The Catskill Project Is a Passive House Community in Sullivan County

The Catskill Project is a passive house community in Livingston Manor. The homes, comfortable and modern in design, are built to leave a limited carbon footprint.

As the effects of climate change become increasingly obvious, many companies have responded by sourcing materials responsibly, decreasing waste, and reducing their carbon footprint. This is so in contemporary architecture—and subsequently, in development and real estate—wherein the term “passive house” has entered the lexicon. A passive house is a structure that meets certain criteria of energy efficiency such as thermal comfort, primary energy demand, and “airtightness.”

The concept emerged in the late 20th century as the brainchild of German physicist Wolfgang Feist, who endeavored to make homes more energy efficient. Today, the passive house initiative is a popular niche for developers and consumers who care about their impact on the environment, both locally and globally.

the façade of a home
The façade of a passive house. Photo by Catskill Image / Gabriel Zimmer

The idea is taking hold in Livingston Manor, where architect Buck Moorhead—who has been certified as a passive house designer since 2011—and his team are working on The Catskill Project. Their hope, says Moorhead, is “to define a new standard of carbon-neutral living and building in a rural environment.” Inherent to the passive house mission is the efficiency, comfortability, and affordability of the homestead, but Moorhead and the team take this project a step further, promising “meticulous carbon tracking, renewable energy sources, [and] master craftsmanship” in Catskill Project homes.

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The Making of The Catskill Project

Work friendships typically lead to fun, by-the-coffee-machine conversations, and the opportunity to vent about deadlines. But in the case of Greg Hale and Peter Malik, office camaraderie led to something very different: The creation of a new community rising from the woods in Sullivan County that sets the bar for eco-living incredibly high.

While working for NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), the two discovered a mutual desire to put their passion for environmental stewardship into practice. And indeed, their Catskill Project may well be the first carbon-neutral, single-family community in the state and possibly the Northeast. What exactly does that mean? These homes are free of fossil fuels: The appliances are all electric—there’s no gas or oil used to heat the premises (an air-source heat pump does the work). Triple-pane windows, superior cellulose insulation, and thoughtful design help keep the homes at a comfortable temperature year-round at a micro cost.

The pair bonded in the eco trenches. A former real estate lawyer and developer, Hale had been director of energy efficiency finance for NRDC and became an advocate for high-performance carbon-neutral buildings. Malik, who’d segued from a career as an investment banker to work as an environmentalist at NRDC and the Nature Conservancy, was pondering how to develop something that embodied the future of eco-living. He shared this dream with Hale, who then raised his hand to join the pursuit.

Before long, the two were looking at upstate lots together, not far from Livingston Manor, where Malik had owned a place for about 15 years. They were planning to create something that honored and protected the land—and pointed toward an eco-friendlier future. In 2018, they found 90 glorious acres for sale, and they snapped up the property.

Catskill Project
Photo by Catskill Image

As founding principals of The Catskill Project, Hale and Malik forged a plan: A few roads would crisscross the property, causing minimal changes to the landscape while creating lots of three to six acres for what will ultimately be a 25-property community. Forty-plus acres of conservation land rings the lots on three sides so it’s perpetually protected. There’s a trail system weaving through woodlands past streams and postcard-worthy waterfalls.

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Catskill living area
Photo by Catskill Image

Then the project really got cooking. Moorhead, a longtime Catskills resident, joined the effort to create a number of home designs. Equal parts rustic barn vernacular and contemporary style, these dwellings are all about flowing indoor-outdoor spaces, soaring ceilings, grand views of nature, and thoughtful details. For instance, the mellow floor planks are made from wood harvested on the property and fabricated locally, when possible.

catskill project interior living room
The living room of a passive house. Photo by Catskill Image / Gabriel Zimmer

Whereas other real estate collectives often spout empty buzzwords—Moorhead calls this “greenwashing”—the stringent guidelines of the passive house standard ensure that The Catskill Project walks the walk. “We don’t know of any other communities that are at this level,” says Moorhead.

One area where “sustainable” development can fall short is in the construction process. Standard practices in construction can be environmentally detrimental, even if the resulting building leaves a modest carbon footprint. In these cases, an operation finds itself in deep “carbon debt,” if you will, which is difficult to repay. Moorhead stresses that a structure’s “embodied energy”—that is, the calculation of energy necessary for construction—is imperative to consider in the future of green housing. Addressing this challenge requires a creative approach to construction; in some cases, for example, the Project sources materials for a home from the very land it occupies.

A few of the many perks of Catskill Project homes include chef’s kitchens, open-plan great rooms, soaking tubs in primary bathrooms, and plenty of windows.
A few of the many perks of Catskill Project homes include chef’s kitchens, open-plan great rooms, soaking tubs in primary bathrooms, and plenty of windows. Photo by Catskill Image.

How It Works

Prospective homeowners select their site, their home plan, and then, approximately 12–18 months later, their home is ready for move-in. The residences are net-zero energy, net-zero carbon, and passive house certified. They are all electric—a feature that will be mandated in New York state for new construction come 2026—putting these homes well ahead of the curve. “It’s the way the world has to move,” says Hale, “and we’re excited about leading this charge.”

Photo by Catskill Image

What’s more, thanks to the team’s skillful design, they created houses that are as good for the homeowner’s wallet as they are for the environment. Average monthly bills on The Catskill Project’s 2,300-square-foot model home are an astoundingly low $80. Over 10 years, says the team, a passive home spends around $10,000 on energy vs. $88,000 for a conventional one. Hale, who recently moved into a Catskill Project home full time, says his energy bills have clocked in at $69 a month. Beyond these savings, the homes offer health benefits: Humidity is regulated and dust, other allergens, and pollutants are consistently filtered out.

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nature preserve in livingston manor
The nature preserve on the grounds of the community. Photo by Catskill Image / Gabriel Zimmer

Another draw to The Catskill Project is the communal nature preserve, where residents can hike, bike, or simply relax in 40 acres of protected woodlands. The topography of the preserve—which includes streams, ponds, and waterfalls—attracts wildlife, perfect for residents who enjoy fishing or birding. If you find yourself tired on a stroll through the preserve, take a load off at one of the viewing decks.

passive house
A passive house and the surrounding property. Photo by Catskill Image / Gabriel Zimmer

An Eye to the Future

Three properties are currently occupied—one by Hale, one full time by a couple nearing retirement, and one as a weekend house for a young Brooklyn family. Future residents can choose among four designs, ranging in size from 1,700 to almost 2,300 square feet, and priced from around $1–1.4 million. (The original intention was to have them ring in at less than $1 million when the project kicked off. Unfortunately, the pandemic bedeviled the supply chain, sending costs northward. The principals are exploring new home plans that may bring the price tag down.)

Although The Catskill Project team emphasized their story of great carbon-neutral design, they don’t want to downplay the fantastic location these homes enjoy. Livingston Manor—with its craft breweries, farm-to-table restaurants, and creative community anchored by the Catskill Art Space—has been dubbed “Little Brooklyn” by some. Within a half-hour’s drive, there’s a number of diverse towns like Roscoe, Jeffersonville, Callicoon, and Narrowsburg to explore.

Within that vibrant and varied network of villages, The Catskill Project is adding to the area’s allure by showing just how lightly one can live on the land. “Our vision,” says Hale, “is really about performance and environmental stewardship, married with beauty and community.” Mission accomplished.

Related: How Climate Change Affects the Hudson Valley

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