Snipping a crimson ribbon with a giant pair of scissors, David Shepler and partners formally opened Zero Place at 87 North Chestnut Street in New Paltz to members of the public with a ceremony on the sunny afternoon of April 29. As clear as the blue sky above was the fact that there is a keen interest in living in apartments for which there will be a net of zero carbon emissions, this being the inspiration for the name of the building. Zero Place is a four-story, net-zero-energy, mixed-use with 46 residential units and 8,000+ square feet of commercial space. Shepler confirmed that every full-rate apartment has already been rented out, with only two of the affordable units left to be filled. With close to a hundred people on the eligibility list, it’s just a matter of completing the necessary bureaucratic steps to have all 46 apartments rented.
Zero Place is owned by David Shepler, Anthony Aebi, Keith P. Libolt and Keith H. Libolt II. The building was constructed by Affordable Housing Concepts (AHC) under the leadership of Keith Libolt II. Its overall energy efficiency design was crafted by Anthony Aebi of Zero Net Now. David Toder of Bolder Architecture provided the architectural design. Jens Ponikau and Buffalo Geothermal designed and built the innovative geothermal system that provides all heating, cooling and domestic hot water. Integral Building + Design (IBD), based in New Paltz, provided the energy rating and verification services along with the design and installation of the energy and climate monitoring systems. Jeff Irish and SunCommon provided the 248-kW solar system.
The promise of net-zero-energy living is not a capricious one. Energy use is being monitored independently to confirm that it will prove to be achievable, as well. The commitment does not entirely extend to the commercial first floor, although Shepler said during the ceremony that it’s believed it will be true in those spaces, as well, but since energy use varies widely among business types, it was impossible to predict how that might pan out.
What makes Zero Place possible is the combination of a number of existing systems in innovative ways. Fifteen geothermal wells sunk deep into the earth regulate the interior temperature by passing water down below to either pick up or distribute heat into the bedrock, depending on what’s going on up above. Heat recovery units retain inside the building energy that in a typical home is expelled during activities such as cooking. Hundreds of solar panels upon the roof and the sunward-facing walls provide a significant supply of electricity. The walls themselves are concrete forms filled with a special insulating foam to ensure that heat doesn’t leach out — or in — through the structure itself.
Shepler’s remarks captured the challenges faced in bringing this project to fruition. It was the first proposal subject to the rules of the Neighborhood-Business-Residential (NBR) zone some years before, and there were nearby village residents who claimed to be shocked that this zoning would allow for such a large building, with some even lamenting the impacts it could have upon the community. The core concept of NBR zoning is that, recognizing that humans are not choosing to control their own population and that many of them wish to live in New Paltz, preserving the natural landscapes that attract people to this area requires packing more residents into the village core. While championing this forward-thinking zoning is part of the reason why Maurice Weitman’s name is on the street adjacent to Zero Place, some opponents of higher density successfully lobbied Village Board members to reduce the maximum height in this zone from four stories to three; Zero Place will be the tallest structure along that stretch of North Chestnut Street as a result of their work.
Even after the project was approved, there were unforeseen challenges, including having an important subcontractor imprisoned as part of aggressive immigration-law enforcement during the Trump administration, followed soon thereafter by labor interruptions and supply-chain disruptions in the early months of the current global pandemic. Some of the most vocal supporters of modeling an approach to building that Shepler believes will be essential to the survival of the species had to watch and wait for seven years before finally getting an apartment.
That Zero Place is an important example of what’s possible is not lost on Pat Ryan, Ulster County’s executive, who toured the structure once before when the bones of its innovative design were still bare. Calling it “inspiring,” Ryan was clear that Zero Place will come up in future conversations with developers.
Nearly a million dollars for this project was provided through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and it’s clear that officials of that state agency will be using Zero Place as a model. It was one of the first structures awarded the state “buildings of excellence” award, and just prior to the ribbon cutting, Shepler got the news that the building has been given the platinum designation under Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design standards.
Eve Walter, current county legislator and the planning board chair who finally signed the plan, praised Shepler’s team for paying the hefty recreation fee without complaint and attempts to negotiate it down. Half the cost of the new Hasbrouck Park playground was provided in that way, and future developers in New Paltz are on notice that supporting recreation is and will always be part of the costs of doing business in this community.
The ground floor commercial spaces, including one slated to be a bakery, are likely to be opened up soon, completing the vision of a building that environmentally, socially and economically, is not a drain on the community. The small roof deck, which was eyed with understandable suspicion by some neighbors during the application review, cannot be entered without passing a very large sign laying out the rules for proper behavior, including limits on noise, lighting, amplification and occupancy.
For Shepler, this ambitious project must only be the beginning if the existential crisis of climate change is to be addressed. “If all buildings of the future are like this, we might have a chance.”