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The Question: Is a Net-Zero Energy Home a Reality? 

click to enlarge A net-zero energy home at the Green Acres development in New Paltz.
  • A net-zero energy home at the Green Acres development in New Paltz.

Imagine this fantastical occurrence: A letter arrives from your local utility company, with your name addressed. You see it, and smile.

Wait, wait, there’s more to this hypothetical than just the opening scene to some kind of macabre B-movie script. This is no ordinary envelope, and what lies within is hardly your everyday utility bill. It is, in fact, that holiest of holies: a check. They are giving you money. Ah, to dream, perchance to break even.

Yet for David Shepler, this is no fantasy; actually, it has become de rigueur. Since 2009, when he purchased the first house in visionary builder Anthony Aebi’s New Paltz “Green Acres” development, paying utility bills has become a distant memory. When Shepler—who received a tidy $175 check from Central Hudson last year—began looking for a home in 2007, alternative energy efficiencies were a high priority. Yet what he continued to find were housing options that, though offering certain sustainable energy appeals, fell short of expectations. “There were enticements of this feature or that,” Shepler recalls, “but no one was doing the complete job.” Nobody, that is, except Anthony Aebi.

Any conversation about sustainable energy and its proponents, for better or worse, is likely to end up with a less-than-flattering term bandied about: the infamous “tree-hugger.” Anthony Aebi, however, does not fit the description—he is no pie-in-the-sky idealist, but a pragmatist. Bottom line, Aebi simply wanted to build with integrity; the energy efficiency and drastic reduction in carbon footprint are just by-products of doing it right.

“I was building stick-built homes, and I realized: This is just stupid,” says Aebi. “We build these ‘temporary’ homes so we can keep repairing them, and build another one in a hundred years.” Reminiscent of another notable architectural visionary, Frank Lloyd Wright, Aebi went looking for alternative materials and processes that made more sense. Taking inspiration from European techniques, he began by changing from wood framing to the use of Insulated Concrete Forms, or ICFs, which provide a long-lasting and air-tight foundation. Super-efficient triple-pane windows, and insulation—not only along the attic roof, but beneath the concrete slab as well—complete Aebi’s thermal envelope design. From there, a sustainable energy system simply developed out of necessity.

All the energy necessary—for heat, hot water, air-conditioning, and cooking—comes from above, below, and within. Forty-five gleaming photovoltaic solar panels adorn the south-facing slope of David Shepler’s roof, providing electricity, while a built-in geothermal system produces heat and cooling. A heat-recovery reclamation system captures, filters, and recirculates tempered air and moisture from the kitchen and bathrooms, ensuring not only proper humidity, but also superior air quality.

Finally, as realtor Wendie Reid, who has been integral in Aebi’s process since the beginning, points out, the enormous tax rebates available are helping transform thoughtful homebuyers into environmental activists. “With about $30,000 in tax credits available, it makes it a lot more appealing to be socially conscious,” says Reid. “I don’t like the word ‘green’ because it’s been misused too often,” adds Aebi. “The question is, what’s practical?”

For more information: visit www.greenacresnewpaltz.com.

Speaking of...

  • Gregory Schoenfeld talks to owners of virtually zero-cost energy homes in the Hudson Valley.

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