply, using recycled water and recycled and sustainable building materials in the construction of the homes.

Howland said asking price for the homes will start around the mid-$300,000 range — about 20 percent less than originally planned, but still more expensive than comparable, less-efficient homes in the area.

“The energy savings overall will offset much of the additional cost in the long run,” said Howland.

One unit will be retained as a five-year demonstration unit and eventually offered as an affordable housing unit.

The townhomes are planned as four buildings located along NE High St. between 10th and Highlands Drive Northeast in Issaquah Highlands. The homes vary in size from an 800-square-foot studio to a 1,600-square-foot two-bedroom plus den unit, and are expected to be completed by Spring 2011 and open for public tours.

The zHome Project will also be built in partnership with Built Green, King County, Port Blakely Communities, Puget Sound Energy and the Washington State University Energy Program.

For more information, and to sign up for regular education updates on zHome, go to http://www.z-home.org/.