At Home in the Adirondacks 2012
Building a net-zero LEED-platinum home in the heart of the park
by Larry Master
On a sunny April afternoon a local realtor phoned to say that a place had just come up for sale on River Road in Lake Placid. My wife, Nancy, and I had been looking half-heartedly for a lakeshore property for several years, but the Realtor knew us better than we knew ourselves. When we ﬁrst laid eyes on the property we were awestruck. The view from the existing cottage, of the Sentinel wilderness and the West Branch of the Ausable River, was nothing short of spectacular.
In 2009, within six weeks of that ﬁrst visit, we became the proud owners of 133 acres and 6,300 feet of Ausable River frontage. The land was zoned for 30 or more single-family residences, but we knew that we wanted to ensure that the property was never developed. I have worked my entire career with the Nature Conservancy and NatureServe to document and preserve species habitats and ecosystems. With this mission in mind we collaborated with the North Elba Land Conservancy to place a conservation easement over the land that will restrict it to one principal home. We have also encouraged school and college biology classes and the Wildlife Conservation Society, based in Saranac Lake, to use the property as an outdoor laboratory and to study and monitor its unusually diverse and abundant wildlife.
A major issue that confronted us was what to do about the 1,300-square-foot summer cottage from which we ﬁrst saw that amazing panorama of mountains and river. Built in the 1970s, the home was not winterized and had three small bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and dining area and a little living room, all nicely ﬁnished in pine and cherry. We wanted to live at least part-time there through the seasons. But the ﬂoors, walls, doors and ceilings all needed to be insulated; the windows were all single pane; the oil hot-air furnace was old; and the roof and the foundation were in poor shape. So we embarked on what became an educational and gratifying two-year journey to replace it.
The easiest, quickest and least expensive option to deal with the existing building was to bring in a front-end loader, take the house down and cart it to the dump. This would only take a day or two. But we have always tried to recycle, and we have witnessed the destruction of beautiful homes to make way for new ones. We had our contractor take the place apart board by board. A friend was building a home in Vermontville and he took almost all of the wood, except for a bit we kept to incorporate into our project.
The big question was, What sort of new home did we want to build? The answer followed naturally from two facts: the accelerating loss of biodiversity is the folly “our descendants are least likely to forgive us,” as biologist E. O. Wilson put it, and foremost among the threats to this biodiversity—the living fabric of our planet—is climate change, undeniably caused by human-generated carbon emissions.
Our new home had to be “net-zero” or even “energy-plus,” meaning that it has zero net energy consumption and no carbon emissions. We could have accomplished this by going off the grid with a combination of solar power and passive solar and/or wood heat, but the easterly orientation of the homesite was not conducive to capturing sunlight. We chose not to use wood heat because it needs continuous monitoring and causes some carbon pollution.
We decided to warm and cool the house with geothermal heat pumps (see “Hot Rocks,” 2007 Collectors Issue), which we had done successfully elsewhere in the Adirondacks. To power the geothermal units, heat the water for washing and provide household electric energy, we installed two solar photovoltaic panels. On the south-facing garage roof there are ﬁve kilowatt of solar cells and in our ﬁeld there are 6.35 kilowatt mounted on a panel that tracks the sun’s angle, a setup capable of producing 30–40 percent more energy than a static array. Thanks to a grant from the New York Power Authority via Lake Placid Municipal Electric Company and a 30 percent federal tax credit, the solar panels proved very affordable. (For customers of National Grid, NYSEG and other suppliers, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority [NYSERDA] offers home and business energy audits, ﬁnancing for improvements and comprehensive assistance for installing photovoltaic panels.) But solar panels don’t work at night and don’t provide enough energy to power the geothermal heat pumps during the coldest months. So we also need energy from the grid. Over the course of a year, we expect to sell more clean solar energy back to the grid than we take from it. This is all made possible by a very well-insulated house, designed by our builder and by an architect with many years’ experience in creating green homes.
