Going For Green
Building an eco-friendly home may cost a little more at the start, but it will save you a bundle of cash in the long run — and keep you a whole lot healthier
by Valerie Havas
There are many reasons to go “green” when building or remodeling your house. Perhaps you want to help save the earth by reducing pollution and minimizing your use of energy, water, and building materials. Maybe you want to ensure that your indoor environment is as healthy as possible, or that your home coexists peacefully with its natural surroundings. Or perhaps you’re interested in another type of green — the kind that will pile up in your wallet once you start slashing your heating, cooling, electricity, and maintenance bills.
The good news is that, for all the reasons to consider green architecture, there are even more ways to achieve it. Electricity-producing solar panels, geothermal heating systems, super-efficient appliances, earth-friendly building materials — all are readily available. Here’s a sampling of what some local homeowners, energy experts, and home-industry pros are doing to make the Valley an even greener place to live.
“The key to green, or sustainable, architecture lies in three things,” declares New Paltzâ€“based architect Matthew Bialecki. “First of all, there’s the home’s efficiency from an energy point of view. I would include the energy it consumes on a day-to-day basis, as well as the energy it will consume for maintenance over the long term.
“Secondly,” Bialecki continues, “you need to make sure that the actual materials being used are green.” They should not emit toxins, for example, and should resist mold growth. They should also be made from renewable resources, which (if possible) have been locally obtained. “Don’t chop down the last Douglas fir in northern Alaska; use locally grown, sustainably harvested eastern pine instead,” he counsels.
Third, the house should be as healthy as possible. All systems should be properly installed to avoid hazards such as carbon dioxide build-up, and the house itself should retard deterioration as well as water infiltration (which can lead to mold). The structure also needs to be tightly sealed for energy efficiency, yet properly ventilated to ensure good indoor air quality. “What often happens is that as buildings get more energy-efficient, they’re not breathing,” Bialecki warns.
Much of Bialecki’s architectural philosophy can be seen in a home he designed for a couple in Gardiner, Ulster County. The house, which won an award for design excellence from the American Institute of Architects, is heated by a super-efficient propane boiler, coupled with a radiant floor heating system. The masonry walls and chimney (which absorb, store, and radiate heat) help stabilize indoor temperatures. Large expanses of glass flood the home’s great room with natural light, virtually eliminating the need for electric lights during the day. The roof also plays an important role in keeping a lid on energy costs. Bialecki’s so-called “umbrella” roofing system features high-performance insulation, an aluminum radiant barrier that deflects the sun’s rays, and a large venting area that allows heat to dissipate to the outdoors.
Malina Kanevsky and Gershon Palevski, partners in GNG Designbuild, put their environmental principles into practice when they moved their office into an addition in Kanevsky’s Ossining, Westchester County, home. It was a given that the new space would incorporate lots of windows, both for their energy-saving properties and for the spectacular views of a nearby nature preserve. Some of these windows were built into a clerestory tower that juts through the addition’s roof. Though the tower is oriented toward the south, the partners took care to position the windows at an angle in order to get the most sun. “When light comes in indirectly, you get the advantage of the light without the problem of glare,” explains Palevski.
The office itself has a large picture window facing north, and gets plenty of natural light even in winter, Palevski says. “In January, we didn’t use electricity to light the office for the entire workday.” Another window, located at the opposite end of the office, provides additional light while promoting cross-ventilation. The partners also took full advantage of the sun’s warming power by locating a concrete-block wall near the tower windows, at the office’s entrance. The wall acts as a thermal storage unit, providing the space with sufficient heat for most of the year. When the weather turns cold, the radiant heating system beneath the floor keeps the office comfortably warm.
The firm also incorporated a tower into a house built for a Putnam Valley couple. Constructed to house the owners’ extensive book collection, the tower has windows for natural light and two exhaust fans for air circulation. To heat the house, Palevski chose a highly efficient wood-burning stove, which is supplemented by an under-floor heating system installed throughout the house.
Palevski and Kanevsky agree that the public has become much more aware of green architecture. “When clients come to us, they ask about specific materials and equipment, and how it will be saving them money in the long term,” says Kanevsky.
Lately, adds Palevski, “the idea of a green house has become a mainstream marketing tool,” with the government helping to promote the concept with tax credits and other financial incentives. But, he warns, there’s nothing very “green” about adding a few energy-saving measures to a grossly oversized home. “The underlying philosophical issue is to convince people that it’s better to put their money into a better home, rather than a bigger home.”
Inspired by what he learned at a National Green Building Conference, Sylvain CÃ´tÃ©, owner of Absolute Remodeling in Yorktown Heights, Westchester County, has turned his lakefront home into a showcase of energy efficiency and green design. After buying the 20-year-old octagon-shaped house in South Salem several years ago, he proceeded to rebuild virtually the entire structure.
