Even though the idea of “green” building is gradually becoming more mainstream in this country, there’s still an undeserved whiff of earnest hippie-dippy impracticality associated with it. “A lot of people equate an energy efficient, sustainable house with being inconvenient and difficult,” says David Borenstein, an architect and builder who has been practicing sustainable design for decades. (His offices, in fact, are in a onetime Milan town garage. He converted the charmless, low-slung eyesore into a two-story structure handsome enough to win an award for outstanding redevelopment from the Dutchess County Planning Federation.)
“The main idea of sustainability is making a building more energy efficient from the heating and cooling standpoint — that’s the biggest energy consumption,” Borenstein goes on. “And the more efficient the house is, the more you save, so it’s an investment as well. It just makes sense.” There’s no need to sacrifice looks, he adds. “A house needs to be well-made, but it also has to be comfortable, warm, and inviting. The emotional aspect is paramount.”
The house that Borenstein recently built on a woodsy seven-acre parcel in Milan is a good example: It’s energy efficient, modern, bright, welcoming, and — like the architect himself — a little quirky. It conforms to LEED standards that qualify it for platinum certification, meaning it meets or exceeds the criteria for energy, water, and waste efficiency; vital things like good indoor air quality; and niceties like views, sunlight, and how well it’s incorporated into the site.
Interior windows and copper-pipe railings are Borenstein signatures. At right, the kitchen’s multicolored tile floor is repeated in the bathrooms in various patterns
Wood countertops were painted and decorated by the architect before being sealed, and the stainless-steel bucket pendant lights are also his handiwork
Although its steeply pitched roofs and dormers give the 2,400-square-foot dwelling a country cottage look on the outside, once you’re indoors, the feeling is airy and loft-like. The small, side-entry vestibule leads to a large, open central space with a cathedral ceiling that reflects the varying rooflines. A sunny master bedroom and bath with a steam room occupy one end of the ground floor. Above the master suite is what Borenstein calls the “mechanics loft,” which houses the heat recovery ventilation exchange system, with plenty of leftover room for storage. At the opposite end of the house there’s another bath and a room that could be a bedroom or study; a third bath and bedroom on the second story; and a spacious balcony overlooking the main living area that could be used as a kid’s play area, a studio, a library, or whatever you’d like. “I don’t name the spaces,” Borenstein says. Standing on the balcony, you realize the unusual pendant light fixtures hanging from on high are made of upside-down stainless-steel buckets. Borenstein designed and crafted them himself, and hung them from snaked aluminum conduit. (Did we mention quirky?)
Walls of south-facing windows and French doors make the house feel sunny even on a dreary day, and also make the most of solar heat. All the doors open onto decks, and allow for cross ventilation. Broad roof overhangs help shield the rooms from the sun when it’s at its hottest. There’s no air conditioning. “I insist it’s not necessary,” Borenstein says. “The temperature swings are minimal.”
The house is sturdily built, from the poured-concrete basement to the asphalt shingled roof (“guaranteed by the manufacturer to last a lifetime, but whose life, I don’t know,” Borenstein says). Heavy, five-eighths-inch drywall is twice as strong as the half-inch typically used, and makes the house more fire resistant and soundproof. Deep windowsills reflect the thickness of the walls, and two types of insulation — rigid foamboard with a reflective face on the outside, and open cell foam in the wall cavities — make the house super tight. “Any cracks were sealed before we sprayed in the foam,” the architect comments. “Most heat is lost through the movement of air, so once you stop that you’re halfway there.”
For the exterior, Borenstein used James Hardie siding, a low-maintenance fiber cement material that (in this case) resembles clapboard, and comes in several colors. It’s bug-proof, durable, and the manufacturers claim it will hold its color three to four times longer than wood. It can also be repainted if it eventually fades.
There’s radiant heat throughout — even under the basement’s concrete floor. “I was here during Hurricane Irene, when many of the public roads washed out,” Borenstein says. “But not the road to this house, and the cellar was bone dry.”
The house requires so little fuel to heat it, Borenstein says he “couldn’t find a boiler small enough.” He wound up with a German-made Viessman that has a nifty built-in function that records any problems it’s having, in English. “I’m crazy about the Viessman furnace,” he says.
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Sun worshipper: A view of the exterior of the house from the back garden emphasizes the multiple steep-pitched rooflines, and the preponderance of windows and French doors that Borenstein used in his design
Borenstein, who is a plumber and licensed electrician as well as an architect (and a sculptor and an artist), installed the mechanicals in the house himself. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a handyman,” he says, but knowing how it’s done helped him make sure things worked properly. “There’s a lot of high-tech stuff out there, and techno junkies want everything state-of-the-art. But many contractors don’t understand the specialized equipment being introduced — they don’t know how to fix it. Any system has to be serviceable and understandable.”
As a case in point, Borenstein recalls his own learning curve when he installed the heat recovery ventilation system, a vital piece of equipment that brings fresh air into the tightly insulated home. “The thing comes in a box with a diagram of how to run the ducts, but there’s actual science when it comes to balancing the system,” he explains. “In my quest to do the job properly, I spoke to five or six contractors, and to my surprise not one of them had a clue how to do it. So I called the manufacturer, who sent me to YouTube. I discovered I needed a special tool called a magnehelic gauge. So I called my supplier and he said, ‘What?’ I finally located one online.”
Quirks of nature: Concrete vessel sinks, copper pipes, and oversized tiles give the master bath a one-of-a-kind look. Gingko leaves, which the architect sprayed red and embedded in the countertop and doors of the vanity, add to the effect
In addition to sustainable materials — like the silver maple flooring, which besides looking good has the blessing of the Forest Stewardship Council — the house has all the Borenstein trademarks: railings made of copper pipes; one-of-a-kind hand-painted doors and counters; and recycled and repurposed architectural elements that, in this case, include the interior upstairs windows. Beadboard and recycled cupboard doors also give the house the kind of instant character that usually evolves over time.
If the bucket lights make you smile, so might the “windows” in the steam shower that turn out to be empty tequila bottles, stacked on their sides. “Yes, I drank the tequila,” Borenstein says with a laugh. ”But over a period of time, not during a weekend binge.”
In the kitchen, there are the high-end stainless-steel appliances that are today’s musts, but rather than the predictable granite, Borenstein installed another of his sigantures: wood counters that he painted, decorated with a black Sharpie and oil pastels, and then sealed with epoxy. Do they last? “It’s something I’ve been doing now for more than 15 years, including in student housing at Bard, and they still look great after years of abuse,” he remarks. “If the Bard student can’t wreck something, that’s a television commercial right there… And if the look is not your cup of tea, you can just unscrew them and throw ’em out.”
Overall, Borenstein designs a house to be “relaxing and durable. There’s no such thing as maintenance-free, so durability is very important,” he says. “A house should wear like a pair of blue jeans — change, but still look good.”