by: Ellen Descisciolo
Building a responsible, resource-conscious residential
environment, one project at a time
walls are stuffed with old newspapers, the stones are from
a nearby lake, and the floor is grass. No, this isn’t the
vision of Willy Wonka’s crunchy cousin; it’s high-end residential
construction with a focus on environmental responsibility.
And it’s happening here.
Frank Laskey’s company, Capital Construction, had been building
commercial properties, like car dealerships and hotels, around
Saratoga Springs when he met Michael Phinney four years ago.
Phinney, an RPI graduate, is an architect with expertise in
green building. He was the architect in charge of the new
Department of Environmental Conservation building in downtown
Albany, the first building in-state to be certified by the
U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy & Environmental
Phinney says he and Laskey each wanted to design “houses that
were green that didn’t look like eco-ships, but beautiful
homes, responsive to the environment, built out of environmentally
responsible materials,” and agreed to partner up for a project
in the future. That time came a year and a half ago when a
homeowner approached them wanting to build a green house.
Not a greenhouse, but a green house. The man’s wife had chemical
sensitivities, which meant many conventional building materials
could not be used due to the strong chemicals present in them,
so they wanted to go green in Greenfield.
the project evolved, I realized that this is the direction
I really want to go in,” Laskey says, because this principled
building method shares what he calls his “core values.” Phinney
started his own company to concentrate on environmental design
work while Laskey restructured his business to focus more
on green residential construction.
Laskey then bought 95 rural acres in Wilton to build a green
residential housing development. Last month, he and Phinney
got the green light to start construction on the flagship
house of “Loudon Ridge,” a planned (though not yet fully approved)
subdivision of 22 new homes to be built on those acres, with
conservation in mind. Subdivisions may not seem like the height
of conservation, but this is not an ordinary subdivision.
Each of the prospective homes will be custom-designed and
built of local resources and manufactured materials from the
land where soda bottles become coats.
Working with a land-use planning group in Saratoga, Phinney
and Laskey identified features of the site they wanted to
preserve and found ways to develop homes while trying to “protect
the rural character of the land, protect open space, protect
existing ecosystems and minimize [the houses’] footprint on
the land,” says Laskey. “By doing that we design a house that
fits the site and respects the site—which is probably the
most important part—as opposed to the conventional way of
doing a subdivision which is, you take your 95 acres, cut
it up, see how many houses you can get.”
They’ve set aside 35 acres of land as “forever wild,” and
are building trails for hiking and horseback riding through
the property so it can connect to county forest land bordering
it on two sides. Initially the acreage preserved would have
been 70, but zoning rules regarding communal septic systems
did not make this possible. In that plan there would have
also been a cluster development with smaller lots around a
common green where a versatile barnlike community building
would have stood. They hope to be able to do more community-
oriented development on projects in the future, pending zoning
changes that will accommodate them.
can produce enormous waste and accounts for 30 percent of
raw materials used in America, according to the Green Building
Council. Our buildings also use 65 percent of the electricity
and 12 percent of the drinkable water that are consumed. But
through creative thinking and environmentally-friendly products,
those numbers can improve.
of building green is building houses that are durable, long-lasting,
low-maintenance and energy-efficient,” Laskey says.
In their building endeavors, Laskey and Phinney try to use
materials and paints that are either nontoxic or have very
low amounts of volatile organic compounds. For instance, instead
of plywood treated with formaldehyde, they use one without
it. “Typically the formaldehyde and other building materials
out-gas for five years,” says Laskey. That’s what people pick
up when taking a whiff of “new house smell.”
They also use a vast amount of recycled products ranging from
Styrofoam to cement to metal to newspaper. Using recycled
and long-lasting products means a lower-maintenance house,
which saves the homeowner money and means less building material
will end up in landfills. Furthermore, many of these products
can be re-recycled.
The exterior of the demonstration house will be almost all
recycled materials: finger-jointed wood trim and window frames,
clapboards made of wood-lookalike fiber-cement board, and
metal roofing and window sashes. These materials are also
surprisingly durable. The clapboard has a 50-year warranty
and is guaranteed to hold paint for 25 years. All told, Laskey
says, because of these features the house “far surpasses the
standards for normal construction.”
