A Passive Solar Home in Stone Ridge | House Profiles | Hudson Valley | Hudson Valley; Chronogram
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A Passive Solar Home in Stone Ridge 

click to enlarge Peter Reynolds at the south-facing end of his passive solar house. Inspired by his love for the region and the environment, the designer and his partners at North River Architecture built a home on the cutting edge of sustainability. The shading roof overhang and other details were carefully calibrated with the help of passive house consultant John Loercher of Northeast Projects LLC. Solar panels from Lighthouse Solar generate enough power to make it a Net Zero Energy home. (And even power his car.) - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • Peter Reynolds at the south-facing end of his passive solar house. Inspired by his love for the region and the environment, the designer and his partners at North River Architecture built a home on the cutting edge of sustainability. The shading roof overhang and other details were carefully calibrated with the help of passive house consultant John Loercher of Northeast Projects LLC. Solar panels from Lighthouse Solar generate enough power to make it a Net Zero Energy home. (And even power his car.)

Senior Designer Peter Reynold's hyper-local, passive solar-designed home in Stone Ridge is the future of energy efficiency.

If any type of building embodies the American ethos of independence and provides a practical blueprint for throwing off the chains of energy dependency, it's passive solar design. Popular in Europe and gaining traction in the United States, passive solar construction incorporates specific siting, the innovative use of materials, and deceptively simple building techniques to create habitats that, when it comes to energy consumption, sip rather than guzzle. With the addition of solar panels, a passive solar building can effectively reduce its need for additional fuel sources and its carbon emissions to zero.

click to enlarge One of the home’s two bedrooms. Super insulated “rain-screen” walls allow the home’s temperature to remain constant and the air flowing and comfortable throughout the year. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • One of the home’s two bedrooms. Super insulated “rain-screen” walls allow the home’s temperature to remain constant and the air flowing and comfortable throughout the year.

The challenge of not only building a home that meets this high bar of energy independence, but does it specifically within the Hudson Valley's particular micro-environment, and in a way that is affordable, is one that Peter Reynolds and Stephanie Bassler of North River Architecture and Planning in Stone Ridge have taken on with passion. In fact, they've thrown down the gauntlet. With the planning and recent construction of Reynolds's modernist, barn-inspired home, they've created a dwelling that's not only rigorously sustainable, but also beautiful, adaptable, and warm, both in temperature and invitation. Inspired by a range of design philosophies—from ecologist Stewart Brand's How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built to the utilitarian, simplicity of the Shakers—Reynolds and Bassler have constructed a model for the present moment.

The partners are thinking globally but pioneering some bold, local strategies. Part of a movement of architects and engineers who share their findings in an open-source format, Reynolds and Bassler executed the actual construction with a local workforce, utilizing mostly American made or recycled materials, and kept the cost of Reynolds' home within 10 percent of standard construction. "We think this is passive solar's time," declares Reynolds. "We really see it as a 21st-century way to build and design and we are really pulling along with everybody else to do it."

Architecture of Freedom

click to enlarge An abundance of south-facing, triple-glazed windows in the double-height living room fills the home with light and capture heat in the winter. They also offer a view of the Shawangunks—bringing the outdoors inside throughout the year. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • An abundance of south-facing, triple-glazed windows in the double-height living room fills the home with light and capture heat in the winter. They also offer a view of the Shawangunks—bringing the outdoors inside throughout the year.

The partners' first experience with passive solar construction was in 2010, when they were hired by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. With a wide-ranging practice that spans both residential and public buildings, they had already executed several projects to the high LEED standard for energy efficiency. Passive solar design seemed like a natural next step. "Omega had a concurrent interest to ours in passive design and were interested in a certified project. They came to us already committed," explains Bassler. She was interested in learning more about the building technique and underwent the intensive training required to oversee the project, becoming certified as a passive house consultant.

