Easy, Breezy Greenies
Four years ago, when Paul and Rabia Nagin started building their home northwest of Manhattan, they didn’t know much about green building. “We were all sitting around with the architect and we got into a discussion about the heating system,” Paul says. “I said, ‘I don’t want to burn fossil fuels.’ I just kind of blurted it out without really thinking about what that meant. Everyone looked at me and said, ‘So what are you going to do?’ So I started researching the alternatives.”
As a former computer science professor at Tufts Medical School and Hofstra University, Paul is accustomed to research. “I concluded solar was going to be too expensive and not practical because we’re in the Northeast and it’s a large house. Wind was not an option because we’re at a low point topographically,” he says. “I started looking at geothermal and talking to people and finding that this was something that could really work.”
Paul, the co-owner of textbook company Chimborazo Publishing, and Rabia, a writer and former caterer, also hired an Energy Star consultant to help increase efficiency and achieve Energy Star certification. Their efforts paid off. At the time of certification, the Nagins’ home was the third most energy-efficient home in New York state, according to Energy Star, achieving nearly zero net carbon emissions.
Can a large house be green?
Paul and Rabia’s house is large—6,800 square feet including the finished portion of the basement—because they host frequent gatherings for their intentional community, political groups, fundraisers, music events and yoga classes. Their three college-student sons—Chege, 22; Jesse, 20; and Avi, 17—also often host large groups, and Paul gives lectures to high school and college students at the house. “I’d say at least once a month, we have in excess of 100 people over, and I wanted our house to be a vehicle for that,” he says.
“Literally thousands of people have come through this house. Everybody is just amazed that the technology is here,” Paul says. “If you listen to the politicos, it’s always focused on the year 2020 or 2050 when we’ll have these green technologies, but here’s a house today with almost zero carbon footprint. Getting near zero is entirely doable with stuff that’s here right now.” Because the home is large, it must be extremely airtight to minimize costs and reduce the amount of power the geothermal system requires. After researching insulation options, the Nagins installed cellulose. “We settled on cellulose because it’s basically recycled New York Times, and I can relate to that,” Paul says. “We’re recycling, getting a high R-value, and it’s inexpensive compared with foams.”
After installing efficient, low-emissivity (low-E) windows, Paul and Rabia hired inspectors to identify and eliminate air leaks and potential air infiltration, creating a home whose thermal envelope far exceeds Energy Star standards.
Soliciting bids for the geothermal system was a “long and unpleasant experience,” Paul says. “I got wildly different bids from people, off by as much as a factor of three or four,” he says. “I finally stumbled upon someone whose business was a few miles from my house and who had just taken a course on geothermal. He factored in that we were going for Energy Star labeling, whereas the others hadn’t. That meant that, although the house would be large, it would be so tremendously thermally secure, he could engineer it so we didn’t need as large a system.”
Geothermal systems operate by liquid-filled, underground tubes that harness the earth’s near-constant 55-degree temperature to warm and cool homes. The tubes can be laid horizontally, which requires a broader area, or vertically, which requires wells hundreds of feet deep. “I would have greatly preferred horizontal, and I had enough land, but I would have had to cut down trees, and I just wasn’t willing to do it,” Paul says. “So I paid extra for vertical.”
Geothermal systems cost about the same as a furnace and air conditioning unit, so digging the wells is the only extra expense. The systems can pay for themselves in a relatively short time. “It costs around $4 a day to heat this house, and it’s roughly three times the volume of the average house,” he says. The Nagins pay their local utility a premium for alternative electricity (from wind, solar or hydro). Paul expects to recoup the geothermal system’s costs in four or five years.
Healthy, inside and out
All the wood in the house was obtained from a lumber company less than 50 miles away. Rather than expensive, exotic woods, the Nagins chose locally abundant and wellmanaged pine and oak. They used no carpet, avoided materials that may outgas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and eliminated nearly everything that contained formaldehyde. In the basement, they laid bamboo floors and, because the basement is outside the geothermal system, installed a biomass stove for efficient heat. For some of the basement walls, they used bioboards made of sorghum, wheat and sunflower agricultural wastes and formaldehyde-free glue.
They were also careful with the home’s landscape. “Most people think I’m crazy for doing this, but before we plotted the site, we had a map made of every tree and its size so we could minimize the trees we’d have to cut,” Paul says. “The trees are still very close to our house, which caused some anger from the guy who did the excavating, but we wanted to keep it totally natural. This is a completely maintenance-free landscape.” Their driveway looks like a dirt road, but is made from pulverized, recycled building materials, such as bricks, stones, tiles and concrete, which will set over time.
