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Going For Gold: How Building an Eco-Friendly House led to LEED Gold

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By Susan Goldstein

In October of 2005, a perfect storm descended on North Haven—the high tide of a full moon, a nor’ easter coming in from New England, and the remnants of a hurricane arriving from the south. While basements near water are now wisely prohibited by FEMA law, our Sag Harbor Cove house, built more than fifty years ago, had a basement. It flooded, and water rose two inches above the first floor, leaving us with irresolvable mold problems. The only solution? Total renovation.

But somewhere in that storm was the proverbial cloud with a silver lining. While at first I planned only to build a light-filled, modern house, I soon decided to aim higher: to build a house that would meet the LEED standard of the U.S. Green Building Council, which promotes the design and construction of high-performance green homes. In that way, I’d not only improve my property but also do something environmentally friendly.
What’s more, serving on the Save Sag Harbor committee and being involved with the Group For the East End made me very aware of Sag Harbor’s preservationist concerns. I realized building an eco-friendly house would help me do my part in upholding them. My renovation project turned into a challenging five-year adventure that’s about to come to a rewarding close, and I will be able to live in my beloved Sag Harbor home for half the year.

By a stroke of good luck, the architect/engineer I had already chosen, Dominick R. Pilla, was LEED-accredited. Together, Dom and I planned a home that was energy-and water-efficient, with locally reclaimed and sustainably harvested raw materials—a home that would put a minimal amount of stress on the environment. To my delight, we were able to find other local designers and crafts people who shared our vision and carried it out, among them Richard Kissane Builders, landscape architect Tony Piazza, the SRK pool company, designer Richard Mervis and cabinetmaker Will Paulson.

Now, photovoltaic solar panels on my new flat roof convert the sun’s energy into electricity. They produce some or all the power we need in summer for the household and pool. In winter, when we use the house less, we will have an excess of power. It will be fed into the power company grid, and I’ll earn “credits” on my bill.

Solar thermal panels heat the water for our faucets and our pool, which thanks to systems from SKR we clean without using any chemicals.
We limited the area of conventional turf and favored planting in shaded areas, and we used drought-tolerant non-invasive species for ground cover on 40% of the lot. They will be irrigated with harvested rainwater stored in underground cisterns and “grey water” from the dishwasher, washing machine, sinks and tubs. (Since we don’t produce enough grey water to make it cost-effective to recycle for other uses, we get drinking water from a town aquifer).

The heating and cooling is managed through a very efficient geothermal system that uses the constant temperature of the earth rather than outside temperature as the exchange medium. A ground source pump heats the water for radiant heat (through the floor) while providing cool air for cooling. Though the system is initially costly, energy savings make up the difference in less than a decade, and the system won’t need replacing for many years.
Since windows account for about a quarter of all heat gains and losses, we built overhangs, installed argon-filled double-paned windows with low-E coating that keeps such gains and losses minimal, and used insulation that provides nearly twice the barrier that code requires.

Of course we used only Energy Star appliances, low-flush toilets, and other environmentally friendly equipment and material, right down to the glue.
The design strategies, which were the most interesting and fun for me, were also eco-friendly. For example, we rebuilt on the existing foundation, installed bamboo floors, used soy-based insulation, and used reclaimed cypress for siding. While “recycled” items and products must be destroyed so the parts can be scavenged, we tried instead to work with “reused” or “reclaimed” items and products.

These are generally in their original form, though minor repair and replacement may be necessary, and you can’t always be certain of the results. For example, once the cypress siding was dried, installed, sanded to remove nail marks and rust drippings, and then coated with an eco-friendly product (to keep its integrity), it wasn’t precisely the color I’d have chosen, but I was happy to make the trade off. You also have to work with limited quantities. I fell in love with a small amount of mindfully engineered French oak flooring with which Richard managed to decorate two large rooms downstairs. I’m overjoyed about the stair treads, coffee and dining room table, statues and benches that Will is creating out of two beloved but failing cherry trees that for years I’d kept standing with a system of cables. He knew just how to cut those trees so they’d serve various uses and continue to be part of our daily lives. To be LEED-certified, you have to earn a certain number of points on a rating system. If you surpass the minimum, you can achieve a silver, gold, and even platinum level. I am proud that we now qualify to apply for a gold.

I started this project to do my part in preserving our world and to show others that it can be done. An increased demand for eco-friendly materials, designs and systems should help drive prices down, and that would make it possible for still others to participate. It’s my hope that my dream home inspires others to pursue similar dreams of their own.

Something Fishy: Hundres of Alewives High and Dry

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Heller_Dead Fish in Ligonee Creek_0152

By Claire Walla

The first thing you’d notice is the smell.

Last week, the small stretch of Brick Kiln Road that passes over Ligonee Brook in Sag Harbor gave off a stultifying scent as pungent as a sushi shop in August without central air.

It caught Richard Sawyer off guard.

“I never would have noticed it if I was driving,” Sawyer said. But last Tuesday, April 19, Sawyer had dropped his auto off at the Getty station and was forced to stroll home en plein air. After investigating the stench, he stumbled on something quite strange.

“I had never seen so many dead fish before in my life!” he exclaimed over the phone.

Peering over the edge of the road and into the shallow creek bed, last week one could have seen hundreds of lifeless fish lying immobile in the mostly dry creek.

As of last Thursday, the scaly creatures were still relatively whole, although many were decapitated.

“They weren’t yesterday,” said Fred Werner, who was passing through the area last Thursday, April 21 on his habitual midday commute back to his home in Noyac from the Sag Harbor Post Office.

“Yesterday, they were all in one piece,” he exclaimed. “They looked like they had just lain down and died.”

Larry Penny of the East Hampton natural resources department said the situation peaked his interest, although he had no prior knowledge of the fish.

“I noticed something funny there when we got that big rain,” Penny said of the downpour that drenched the village April 17. “The water was up over the road.”

While on the phone, Penny checked the notebook in which he records rainfall measurements and said he recorded two inches of precipitation that Sunday.

According to Penny, and according to Fred Werner’s son, Alex (an avid Sag Harbor-based fishermen), the carcasses in question are almost certainly alewives, which are typically seen in their greatest numbers mid-April.

Penny explained that alewives seek fresh water in order to spawn, which might explain why they were in Ligonee Brook, a tributary of fresh-water-basin Long Pond. Because of record rainfalls last year, Penny said the fish — typically concentrated in the North Sea area — were actually found in Long Pond last year.

“They have to spawn in fresh water, and then they have to leave. It’s conceivable that they had spawned and were leaving,” Penny said. But, he added, it’s more likely the alewives were still on their way in when water levels dropped and they met their demise.

“It can happen real quick,” he said of the drainage.

Though from the looks of it, such a massacre may seem to indicate all is not well for the alewife population, but Alex Werner believes the contrary to be true.

“Having a school of alewives in [Sag Harbor] Bay is good,” Werner said, because alewives are typically prey for bigger, more coveted fish for local anglers.

“It means the bigger fish are right behind them,” he added. “It’s the first sign of spring.”