SEATTLE — Before she got into the construction business 41 years ago, Donna Shirey was a teacher.
Turns out, she still is.
"Our first project with SIPs was in 1987," says Shirey, co-founder of Shirey Handyman & Remodeling, discussing the benefits of building with structural insulated panels. "The first show we ever did was the Tacoma Home Show in 1987. People said to us, 'You're gonna put foam in houses? I read about that in Popular Science.' "
The Shireys, Donna and her husband, Riley, have long believed that sustainable building is smart building. And in 2005 they decided to go for it: build the greenest, most affordable, healthy, comfortable and quiet home possible on the shore of Lake Sammamish in Bellevue, Wash. The Shireys would be their own client, and they would open the house to anybody who wanted to come have a look, from construction to completion.
Its sustainable credentials are many: photovoltaic panels, solar hot water, tankless water heater, hydronic radiant heating, heat-recovery ventilator, living roof, recycled-content tile, salvaged-wood flooring, metal roof, local materials, rainwater collection using a 3,000-gallon cistern, small footprint, wind turbine, 5-star Built Green rating. More.
"We had 3,500 people come through, and that's not including groups," Shirey says brightly, sitting in the golden kitchen of their 1,630-square-foot home, a little bit country, a little bit contemporary and designed by architect David Clinkston. "Riley thinks the lookie-loos added three months to the process."
The more the merrier, is how they look at it. Why, Shirey (who's fond of such construction bon mots as "build tight; ventilate right," and "use built-ins, not furniture") has lived all of her years in a sustainable frame of mind.
"My parents went through the Depression; my dad was a butcher in Cleveland. We saved and recycled everything," she says. "You never knew what you were going to need."
The Shireys completed the place they call "the Zero Energy Idea House" in 2009. Most recently it and the couple's Florida home were featured in the book "Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid" by Sheri Koones. (Fun fact: Robert Redford, who wrote the preface, worked as a roustabout in the oil fields south of Los Angeles as a teenager.)
Koones tells us that houses use about one-third of all the energy in America. But for 80 percent of the year, the Shirey home requires no energy to operate. And each year Puget Sound Energy has sent the Shireys a check for about $650 for power returned to the grid.
The home is contemporary but made comfortable with fat alder trim and bright, cheerful (no VOC) paint. Rooms (two bedrooms, 21/2; baths) are no larger than needed. The living room is a conversation-inducing 11 feet by 12 feet. The home steps down the lake's-edge hillside, from TV loft upstairs to the bedrooms below the main living space.
Interior designer Autumn Donovan helped inside, working with the Shireys' "recycled" furniture — pieces they already owned. "Those chairs over there?" Shirey says, pointing to the living room. "I've had those since 1982. We just got them recovered."
That kind of ethic is evident all around. "There's always something people can do," Shirey says, "whether they're building a new house or have an existing one."