From the pages of Martha Stewart Living
A New York photographer and his family created an energy-efficient ski retreat that's easy on the earth. Their lessons could save you money.
All environmentalists—activists and careful consumers alike—seek to preserve the planet for this generation and pass it to the next none the worse for wear. The next generation was very much on the minds of Bill Abranowicz and his wife, Andrea Raisfeld, when they decided to build a ski house in the Catskill Mountains, a couple of hours northwest of their home in Bedford, New York.
The couple spent several months looking for a house. When everything they saw needed extensive and expensive renovations, they changed course and settled on a 37-acre parcel of land. Minimizing their impact on the environment by using sustainable building materials and energy-saving features was a priority.
With the help of architect Holly Ross, they built an 1,800-square-foot house that feels surprisingly spacious. They made some big decisions, such as to install a geothermal heat pump instead of a furnace to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and to lower heating bills. They made small choices, too: installing floors made of fast-growing bamboo, choosing safer paints and stains, and using power-saving fluorescent lightbulbs instead of incandescent ones.
Snug though their getaway is, with its insulating windows and wood-burning stove, the kids still run out the door early each morning in a race to be the first to the slopes. Bill and Andrea encourage them every step of the way.
The countertops (and the wood-burning stove) are made from easy-to-care-for soapstone, which doesn't require harsh cleaners to keep it looking like new. To stay within their budget, Bill and Andrea opted for mass-market kitchen cabinets that are inexpensive but environmentally responsible. The cabinets were purchased from a Swedish company that adheres to strict European standards for off-gassing, a means of ensuring indoor air quality; the materials they chose will emit fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs), potentially harmful chemicals. The couple liked that the company had a defined environmental policy. For example, it doesn't use wood from intact natural forests and pledges to minimize water, waste, and energy during manufacturing.
Energy, Ventilation, and Heat
One of Bill and Andrea's biggest investments is also a big long-term money saver. Instead of a conventional furnace, they installed a geothermal heat pump. Fluid circulating through a closed loop of pipe buried next to the house absorbs heat from the earth; a compressor in the house compresses the heat to raise the temperature and distributes it via a network of ducts. The system uses only a small amount of electricity to operate the compressor, the fan, and the pump. The pump also can be used to cool the house. The high-efficiency furnace their contractor wanted to install cost $16,000; the heat pump was $22,000. Although the difference was substantial, they expect to save $6,000 on their utility bills within five years. The pump's manufacturer estimates the system can cut utility costs by up to 60 percent. Because the house is so tightly sealed, the couple installed a heat-recovery ventilation system, which ensures a constant supply of fresh air. Before exhausting indoor air outside, the pump uses the heat to warm fresh air that circulates. The wood-burning stove supplements the heat pump. It's made of soapstone, which absorbs heat as wood is burned and slowly radiates it back into the room. A three-hour fire yields 24 hours of heat. For lights and appliances, Bill and Andrea buy the little electricity they need from their utility company, which, like many around the country, gives them an option to pay a little more for electricity from a renewable resource—in their case, a wind farm—rather than from fossil fuels.