Adirondackers have many options for making homes more environmentally friendly
By CATHY BROWN
Like many people who live in the Adirondacks, Betsy Lowe loves the place and wants to protect its natural beauty. She loves the park so much, in fact, that she founded the Wild Center in Tupper Lake, where visitors can learn more about the natural world surrounding them.
Lowe’s 100-year-old house in Lake Placid, however, wasn’t particularly environmentally friendly. Its leaky frame raised her fuel bills—and her climate footprint—and left her cold much of the time. “I used to get gigantic icicles on the front of my house,” Lowe said.
That changed in 2016 when she undertook a project to make her home more energy-efficient, adding insulation throughout and putting new windows on her porch.
Lowe’s was among almost 11,000 North Country households that have received some type of help since 2011 to make energy efficiency or renewable energy improvements through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. NYSERDA-subsidized projects can range from insulation to solar panels to geothermal heat pumps.
In the U.S., buildings are responsible for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, mainly because of the fuel used to heat, cool and light them and run appliances and other gadgets, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
Green-building experts say simply making different choices when improving or building new houses could mean more sustainable Adirondack homes. And they say many of those choices are no more expensive than conventional building practices.
For instance, cellulose insulation is better for the environment than spray foam—and less expensive, said Jesse Schwartzberg, principal architect at Black Mountain Architecture in Saranac Lake. Local maple flooring is also inexpensive and a greener choice than wood hauled from the Northwest forests or synthetic carpet applied with adhesives.
“Really, 80 percent of it costs you nothing more,” said Michael Phinney of Phinney Design Group in Saratoga Springs. If you don’t want or can’t afford to do the other 20 percent—say adding solar panels or geothermal heat—you can still do a lot to reduce your home’s carbon footprint.
Here are some tips from architects and builders on greening your Adirondack home. Some apply only to people who are building new, others to those remodeling, and some to even the most modest home improvement project.
If you’re building new, choose a green location.
If you live here full-time and the house is going to be your primary residence, the best place to build will be in a village or hamlet, Schwartzberg said. You won’t have to burn as much fuel driving to work or on errands—and your construction crew won’t have to commute as far to work on your project.
If you’re building a summer home and it absolutely must be somewhere out on a lake, building closer to the grocery store still makes sense.
Reduce, reuse, recycle applies to buildings too.
If you can use part of an existing building, even just the foundation, that’s better than building new. Energy was already used creating that structure, so take advantage of it. Pouring concrete and buying all new materials that have to be transported to the site will expand your carbon footprint before you even move in.
“Investing in an existing building is the greenest step you can take,” Schwartzberg said.
Work in harmony with the land.
For a waterfront home, this might mean that instead of clearing the trees and planting lawn all the way to the water, you have a smaller lawn and simply thin the trees a bit. Not only does that give you a more natural setting and more privacy, you’ll have less lawn fertilizer going into the lake and causing algal blooms, Schwartzberg said.
Position the house to take advantage of the natural environment in terms of sunlight and shade for natural light and heating and cooling, Phinney said.
If they’re not already there, plant deciduous trees on the southern exposure because they provide natural cooling in the summer but drop their leaves in the winter to give you more natural light and heat, advised Kevin Stack, founder and CEO of Northeast Natural Homes and Northeast Green Building Consulting in Syracuse. Trees also clean the air and help manage stormwater.
Make it the right size.
A good architect can help you fit all the features you’re looking for into a more efficient package. So instead of a 4,000-square-foot home, you may only need 2,000. That doesn’t mean sacrificing your dreams, Schwartzberg said. You can still have your king bed and your big window with a view. But maybe you won’t have to walk as far to your dresser.
Don’t skimp on expertise.
You may want to save money by not using an architect or designer up-front, but that could be short-sighted. An architect experienced in sustainable building practices can design efficiencies into the project that can help reduce construction and ongoing energy costs. A green architect or builder can help you evaluate all the choices you make—from windows to paint to insulation—through a sustainability lens.
Seal it up tight.
This is the biggest thing green builders emphasize. Before you even think about cool technology like solar panels, seal the leaks in your building so you need less energy from any source.
If you’re building new or doing a major remodel, current codes your builder is required to follow mean your house should be relatively tightly built and well-insulated. An even tighter building is possible if your budget allows it.
Think about fresh air.
Make sure you have an adequate, properly installed ventilation system. Building codes require builders to test for airtightness, but there’s no corresponding requirement to test ventilation, Stack said.
In a tightly sealed house, moisture as well pollutants from incomplete combustion, paints, glues, cleaning products and other materials can build up, so your ventilation system is critical.
Choose the right heating system.
Stack advocates electrifying everything. For most people building new or remodeling, this will mean an air-source electric heat pump system. Even if you’re not installing solar panels, electric heat in New York is probably a better environmental choice than fuel oil or propane. A heat pump can also function as an air conditioner in the summer.
Still, heat pumps aren’t perfect. Because they use refrigerants that contribute to climate change, they must be installed and maintained by a qualified professional to avoid leaks. And in North Country winters, you’ll probably need a supplemental heat source in extreme cold temperatures.
For people making improvements to an existing house, other heat sources could make more sense. Leslie Karasin, who works for the nonprofit Northern Forest Center, said a wood pellet boiler has less than half the carbon footprint of oil or natural gas as soon as it’s installed, and that carbon footprint improves over time as forests regenerate. The pellets are produced in northern New York, so the transportation costs are lower, and the industry supports local jobs.
Consider solar or geothermal.
Solar or geothermal installations are part of that 20 percent of green building Phinney mentioned that does cost more than using conventional building practices.
Depending on the project and your energy needs, you may be able to recoup a solar or geothermal investment within seven to 15 years, Phinney estimated. Most people who choose those options, though, aren’t thinking about how quickly the investment will pay off, he said. “They’re making a moral, ethical decision.”
Does solar work here? Yes, Stack said, even with our short, frequently cloudy days, you can produce solar energy in the Adirondacks, as long as your panels are not snow-covered or extremely dirty.
Install energy-efficient appliances.
When it’s time to replace your appliances, look for the Energy Star label on dishwashers, refrigerators, washers, dryers and so forth. Install a high-efficiency hot water heater and insulate the cold and hot water lines, Stack said.
Even though water is plentiful in the Adirondacks, that doesn’t mean you should waste it, Stack said. Energy and water are intrinsically linked, as energy is needed to pump water and to clean and purify it at treatment plants. So look for the Water Sense label and install low-flow fixtures in faucets, shower heads and toilets.
Use local materials as much as possible. For an addition on a house near Lake Placid to be used by North Country School, Keene builder Brian Crowl used local pine for baseboards, local maple for flooring and local granite for countertops.
Change your lightbulbs.
Replace incandescent bulbs with LEDs.
Use old-time, low-tech solutions.
If you have old single-pane windows, add storm windows to keep in winter heat. Install awnings or simply use dark shades on your windows to keep your house cooler in the summer. Use fans to reduce the need for air conditioning.