Zero Energy in New Paltz

By Shawn Dell Joyce

How would you like to get a check back from Central Hudson instead of paying them thousands in utilities this year? If you lived in Green Acres in New Paltz, that could happen to you. Green Acres is a Net Zero Energy housing development nestled amid a conventional housing development at the base of the Shawangunk Ridge.

Zero Energy Homes, or houses that produce as much (or more) energy as they use sounds like the stuff of science fiction. For years many people have thought it impossible, and builders speculated they would be unaffordable, but recently they have become a reality.

“The myth that zero energy homes are impossible in the Northeast, or cost prohibitive, has been broken,” says homebuilder Anthony Aebi. “I’ve found that it wasn’t a problem.” Aebi is the owner of Greenhill Contracting, and builder of Green Acres in New Paltz, NY.

Green Acres consists of twenty-five lots, only seven have finished houses and all but two of those houses have been sold. The average size of Aebi’s houses are four bedrooms, and less than 2,000 square feet. The average price for these homes is around $500,000 but take away the cost of the expensive property and the house itself is only 20 percent more than average market value. Aebi notes that homebuyers last year were given more than $40,000 in tax credits which helped offset the additional costs.

But there’s nothing average about the houses in Green Acres, the homes are all oriented toward the south for maximum passive solar, all have breath-taking views of the ridge from the West facing windows. Each house has curb appeal, and very few have any visible solar panels or signs that they are any different from the neighboring housing development.

What makes Green Acres different is the houses are not conventional “stick frame” houses, like most houses build today. These houses have walls made of foam and metal with concrete poured between them. The panels have a very high insulation value (R22) and give the house the strength to last through earthquakes (up to 9 points on the Richter Scale) and winds of 200 mph. The houses are insulated from top to bottom with sprayed-in foam insulation in the attic and R20 insulation under the floor slab. The houses are so tight that they remain at a constant temperature year round without any heat on.

“There’s no dust,” notes Green Acres architect David Toder of Bolder Architecture. Each home is equipped with a heat recover ventilation unit that makes the indoor air fresher and cleaner than the outdoor air. Geothermal wells provide heating/cooling and hot water to the homes, while eight kilowatt solar panels provide energy. Toder is a LEEDS certified architect and designed the homes to meet LEEDS Gold standards.

But the real proof on Zero Energy houses lies with the people who live in them. David Shepler was one of the first people to buy into Green Acres. Shepler is not your average homebuyer, and was looking for a greener house than the “typical McMansions on the market today.” Shepler notes that financing was the biggest hurdle between him and Green Acres.

“Appraisers don’t value green features,” said Shepler. This made it hard to get an accurate assessment of the cost savings of having no monthly utility bills. He has lived in his zero energy house for more than two years, and notes that he received a check from the local utility company for $80 after his first year, and $172 after his second year. Utility companies measure net zero on a yearly scale, starting in January. For a home to be zero energy, it has to produce as much energy as it draws from the grid, resulting in no monthly utility bills. Shepler’s home is slightly better than zero energy.

Shepler estimates that his monthly out-of-pocket costs for the luxurious home he and his sons live in roughly equivalent to a $450,000 home. Greenhill Contracting’s website cites that the cost of purchasing a $600,000 zero energy home at a 5 percent mortgage will cost you roughly the same per year as a $452,000 home. The difference is in a lower cost of living, and government incentives which could go towards your down payment.

Aebi didn’t set out to build a greener house, and is quick to point out that his houses are built to last with “green” being a side benefit. “I’m not an environmentalist,” he claims, “I just wanted to build a practical home that would last.”

Shawn Dell Joyce is an award-winning newspaper columnist and the director of the Wallkill River School in Montgomery.

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