To provide sufficient space for his family, CÃ´tÃ© added an additional story, bringing the
home’s total size to about 3,750 square feet. It now has three levels — and very few walls, except on the uppermost floor, where they provide privacy for the bedrooms. The open plan allows unobstructed views of the lake and encourages the flow of natural light from the outdoors, reducing the need for electricity. For heat, CÃ´tÃ© chose a radiant hydronic floor-heating system; supplemental heating is provided by the load-bearing chimney and two fireplaces. Topping the house is a “widow’s walk,” which doubles as a cooling tower.
Whenever possible, CÃ´tÃ© used recycled materials, some of them from the original house. Reclaimed items include a spiral staircase, 200-year-old beams, and antique wood used for flooring. When it came to the exterior, however, CÃ´tÃ© chose modern, engineered materials that resemble wood. “No staining or painting will be necessary,” he says.
For power, CÃ´tÃ© turned to ISI Solar in South Nyack, Rockland County. The 6.27-kilowatt solar photovoltaic (PV) system is mounted on the roof, with solar modules placed on four sides of the house. According to ISI President James Albert, this system will produce from 85 to 100 percent of the Sylvains’ electrical needs. “There will be times, especially in the summer — when the solar system is producing the most electricity — that their meter will be spinning backwards and they will receive a credit from the utility company on their bill,” he adds.
A five-kilowatt system (which Albert says is fairly common in New York) costs between $40,000 and $50,000. That might seem steep until you factor in the government incentives. “NYSERDA [the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority] will pay for about 50 percent of the cost right up front,” he points out. “In addition, New York State has a tax credit of $3,750, and there is a federal tax credit of $2,000. So now the homeowner is only paying around $14,000 to $24,000.”
Another local installer of PV systems is Hudson Valley Clean Energy, based in Rhinebeck, Dutchess County. “About half our customers install solar electric systems for financial reasons, and the other half install them for environmental reasons,” declares co-owner John Wright. To explain the environmental pluses of solar energy, he points to a home in Germantown, Columbia County, where his firm recently installed a four-kilowatt system. By switching to solar (and thereby reducing their use of fossil fuels), the homeowners will avoid generating some 4,000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year. “That,” Wright declares, “has about the same environmental impact as planting two acres of trees,” which clean the air by absorbing CO2. As for the financial benefits, Wright says that his customers typically recoup their investment in about 10 years.
Other Valley homeowners have turned to geothermal heating systems, where heat is pumped from the ground — or in some cases, from water — and carried through fluid-filled pipes into the house. In hot weather, the procedure is reversed: heat is removed from the house and transported into the ground. Excess heat can also be transferred to the super heater, which is similar to a hot water heater and further cuts costs. The pipes (called loops) can be installed underground, either horizontally or vertically, or in a pond or lake. Most often, the loops are closed, but in areas where groundwater is plentiful and codes permit, an open system (in which water is piped directly from an aquifer to the building) may be considered.
Local installers of geothermal systems include Enviro-Tech, based in Staatsburg, Dutchess County. According to co-owner Joseph Spoleti, horizontal systems are popular when space and geology allow, because they are relatively inexpensive. In areas where bedrock is close to the surface, however, vertical systems are often a better choice.
Size is also a factor when determining cost effectiveness, he notes. “The larger the system, the more excavation, which will drive the numbers closer to a vertical system.” The least expensive choice is a lake loop, because drilling costs are eliminated and excavation is kept to a minimum — though not every property has a suitable body of water located on it.
Speaking of a Westchester County installation that Enviro-Tech completed in 2004, Spoleti noted that the homeowners have already seen dramatic improvements in their gas bill. In the heating season prior to installation, they used 300 therms to heat, cook, and make hot water. “As of last December, they had used three therms of gas, for cooking only,” he says. The homeowners expect their system will begin paying for itself in about eight years — longer than usual, says Spoleti, because they added a few extras, including humidifiers and ultraviolet filters, to make their indoor air ultra-clean. Another family uses the geo-thermal system to heat their pool, adding two months to the swimming season.
A complete system, including ductwork, drilling, and installation, costs between $16 and $22 a square foot, says Spoleti, meaning that a system for a 3,000-square-foot house might set you back $48,000. Central Hudson offers an $800 rebate toward the purchase of an entire system. In addition, the federal government passed legislation last summer that provides financial incentives for people improving their home’s energy efficiency.
Noting that current government support is significantly stronger for solar systems, Spoleti expresses his belief that the situation is changing. “The Geothermal Heat Pump Consortium is working hard with NYSERDA and local utilities to give better incentives in our area to help offset the initial cost of the system,” he says, adding that interest in new, greener sources of energy is booming. “Because of rising fuel costs and the need to become less dependent on imported oil, there has been growth in the entire alternative energy market.”
The Hudson Valley, it seems, is only going to get a lot greener. ■