The architects and Omega were very pleased with the resulting building, the Women's Leadership Center, and the partners began to realize that passive construction was the next step in energy-efficient home design. "Passive house design, compared with other efficiency protocols, has the most impact," explains Reynolds. "It goes far beyond LEED. It's truly effective for the individual homeowner, and has a quantifiable impact on global emissions. It allows individuals to reduce their footprint in a simple way."

click to enlarge The North River Architecture team enjoys a break outside with Jay Philippi of Eileen Fisher. In keeping with the project’s sustainable design goals, the outdoor patio was landscaped according to xeriscaping principles of native plantings and minimal maintenance. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • The North River Architecture team enjoys a break outside with Jay Philippi of Eileen Fisher. In keeping with the project’s sustainable design goals, the outdoor patio was landscaped according to xeriscaping principles of native plantings and minimal maintenance.

Still, there were a few issues keeping passive construction a novelty, rather than a pervasive, building trend. Passive construction utilizes a few basic strategies to achieve its high standard of energy efficiency. By relying on a tightly sealed, insulated exterior "envelop," the home's interior temperature can remain constant with minimal energy loss. Specially glazed triple-paned windows not only illuminate the interior but also trap the sun's heat—however, until recently, windows of this type weren't manufactured in the US and their import and utilization added to the cost of construction exponentially. Reynolds believes the previous designs of most passive houses further added to their lack of popularity. "Up to now passive house design has been either very expensive or kind of engineer-y and optimized and not so beautiful," says Reynolds.

Professionals as well as consumers just weren't aware of the techniques and the possibilities of the construction method. It didn't help that passive solar had had a false start in the US during its early days. "In the `70s, they didn't quite get it right," Reynolds explains. "The mistakes that were made really set the movement back." The first passive houses were too tightly sealed, allowing condensation to form inside the walls and causing irreparable structural damage. "The passive solar movement went through an in-between period, when we didn't really understand humidity control and we would trap a lot of moisture in the walls. It made the houses sick," Reynolds says.

click to enlarge In the living room, Reynolds displays fabric wall art pieces by DesignWork, a zerowaste art project crafted from recycled Eileen Fisher clothing. Eileen Fisher served as a consultant on the project. The home’s arched cork acoustical ceiling was installed by local craftsman Lee Sahler. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • In the living room, Reynolds displays fabric wall art pieces by DesignWork, a zerowaste art project crafted from recycled Eileen Fisher clothing. Eileen Fisher served as a consultant on the project. The home’s arched cork acoustical ceiling was installed by local craftsman Lee Sahler.

Not your Grandfather's Passive Solar

click to enlarge To keep costs low, and to stay true to the project’s focus on sustainability, Reynolds utilized a cork backsplash, bright blue cabinetry, and wood trim that were leftover from another project. The custom arched black walnut dining table was built by Hudson Workshop. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • To keep costs low, and to stay true to the project’s focus on sustainability, Reynolds utilized a cork backsplash, bright blue cabinetry, and wood trim that were leftover from another project. The custom arched black walnut dining table was built by Hudson Workshop.
Reynolds and Bassler knew they would have to come up with some innovative solutions if they were going to realize their dream of seeing affordable, livable passive solar homes throughout the land. And Reynolds had the perfect guinea pig: himself. "I needed a house anyway," he explains. The opportunity to utilize his architectural experience to create a home that expressed his environmental and political concerns, and was also flexible, private, healthy and "had some wow," was motivating. "I wanted to have an emotionally alive house that was both energy efficient and affordable," says Reynolds.

click to enlarge Throughout the house, oak finishes installed by local craftsmen Lee Sahler and Brandon Pra offer a warm counterpoint to the concrete slab floors and a marble and walnut table created by Hudson Workshop. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • Throughout the house, oak finishes installed by local craftsmen Lee Sahler and Brandon Pra offer a warm counterpoint to the concrete slab floors and a marble and walnut table created by Hudson Workshop.

First came choosing the right site. "We wanted to try to find that sweet spot for this climate and this region and this vernacular," he explains. The home needed to be facing south to take full advantage of the sun's light, but the choice of the land itself was also part of the team's reduce-reuse-recycle ethos. Inspired by philosopher Christopher Alexander's book A Pattern Language and his ideas of site repair, Reynolds had bought up three-plus acres outside of Stone Ridge. Once the bank of an old shale mine, the property was undeveloped but "completely junked," says Reynolds. "It looked like a lunar landscape." It was one of the worst pieces of land he could find but he knew with a properly design home, it could be not only beautiful, but beautifully utilized. (He also preserved the land's few deciduous trees to help with the home's shading throughout the summer.)

