The long, vibrant debate over the Zero Place project in New Paltz was focused on themes like community character and safety; the building’s status as a net-zero-energy structure was not something which required deliberation among village planning board members. Now that it’s been approved, Zero Place is poised to be one of the first mixed-use high-performance buildings in the United States. In fact, builder Anthony Aebi of Greenhill Contracting has racked up awards for his construction techniques and the results they yield.
Aebi’s history is circuitous, reinforcing the idea that success can emerge from any direction. Growing up in New Jersey and Switzerland, he completed high school in New York City before attending SUNY Stony Brook for physics, his “first love,” and biology. However, soon after graduation he realized that a career in physics almost certainly meant working in a subterranean laboratory. “I needed daylight,” he said, and started looking for another career option.
He first tried his hand at green building in Orange County, but as he explained, “There’s a lack of good food there,” as well as more limited cultural outlets to suit his tastes. He was familiar with New Paltz through friends, and moved to the community before he had perfected his techniques for building high-performance homes. “I live in the last crappy house I built,” he said with a smile.
“As I was building my house, I realized that real structures can’t be made of sticks,” he said, comparing it to the tale of the three little pigs. “Sticks didn’t work out that well for them. We need to build like they do in the rest of the world, from stone.” He thought to himself, “Why not do better?”
What Aebi builds now are homes which are as solid as stone, yet also let in the daylight that he himself craves. To achieve solidity and a high insulation rating, he uses insulated concrete forms, as the basis. These combine the structural strength of the concrete with insulating polystyrene foam, creating an airtight, sound-resistant barrier between inside and out. The spacious windows are triple-paned with inert gas between the layers of glass.
The robust insulation and airtight seal makes it possible to heat and cool the building with a geothermal system, and sufficient solar panels are installed up top to meet or exceed the energy requirements of most families who have purchased these homes. A ventilation system ensures that fresh air still gets inside, while up to 80% of the heat in the air escaping is recaptured.
With the solid materials used, these are houses designed to withstand 200 mph winds, as well as earthquakes. No mold can infiltrate the walls because they are sealed against moisture. Even under the worst conditions maintenance is possible, because all the mechanical components are located in the “extremely dry basement” of the home.
It’s due to the many features that Aebi prefers to call these “high-performance” rather than simply “net-zero-energy” homes. While his first foray into this space was in Esopus, most of the homes of this type he’s built are in New Paltz, behind My Market in the Green Acres development and off Schreiber’s Lane in the Preserve at Mountain Vista.
Aebi has received accolades for his work since he began with two homes in Esopus, around 2007. Given the amount of discussion about green buildings a decade ago, he was surprised to be given a U.S. Department of Energy award for building the first one in the Northeast. Since then he’s won the EPA Indoor AirPlus award, the DOE Housing Innovation award three years running, several industry and state awards for lowest home energy rating system score, as well as a number of other industry and governmental awards. He regularly attends conferences to speak about his techniques, and not infrequently gets generous offers to replicate his work in other parts of the country.
Here in New Paltz, some of Aebi’s work has been slowed as an unintended consequence of zoning rules that require a full site plan review for even one- and two-family home construction, while when he took over the half-built Green Acres that review fell to building inspectors. Approvals have always taken some time, since in most cases a setback variance is needed to angle the building to maximize the solar panels, but the additional time needed to obtain planning board approval has been a turn-off for prospective buyers, he said. “They won’t wait that long,” he said. “It became untenable.” He’s still seeking to find ways to work with local officials to retain the spirit of the new rules — which he sees as targeting builders who wish to maximize rental income to the exclusion of all else — while not making it nearly impossible for him to sell more of these homes.
What he’d like to see instead, Aebi said, is elected leaders using his developments in their local marketing to draw in potential new residents. He also believes the existence of these homes could be used to enhance many municipal grant applications. State officials are aware of his work: an acting vice president of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority attended the opening of the Preserve at Mountain Vista in 2013, but local officials at the time only sent representatives. Aebi believes there is tremendous upside potential in embracing his work, as many state grants require some sort of public-private partnering to achieve the highest marks. Here in New York, a state goal to reduce carbon emissions 50% by 2020 will need far more projects like these to be achieved.
This seeming lack of enthusiasm isn’t something he blames on particular individuals, however: “no one in the Northeast seems to care” about high-performance construction benefits, he lamented. The greatest advances are happening in traditionally right-wing states such as Texas, he observed.
For Green Acres, Aebi is optimistic that a way forward will be found. He believes that the village itself would benefit from the development being completed; not only would it mean more homes to be taxed, right now there’s a sewer system getting insufficient flow, and fire hydrants built far from any existing homes. Maintaining those systems is easier with a tax base to support the work.
What experts in the industry agree — as evidenced by the many awards littering Anthony Aebi’s office — is that the high-performance Greenhill Contracting homes are a jewel in the crown of New Paltz, no matter when their true value is finally realized.