We could not be happier with the ﬁnal product—a beautiful 3,600-square-foot, three-bedroom home whose appearance belies the fact that it is constructed with the environment in mind. By using low-ﬂow toilets and showers, LED and compact ﬂuorescent lighting, a very efﬁcient HVAC system, and by sourcing materials locally, minimizing construction waste and capturing rainwater for the gardens, we have obtained a LEED-platinum rating, the highest possible from the U.S. Green Building Council. Although this is the ﬁrst LEED-platinum, net-zero home in the Adirondacks, we hope there will be many others in the future. The planet deserves no less.
The Local Landscape
To create a sustainable site Fiddlehead Creek Farm used true Adirondack natives like wild columbine (left), planted by Wesley Moody Landscaping, of Saranac Lake. Since our local species have evolved here over many years, they are hardy and, once established, can make it through a cold North Country winter or a hot, dry summer. However, the key is to get them established, and the recent weather made that challenging for this project.
Don’t think that native plants are “no maintenance.” You still have to weed and water just like you would for any other landscape installation. But once the shrubs, grasses and flowers are established they are pretty much on their own. An important part of the LEED process was recognizing the plants’ water needs, so the vast majority are drought tolerant.
Managing runoff is also important to LEED certification. This home has three rain gardens to catch and infiltrate water coming from the roof. The wet/dry nature of the rain garden—wet after a rain but then dry most of the time—is a perfect match for lakeshore and riverbank natives such as cardinal flower and blue flag iris, which tolerate seasonal flooding.
In designing the landscape we wanted to create the feel of a meadow between the building site and the Ausable, continuing up the hill and to the back of the house, so that the structure blends into the overall setting. —Emily Debolt, Fiddlehead Creek Farm & Native Plant Nursery, Hartford, New York
The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), in Washington, D.C., began guiding architects, engineers, contractors and homeowners toward sustainable construction in 2000. Houses, schools, commercial structures and even entire neighborhoods have received LEED certification for ways these places save water, conserve electricity, heat and cool efficiently, use appropriate building materials, respect specific settings and offer healthy spaces for life, learning and work. From Arizona to the Adirondacks there are USGBC-accredited professionals to help owners and designers craft appropriate, long-lasting structures. Points from eight credit categories are added up to give silver, gold or platinum status.
Tupper Lake’s Wild Center was the first building in the Adirondack Park (and the first museum in New York State) to earn LEED accolades—a silver rating in 2008—with details like an asphalt-free parking lot, designed to control stormwater runoff, and a green roof planted with sedum. Lake Placid’s convention center, completed in 2011, uses recycled and recyclable copper for exterior sheathing and relies on natural light for corridors and public spaces. For these and other elements a LEED-gold certification is anticipated.
The Master house achieved LEED-platinum in July 2012—one of about 1,100 buildings across the country to earn this honor. For a single-family house to be named a platinum LEED structure is rare; many in this category are public buildings, colleges and corporate offices. The process looked at everything from windows to faucets, Energy Star appliances to lightbulbs, flooring to fireplaces. Many components were sourced from within a hundred-mile radius; the carbon footprint of delivering materials was factored into the overall score. For any LEED award, owner involvement is key, and the Masters’ interest in sharing information earned a high score for public education.
Learn more about USGBC and LEED certification at www.usgbc.org. Saranac Lake–based Jesse Schwartzberg, of Black Mountain Design Build (518-304-3320), is a LEED-accredited professional with Adirondack expertise. For a video documenting the Master house project produced by Rick Godin and the Wild Center visit www.wildcenter.org/netzerohouse.
Tags: Black Mountain Design Build, Fiddlehead Creek Farm, Hudson River Design, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, LEED-platinum, net-zero home, North Elba Land Conservancy, Robert Graham Masonry, Torrance Construction, U.S. Green Building Council, Wesly Moody Landscaping, Wild Center