Cost savings harnessed with variety of green technologies
by Terence P Ward
A housing development built in New Paltz is nothing new; the community’s robust college and nearly reasonable commuting distance to New York City has made it a prime building location for decades. But The Preserve at Mountain Vista, as this newly minted neighborhood is called, is striking in one respect: no one is expected to complain about their energy bills…ever. The Preserve is a net-zero energy community, and each house is designed to completely offset residents’ energy usage. The second such development built in New Paltz by Anthony Aebi and his company Greenhill Contracting, The Preserve was lauded at its ribbon-cutting ceremony by elected officials, government agencies, and business leaders.
The homes are constructed using a variety of technologies, so that no one system is expected to bear the load. Each house is sited to catch the maximum amount of sun with its solar panels, and trees have been carefully cleared to provide the panels as much sun as they can handle. Geothermal wells draw water up from deep underground, where the heat is borrowed during the winter months, and given back during the summer heat, so that the internal temperature is regulated. The buildings are themselves high-performance, meaning that they are carefully sealed and insulated to prevent leakage of heat or air-conditioning, and the loss of energy those leaks represent. The insulation itself is a combination of spray polyurethane and insulated concrete forms.
Each of the homes is Energy Star certified, a label which involves a rigorous inspection process that ensures that the buildings are at least 30 percent more energy-efficient than conventionally built new homes. The program is administered by the US Department of Environmental Protection.
Aebi estimates that the energy savings of these homes, together with the tax credits available from the state and federal governments, make his homes competitive with conventionally built houses. Additionally, Greenhill Contracting’s houses are earthquake and high-wind resistant, which contribute to a building life expectancy of 200 years. Aebi says that, over the entire life of the building, the potential savings could easily climb to $800,000. Of course, the lifestyle of the family living in the house can have a big impact on the utility bills. Some homeowners in the Green Acres development—Aebi’s first New Paltz net-zero community—pay little to nothing each month, but a few receive checks from Central Hudson, as their excess energy is sold back to the utility via the net metering program.
All that, and the homes also have a carbon footprint of zero. Compare that to the 20 metric tons a typical single-family home pumps into the environment annually, even after implementing all the efficiency retrofits presently available. Not bad for three-bedroom, 3,000-square-foot homes, each situated on a lot anywhere from two to ten acres in size.
Aebi’s company partnered with Integral Building Design, Verdae LLC, and Hudson Solar in developing The Preserve.
“We use geothermal heat pumps for net-zero energy homes because they are one of the most efficient heating and cooling systems available, and they qualify for 30 percent federal tax credits for geothermal systems,” explained Verdae’s owner, Lloyd Hamilton.
John Wright of Hudson Solar believes that the higher building costs of these homes are quickly offset by tax incentives and energy savings. “We have clearly demonstrated that the additional up-front costs for an energy efficient home will result in either an equivalent or lower monthly mortgage” payment on a home in The Preserve, he said.
Integral’s president, Pascal Strocchia, praised Aebi for proving what many have long suspected to be true: short-term investment in greener building yields long-term gains for the owner. “Although builders often assume that these features can’t be constructed cost-effectively, Anthony Aebi has found a way to successfully bring these values to the marketplace.”
Tom Barone, the acting vice president of operations and energy services for the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, praised the project. “People buy these homes because it’s the right thing to do,” he said at the ribbon cutting, which was facilitated by the New Paltz Regional Chamber of Commerce. “It is now clear that all new homes can, and should, be built with zero-net-energy goals in mind. Greenhill has made this the standard, not just an option.”
In a written statement, NYSERDA president and CEO John Rhodes said, “This project aligns with Governor Cuomo’s call for innovative projects to drive economic growth and reduce the environmental impact of energy generation. By constructing homes designed to achieve net-zero energy usage, Greenhill Contracting has set a high bar for energy-efficient home construction.”
For homeowners not fortunate enough to be buying one of these hyper-efficient houses, NYSERDA offers a number of options to help improve energy efficiency. They include low-cost loans and tax credits for energy efficiency projects, and on-bill recovery, a program that allows those loans to be paid back through an additional charge on one’s Central Hudson bill.
Elected officials who sent representatives to the event included New Paltz Town Supervisor Susan Zimet, New York State Assemblyman Kevin Cahill, and Congressman Chris Gibson. Each praised the project for achieving its goals.
In order to price these houses more competitively than those he has built in the Green Acres development in the village proper, Aebi has scaled back on customization options for homes in The Preserve, which is built on the site of the former Schreiber estate. Perhaps that goal of an affordable price point led to a certain blandness of design, for several building professionals at the event remarked that the homes appeared “too suburban” or were “bland”. None, though, were willing to make those comments on the record.
Greenhill Contracting is positioning itself to train other builders in these techniques, which should in turn lower the prices even more. Anthony Aebi is also leading the charge to have energy savings factored into the complex formulas lenders use to decide whether or not a prospective buyer can afford the mortgage on a given property.
For more information on how to incorporate these ideas into your home, check out The Resilient Home: Sustainable + Beautiful + Affordable. This workshop will introduce realtors, builders, homeowners, designers, engineers, architects, and developers to case studies and practical, affordable strategies to build “resilient homes” that are both beautiful and affordable. These techniques are based on the philosophy of the Living Building Challenge 2.1 Standard that requires buildings to meet net-zero energy and water, manage all waste on site, and be built with renewable and healthy materials.
Instructors: Janus Welton, CSBA, LEED AP BD+C, Registered Architect, Gail Beverly, CSBA, LEED GA, GRP, and John Lorino, LEED AP, CSBA, CP. Saturday, November 9, 9am-4:30pm. $125. SUNY Ulster, Stone Ridge Campus