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Positive Energy

Martha Stewart Living, January 2007

There are as many kinds of environmentalists as there are shades of green. The filmmaking politician, the hybrid-driving celebrity, and the tree-sitting protester may be the most prominent, but others effect change in less visible ways: shopping for organic produce, choosing efficient appliances, or even making mindful choices when fixing up or building a house. 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. They and their three children, all enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders, had been spending winter weekends there in a rented house for many seasons and wanted a place to call their own. "Part of our motivation in having the house is to teach our kids about nature," says Bill, whose interest in the environment began when the children were young, over a debate about the quality of local drinking water. Later, while volunteering with Riverkeeper, an organization dedicated to protecting the Hudson River and its tributaries, he realized that time on the slopes and in the woods would encourage a passion for preservation. Andrea, who bikes, snowshoes, and skis, agreed. "You have to experience nature to have it mean enough to you to care about protecting it," she says.

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 thirty-seven-acre parcel of land. Minimizing their impact on the environment by using sustainable building materials and energy-saving features was a priority, but Bill is reluctant to label the house green. "We did what we could within our budget and tried to address the salient issues," he says.

With the help of architect Holly Ross, they built an eighteen-hundred-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.

Bill and Andrea wanted lots of light in the house without heat seeping out. Instead of conventional window glass for the clerestory that stretches from end to end of the house, they chose a highly insulating panel system made of two layers of structural composite with an insulator between them; the system allows light to pass through but keeps the heat in and the cold out. The panels have a U-value of 0.05, which is significantly better than that of typical energy-efficient windows. (U-value measures the rate of heat loss through a building material. The lower the U-value, the more insulating the material.) All the windows have a low-E coating, a colorless film that reduces heat loss.

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.

Light fixtures are fitted with power-saving compact fluorescent bulbs rather than power-hungry incandescent ones (the faux-antler chandelier, which uses superlow-wattage bulbs, is the exception). Nearly 20 percent of household electricity use is devoted to lighting, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. But until recently, there weren't many appealing alternatives to incandescent bulbs. Many compact fluorescent lightbulbs (also known as CFLs) now closely mimic incandescent bulbs -- he quality of light is warm, they are dimmable and noiseless, they fit standard household sockets, and they are available at home centers and hardware stores. Although they are much more expensive than incandescent bulbs, CFLs use 66 percent less energy and last up to ten times longer. They also remain cooler to the touch and give off less heat, reducing the load on air conditioners during warm months. Before buying, read the labels: Because CFLs produce more light per watt, a 15-watt CFL is equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent bulb, a 20-watt CFL equals a 75-watt incandescent bulb, and a 26- to 29-watt CFL equals a 100-watt incandescent bulb. CFLs with a color temperature of 2,700K to 3,000K emit warm light; 4,500K to 6,000K produce cool light. The most efficient CFLs are labeled with the Energy Star logo. (Energy Star is a government program that rates the efficiency of household products: Energy-efficient CFLs, appliances, furnaces, windows, doors, home electronics, and office equipment are marked with its logo.) If every U.S. home replaced just one lightbulb with an Energy Star one, the country could save enough energy to light more than 2.5 million homes for a year and prevent greenhouse gases equal to the emissions of nearly eight hundred thousand cars over a one-year period.

The washer and most of the kitchen appliances are Energy Star qualified; they use 10 percent to 50 percent less energy and water than standard models of a decade ago. An Energy Star washer can save $65 to $160 annually on water bills and $45 to $125 on energy bills. It spins clothes faster than typical washers, so clothes need less time in the dryer, too. Yellow EnergyGuide labels offer estimates of energy and water usage, as compared with similar products and yearly operating cost.

The adhesive carpet squares on the bedroom and laundry room floors are made of nylon and polypropylene backed with recycled materials. The manufacturer will take them back and recycle them if the customer ever replaces them. This is important: Of roughly five million pounds of carpeting discarded in 2005, only 7 percent was recycled, according to a carpet industry estimate.

Bill and Andrea installed bamboo flooring instead of wood. Bamboo is a fast-growing grass that's ready for harvest several years after it's planted. Hardwoods such as black oak can take 40 to 75 years to mature. And unlike wood, once bamboo is harvested, new plants do not need to be sown. The generous root system of bamboo will send up new shoots. The most earth-friendly bamboo flooring comes from managed forests and contains adhesives with low levels of formaldehyde. Although it takes some practice to decipher them, Material Safety Data Sheets, which many manufacturers of building materials post on their websites, will note whether a product contains hazardous chemicals.

Rather than using pressure-treated lumber, Bill and Andrea selected a composite decking material, which is made from repurposed sawdust and long-lasting plastic. One of its best features is that it never needs to be stained or painted, and maintenance generally involves nothing more than occasional sweeping.

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.

As in all new construction, the toilets and showerheads in the house are low-flow models. In accordance with federal requirements, all toilets manufactured after 1993 use only 1.6 gallons of water per flush; earlier models consume 3.5 gallons or more. Similarly, showerheads are restricted to 2.5 gallons of water flow per minute; some models manufactured before 1992 have a flow of 5.5 gallons per minute.

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