In Bethesda, a home built to have a net-zero carbon footprint

By Elizabeth Festa
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, May 1, 2010

Architect Marcie Meditch set out to show how a highly energy-efficient home could be built for a typical market price in a dense, suburban neighborhood like Bethesda.

So, without a buyer lined up for the house, she and her husband, John Murphey, principals of Meditch Murphey Architects in Chevy Chase, designed a "net zero" house, intended to consume only as much energy as it produces. And despite Meditch's fears that it might be difficult to sell once completed, it was snatched off the market in November -- before construction was finished -- for just under $1.8 million.

The buyer, Ann Luskey, a philanthropist who devotes much of her life to ocean conservation and eco-conscious living, found that the house and its neighborhood offered the green lifestyle she was trying to pursue.

After a divorce, Luskey was looking to downsize from an 11,000-square-foot house in McLean. She wanted a home that was "not too excessive," and where she and her three school-age children would be comfortable. She wanted a home that she could make greener over time, and if she could find one that was LEED-certified, a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, so much the better.

"As I learned more and more about environmentalism and carbon footprints and all these things, [living in a big house in McLean] started feeling over the top and inappropriate," Luskey said.

"I can't believe I found a house close to the canal, the bike path, close to school in a more typical type of neighborhood for my kids so they could bike to their house," she said.

"The neighborhood I came from in McLean is beautiful, is on the Potomac, is exquisite, but the neighbors are far apart. It is hard to get to each other's houses. There are no sidewalks, no paths," she said. The distance between my room [in the net-zero house] and their room is smaller; [it's] more cozy."

The Bethesda house is in a walkable community, with a pool, a bus-stop and schools, while a community clubhouse, playground, daycare center and community garden all nearby.

In the years between their time in McLean and their new home in Bethesda, Luskey and her children have lived aboard a Dutch-built motor yacht, sometimes docked along the Potomac waterfront. Her youngest learned to walk while living aboard the boat, and it's where all the children have been home-schooled while the family sailed around the Caribbean and the Americas.

Luskey said she looked at the carbon footprint of living on the boat and, dividing it among all the friends and staff members who also live onboard, calculated that it amounted to 11,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per person per year, versus the U.S. average of 20,000 pounds, she said.

Gallery on land

When Luskey bought the Bethesda property, the 4,000-square-foot, five-bedroom house was framed, and had exterior sheathing but no drywall and no exterior siding. Electrical and plumbing rough-ins had just been completed.

Meditch said she and her design team simplified the layout so they could put money into green features. The first floor has an open plan and consists of living room, dining room and kitchen, put together as one long room, and the master bedroom and garage are in another wing, forming an L-shaped house.

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