Walking the walk
“Many people think you should put up a fence and a gate, but our home is open to both the environment and the community,” Rabia says. “We go back and forth between these worlds where one moment we have 120 people in the house and the next moment I’m all by myself feeding the cats. If it weren’t for the green aspects of the house, we wouldn’t have had this much impact in our community or this much fun. It would’ve been a nice, beautiful place to host things, but with the green aspects it’s so interconnected and so vibrant.” Rabia says the home has enhanced her family’s lifestyle. “When you juxtapose the green technology with the beauty of the house, it has a lot of impact,” she says. “Whether it’s a performance or a fundraiser, everything is connected to the green aspects. That’s what draws people here. People are really hungry for information about sustainability.”
The Nagins are happy to be front-runners in what they believe will someday be the norm in home construction. “It has to come from the top and bottom,” Paul says. “Congress could say, ‘We’re allocating money for solar research and providing incentives for homeowners,’ but people have to be willing to go for it and incorporate it into their lives.”
Airtight’s all right
Though an extremely airtight house is energy efficient, it also means no fresh air circulates through the home, making an air circulation system necessary. The Nagins’ system adds another layer of efficiency. “Even if you only have healthy products in the house, you don’t want to be rebreathing your own air, so Energy Star requires a recovery ventilator—a clever device that pumps in fresh air from outside and, at the same time, takes the return air from the house,” Paul says.
The pump combines the incoming and outgoing air masses. In winter, incoming cold air is preheated by outgoing air. “It’s a natural heat exchange,” Paul says. “For a very small amount of energy—like 75 watts—you get completely fresh and prewarmed air coming in.”
Paul and Rabia Nagin’s community, Skyview Acres, was founded in the 1940s by environmentalists and pacifists looking to escape New York City. Rabia’s family was friends with some of the founding members, and she spent many teenage summers there; their son’s first violin teacher also lives there. “It’s very sentimental to me being here, and not just because of the family connections,” Rabia says. “We have an amazing community here. There are 10 people over 90, and they’re all politically active, amazing people. We’ve come full circle to come back here and make our home.”
Leap of luxury
Though there were challenges, Paul and Rabia Nagin say that building green was easy, inexpensive and totally worth it. “The net effect of everything we did added about 5 percent to our total construction cost,” Paul says. “Doing all of those extra things instead of conventional, and it was just 5 percent! I expected much more than that.”
The Nagins built their home for about $150 a square foot. “Most people who see this house think of it as a luxury house, but around here luxury houses cost $200, $300, $500 a square foot,” he says. “Our house would be considered a normal cost. We did that by being fairly judicious about what we picked. For example, using pine instead of fancy Brazilian wood, which I disagree with in terms of cost and the environment. By being both cost-conscious and tasteful, we got a house that is unique and looks quite sumptuous, but actually was very reasonable.”
A chat with the homeowners
What was the biggest challenge in building the house?
Paul: When you build a house, you have to trust a lot of strangers and hope they will be sensitive to your needs. I made a point of making personal contact with all the people who worked on the project. I said to them, in effect, “This is my home and I want the project to proceed harmoniously.” It may seem a little corny, but I think it made a difference. Overall, the project was on time and within budget, which is pretty amazing for a completely custom design.
Who is your greatest hero and why?
Paul: Right now I would say Al Gore is my hero. He has been working tirelessly to increase our awareness about global warming and to make it a legitimate topic of discussion.
Rabia: Sergio Mobili is a young man who is the son of a dear friend of mine. Having Down syndrome, he has had to deal with things that most of us never encounter. He is the most empathetic and sensitive person I know and brings joy, hope and love into the lives of everyone he meets. Being with him teaches me that there is true goodness in the world.
What’s the best visitor response you’ve ever heard about your home?
Paul: The best comment, which we have heard on several occasions, is when they ask if the house is a “renovation.” They think it is 100 years old! In contrast to most development houses, which tend to look as if they were plopped down from Mars, green houses should look as if they grew there, as if they are a part of the natural landscape.
Rabia: I grew up in a home that was always open to others. A friend of mine said to me after a recent concert/fundraiser, “You are carrying on your mother’s tradition in your new home.”
By Jessica Kellner, January/February 2009