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About Utah: Clearing the air, one house at a time

SALT LAKE CITY — Mitchell Spence and his wife, Tiffany Ivins, are developers. They’re standing on dirt they purchased in the Liberty Park area of Salt Lake City, where the plan is to build no fewer than five homes in the 2,200-square-foot range on six-tenths of an acre.

Typical story, right? Squeeze out every square inch of land to maximize profits and increase density.

Except for this: The homes will be insulated more than two times beyond code; they’ll be powered entirely by solar; all connecting seams will be sealed to make them as airtight as a non-New England Patriot NFL football; and each one will have an e-bike in the garage as a welcoming gift. All of which figures to, first, improve the environment and, second, reduce the profit margin by a considerable amount.

Keep this up, and they’ll be drummed right out of the developers union.

Then again, what did you expect from two people who met and were married 10 years ago in Nepal, where each, in their own way, was trying to make the world a better, healthier place?

This is the backstory: Tiffany, who grew up in Bountiful, was in Nepal working with an organization that was helping train villagers to be more self-sustaining and technologically aware. (No one could question her credentials: She got a master’s at Oxford and a doctorate from BYU in instruction psychology and technology)

Mitchell, who grew up in Texas and moved to Orem when he was 14, first went to Nepal on a self-discovery backpacking trip after graduating from college (he went to Manhattan School of Art & Design with an emphasis in furniture building), then later returned to the Himalayan country to help build schools and community centers.

It was only a matter of time before the expats would meet. As Tiffany puts it, “We were in the Mormon-over-30-single-in-Kathmandu category; the dating pool was pretty narrow.”

At any rate, the two humanitarians from Utah found each other halfway around the world, fell in love and got married.

They then started having children quick — as in four-kids-in-four-years quick — and returned to Utah to raise them.

They moved into a 150-year-old pioneer house in Bountiful. Built for early Mormon leader Heber C. Kimball, the house was historic. It was also drafty, which exacerbated Mitchell’s asthma. Being a builder, he fought back, improving the air quality by sealing cracks and patching up the leaky old house with mounds of insulation.

In the process, he and Tiffany learned about net-zero housing — structures built so well and so tight that energy bills are a net zero. They create as much energy as they use; you don’t pay anything to heat them and cool them.

They talked to a friend at Cal-Berkeley who is helping California move toward its goal of requiring all new home construction in the state to be net-zero by the year 2020.

They consulted with Bryson Garbett, a relative, who heads Garbett Homes, the most prominent energy-efficient homebuilder in Utah.

Thus educated, they connected to their humanitarian roots and decided to start Living Zenith (, the first net-zero commercial building company in Utah.

“The question was clear to us,” says Mitchell. “Are we going to practice what we preach?”

The answer can be found at 1172 S. 400 East in Salt Lake City, the building site where five net-zero homes will be completed and put up for sale.

The first of the five is already framed, steering toward a November finish. It features an energy-efficient shallow foundation, just 12 inches below grade; high density foam insulation rated at R-42 (code is R-19); exterior sheeting that involves both nails and tape on the seams; and concrete floors on the main level — all of it powered by solar panels drawing energy from the sun.

During the day, the airtight house will contribute to the energy grid. At night, it will draw from the grid. The result: net zero.

“All you’ll pay in energy bills is a monthly $8 line service fee,” says Mitchell.

The quality of the interior air will be so healthy that, on bad air inversion days, “you’ll be safer inside.”

Adds Tiffany, “Statistics show that pollution comes 39 percent from buildings, 33 percent from transportation and the rest from industry.”

The math is simple: If buildings stopped polluting, the air outside would be nearly 40 percent cleaner.

Over time it could make a world of difference.

Will it work? Ten years from now, will Mitchell and Tiffany be hailed as visionary, pollution-solution, green-building pioneers? Will we all be breathing easier?

Or will they be out of business?

One house into it, they admit they have no idea, but they’re committed to giving it a try.

“Developers,” says Tiffany, musing to herself. “We’re developers. Who’d have ever thought?”

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.