Bellevue neighbors see Zero Energy house on slippery slope

When husband and wife team, Donna and Riley Shirey of Shirey Contracting decided to build a new home, they thought of their empty lot sitting at Bass Cove in Bellevue.

The Zero Energy Idea House

When husband and wife team, Donna and Riley Shirey of Shirey Contracting decided to build a new home, they thought of their empty lot sitting at Bass Cove in Bellevue.

Situated on a sloping hillside, the lot, located at 840 West Lake Sammamish Parkway Southeast, has sweeping views of Lake Sammamish and the Cascade mountains. As strong advocates for green building and 30 years experience in the industry, they approached the new project as an opportunity to educate the public about energy efficient building practices – opening the doors to of their new home to the public.

The Zero Energy Idea House was born.

When completed, the home will combine on-site power generation with efficiency measures to meet its own energy requirements. The home is designed as a demonstration project for consumers and the building industry with a goal of net-zero energy consumption.

There will be public tours when the house is completed in early 2009.

Now, as the innovative-energy saving home moves forward, some feel the project is teetering on a slippery slope.

Bass Cove residents know the value of saving energy – both in the checkbook and the environment. They also remember the rock slide in 1997 that crushed a car parked in front of a Bass Cove home, situated directly below lots 830 and 840 on Lake Sammamish Parkway. The neighbors, made up of roughly 10 homes along a private drive, fear history will repeat itself.

The two lots sit on a steep slope above several homes, causing concern for several of the neighbors residing below.

“The neighborhood kids are always out front playing. I worry for their safety,” said one Bass Cove resident. “I support what the Shireys are trying to accomplish with the Zero Energy House; I have no concerns about the actual house. Then again, maybe we’re saving energy, but at what cost?”

Neighbors first voiced their concerns in January 1990. In a letter to King County, neighbors pointed out that the hillside where the building sites are located have produced small rock and dirt slides on a regular basis due to periods of heavy precipitation or freezing and thawing.

In response, King County Building and Land Development Division Manager Irv Berteig placed warnings on the city’s Kroll Map and the information files, indicating that any applications in the area will be subject to Sensitive Area and Drainage Review.

In January 2002, another major landslide blocked West Lake Sammamish Parkway for several weeks while the city worked to make the roadway safe and useable again. The extensive cleanup involved an estimated 400 truckloads of soil and debris removal from the site.

“We are building on a steep slope that overlooks Lake Sammamish so we are taking great care in doing everything we can do to make sure to keep that site stable, and replanting with native vegetation,” said Pam Worner, of Green Dog Enterprises, Inc. “We are working closely with landscape architects and civil engineers on this project.”

In 2006, concerns about development and construction on the two lots had not dissipated. In a letter addressed to the Planning and Community Development Division of Bellevue, Bass Cove residents pointed to issues including storm drainage during heavy storms and the stability of the hillside itself.

As one Bass Cove resident wrote to the city of Bellevue: “Most of the time this would appear to be just minor nuisance. Yet, there have been times when there have been major slides. This has happened without any major disturbances in the hillside that construction would entail.”

As the Bellevue’s Environmental Planning Manager Michael Paine explained, prior to construction on either of the two lots, a complete geotechnical investigation would be required.

The Shireys brought in Earth Solutions NW, a geotechnical firm from Redmond. The firm prepared a study in October 2006 and revised the report in March 2008. The report included a slope stability assessment, focusing on the existing and anticipated post construction conditions of the site.

In the report, the engineers examined site grading and earthwork, appropriate building location along existing slopes, site drainage, foundation support, structural fill and slope fill placement, appropriate erosion control and the suitability of the on-site soils for use as structural fill.

Based on the results of the study, construction of a single-family residence was found feasible from a geotechnical standpoint and, according to the findings, will add stability to the slope.

“We didn’t just breeze through this,” David Clinkston explained, adding that the Shireys have a 26-year reputation in the building industry and a well-established firm. “We did a complete, thorough and safe assessment that entailed a complicated process. We went through every proper step and crossed every t and dotted every i.”

For the Shireys the Zero Energy Idea House presents the opportunity to expose the public to new ways in energy-saving building.

“The concept of a Zero Energy House is to basically embark on a quest to see what we can do to minimize our energy use and to find ways to provide energy to the home that are as efficient as possible,” Donna Shirey said.

Compliance with the new Critical Areas Ordinance was a major priority on the project. The project’s design team included geotechnical engineers, civil engineer, land use planner and two landscape architectural firms. Wildlife biologist were brought in to assess, report and recommend a landscape mitigation plan, careful management of the slope over time and phased removal of invasive species to be replaced by native species.

During construction, material will be placed below the construction site to intercept any temporary disturbance for erosion control.

“I just think it is amazing the city makes it so hard for most of us to get projects done, but then approves these types of projects and then is surprised when something bad happens,” voiced a concerned Bass Cove resident.

To alleviate some of the concerns regarding the storm-water runoff, Clinkston explained that the Zero Energy House will be equipped with a green roof. The green roof will replace the habitat displaced by the building footprint. Rain water that falls on the roof and water from the uphill side of the site is harvested for irrigation, reducing the runoff entering the Bellevue storm water system during a heavy rain.

In January 2008 another resident of 26 years wrote, “in my opinion these occurrences are becoming more regular and increasing in severity, due primarily to excessive nearby development and stripping of vegetation, causing excessive storm-water runoff and water saturation, especially in steep slope areas.”

“Our project is actually intercepting and gathering rainwater and ultimately makes the slope more stable,” Clinkston explained.

When all is said and done, Bass Cove neighbors still have their doubts.

According to several residents, they would like to see the city require some type of insurance or indemnity bond be taken out to cover the value of a house and the potential cost of any inconvenience that would occur if the rock wall collapsed and damaged a house or property.

With the recent Cougar Mountain mudslide in Bellevue back in July, residents said it is scary that the city would allow building on such a steep slope.

“At this point, all we can do is hope for the best,” one neighbor said.

The Zero Energy Idea House will be open for one month in the last part of January for public tours.

More information can be found out

Lindsay Larin can be reached at or at 425-453-4602.

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