Introducing The Catskill Project, a Passive House Community

Cover image by Catskill Image / Gabriel Zimmer

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.

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

The idea is taking hold in Livingston Manor, where the architect Buck Moorhead—who has been certified as a passive house designer since 2011—and his team developed 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 takes this project a step further, promising “meticulous carbon tracking, renewable energy sources, [and] master craftsmanship” in Catskill Project homes.

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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.

There are major benefits to living green, says agent Simone Consor, who has worked on this project with the real estate company Brown Harris Stevens. “The energy bills alone—to me, as a homeowner—are beyond impressive,” she boasts. While passive homes can cost more than the average property, Consor says, “you’re paying towards something”—that something being cheap and clean energy, exceptional air quality, and a temperate indoor environment year-round. One resident of the community goes as far as saying, “Our energy costs have been reduced to almost zero.”

passive house interior
The kitchen of a passive house. Photo by Catskill Image / Gabriel Zimmer

Not only is it cheap to heat a passive home, but it’s also effective. This past winter, Moorhead and his team conducted a test, shutting off the heat in a home in January and monitoring its internal temperature over time. “There was a week where it went to [-10ºF] one morning … but the house did not go below 50ºF.” Thanks to “airtight” construction and insulation, the buildings’ heat retention is superlative. Conversely, in summertime, these structural factors guarantee cool air.

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.

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While the main goal of the Project is ecological, the community’s niche means that its residents are united by a singular value system—at least in terms of one’s impact on the environment. “The common denominator is the desire for a [smaller] carbon footprint,” says Brown Harris Stevens agent Michael Stasi. “This project is way out there in the forefront.”

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

As heat waves loom and finite resources grow sparse, efforts like The Catskill Project become less luxurious and more obligatory. Moorhead and the team behind The Catskill Project hope to set an example for architects and developers across the globe. In a 2020 interview, Dr. Feist expressed the urgency of this enterprise: “If mankind wants to solve the climate crisis, then all…will have to comply with high energy efficiency standards in a not so far future.”

Related: How Climate Change Affects the Hudson Valley

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