All of these recycled building materials get Laskey and Phinney
pretty excited. Laskey’s interested in using an insulation
made of soybeans—they currently use one made of recycled newspaper—and
Phinney is looking at a countertop material made from pressed
paper that’s a bit like Corion, minus the epoxies.
Phinney’s creative juices really get flowing when he
can use local materials, such as timber and stone, especially
if they’re from on-site. (He built one house out of “pin-straight
pine” that was on the property that they milled and dried
on-site.) “Those are the opportunities I get most excited
about because then the buildings speak of the environment
that they come directly from,” he says. In the case of the
subdivision, they will be using timber (which is never old-growth)
from Canada and New York, some from as close as 30 miles away,
and stone from a quarry near lakes Champlain and George. Using
local materials helps the local economy and cuts down on fuel
consumption: Their supplies are coming from within a 500-mile
home’s embodied energy-efficiency is a priority from the early
drafting phases. They place the home’s longest side on the
east-west axis and put most of the glass facing south to maximize
light. They also “build with large overhangs that are 2-feet
deep, which protects the glass from the summer sun, but in
the winter when the sun is lower it allows the sun to come
in,” Laskey says. Their designs use an open floor plan that
helps create a thermal chimney in the house for air flow.
This lets excess moisture and heat cycle out, and in warm
weather will reduce the need for air conditioning to a few
times a year. There is also a special ventilation system,
costing about $1.50 per day, which cycles fresh air through
the house continually.
The demonstration home will feature a boiler with 94.2 percent
efficiency, far above the standard. As a result, heating and
electricity costs are about half that of the average standard
house of the same size. Their demonstration house, at 3700
square feet, is estimated to cost $1600 per year for heat
For water efficiency, the new homes will feature various indigenous
flora that don’t require much watering, and big lawns are
discouraged. They’re also looking at a water system which
can cut consumption by 52 percent.
The demonstration house will also have smart-home technology
courtesy of Ambiance Systems in Clifton Park. By touching
a screen, a homeowner can control the lighting, temperature,
security and entertainment. It also flickers the lights at
a rate imperceptible to the eye but which doubles the lifespan
of light bulbs. Homeowners can, at the push of a button, lower
the heat and lights upon leaving the house and call from a
distance to turn the heat on if they’ve been away. The whole
system costs between $25,000-50,000, but is more about lifestyle,
to Laskey, than relatively short-term pay-off.
The demonstration house is being built in part with grants
from the American Lung Association and the National Association
of Home Builders Research Center. It is one of five projects
chosen by the NAHBRC to demonstrate green building practices,
and as a result of that grant the builders will hold a workshop
at the demonstration house in October to help people learn
about the methods they employed. They are the only builders
in the Northeast chosen by ALA to build a “healthy house,”
a designation they earned from their concentration on using
nontoxics and a smart ventilation system.
somewhat painful part of green building is the price. At the
low end, Loudon Ridge homes will be selling for around $500,000;
at the high end, the demonstration house has a price tag of
just under $1 million, but that’s because it’s got all of
the bells and whistles and a nice 5-acre lot.
we talk to people about green and about sustainability, people
really tend to get lost because it’s another language,” Laskey
notes. “I tend to talk more about durability and low-maintenance
and energy-efficiency, everyone understands that.” And they
also understand that budgeting can affect how green a buyer
is not looking to build mass- produced houses that are all
the same design with cheap building materials,” Phinney explains.
“So when you start to do custom-design things that are also
environmentally friendly materials that are high-quality,
there starts to become a cost that’s associated with it.”
Phinney says he tries to present clients with plans that allow
for flexible, efficient, and open-feeling homes, and “ultimately
smaller houses that feel bigger.” This, he adds, can also
help control costs.
Laskey believes the public needs to be given green options
and to learn that “built to code” means built to minimum standards.
While a green home might cost 5-10 percent more up front,
the investment, the builders estimate, will likely be paid
off in about 10 years. Laskey says, “since [a home is] most
people’s largest investment, I think there’s some wisdom in