To prove that their ideas could be replicated, and by almost any professional with standard training in the building trades, the partners hired local workers and focused on utilizing conventional methods in unconventional ways. Translating the complex technology into simple building techniques was one of the biggest challenges—and greatest rewards. "To take these intense technologies that we wanted to execute—taking the big concepts and simplifying them—that was the real fun," says Bassler.

Self-Reliance

click to enlarge Reynolds installed an outdoor shower in a secluded spot behind the house. Corrugated steel siding is a durable, maintenance-free exterior finish, and blends well with the surrounding landscape. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • Reynolds installed an outdoor shower in a secluded spot behind the house. Corrugated steel siding is a durable, maintenance-free exterior finish, and blends well with the surrounding landscape.
The home's structure is simple and economic: a rectangular footprint built on leftover shale grade with an extruded roof. Inside, a concrete slab floor extends throughout the 1800 square feet of space. Designed to capture the warmth emanating through the home's south facing windows, the floor retains the sun's heat through the colder months. Inside the larger rectangle, the space is divided into three 24-foot squares of living space. An open kitchen, guest bedroom, and office forms one wing of the house; a master bedroom suite with a bathroom and walk-in closet forms the other. In the center, a two-story open living space looks through a south-facing wall of triple-paned, glazed glass. Sliding pocket doors separate the three living spaces, allowing for privacy when needed or giving the home an informal studio-type feel when left open. Throughout the home the team used a combination of new material and remnants from previous projects. This simplicity of design and tendency to recycle translated directly into cost savings and allowed the team to keep the home's construction costs competitive with other homes on the market.

True to that spirit of simplicity and versatility, the interior design allows the home to adapt and grow with Reynolds's changing needs. Above each wing of the house, Reynolds allowed for extra space and framed a staircase near the home's entrance. Now utilized for storage, the second story of the eastern and western wings could be attached by a catwalk, to create two extra bedrooms if needed.

click to enlarge Reynolds installed pocket doors throughout the house. Maximizing the flow of light, heat, and air, they also allow the rooms to easily change from openness to privacy. An east-facing window at the main bedroom offers an additional view of the surrounding woods. - DEBORAH DEGRAFFENREID
  • Deborah DeGraffenreid
  • Reynolds installed pocket doors throughout the house. Maximizing the flow of light, heat, and air, they also allow the rooms to easily change from openness to privacy. An east-facing window at the main bedroom offers an additional view of the surrounding woods.

The home's corrugated metal exterior hides sophisticated walls. "Despite their simplicity, passive house walls are technically very carefully assembled so that they can dry in two directions," explains Reynolds. To head off potential moisture and rot, Reynolds and Bassler incorporated "rain screen walls" with open ventilation channels to allow air to naturally flow throughout. Cellulose insulation, created from recycled shredded newspaper, keeps the home's temperature constant while allowing for air circulation. While it was professional and personal goals that originally motivated Reynolds, he's been rewarded with a home that's supremely comfortable. "I've been through eight months now and the temperature remains very even, comfortable and cozy—one of the best parts of living in the house is watching the seasons move through," he explains.

Above, the metal roof is entirely covered in solar panels. Reynolds's home is still connected to the grid, but he generates the majority of the power he needs—to heat, to cool, to run his appliances, and even to power his plug-in Chevy Volt—from the panels on his roof and some smart design.

Reynolds isn't giving up his castle of sunlight anytime soon. However, he and Bassler emphasize that everything they've done is available to anyone who is ready for modern, energy-independent design, right here in the Hudson Valley. "We aren't doing anything exotic," Reynolds explains. "It's the exact opposite of that—it's really local knowledge, local sensitivity to climate, local materials and skills, and local self-reliance." Bassler adds, "It will be great to talk to you in 20 years, when everyone is building passive houses."

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