Living Lightly in Ithaca's EcoVillage

March 15, 2015
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May/June 2015
This online-only article is a supplement to the May/June 2015 print edition of Home Energy Magazine.
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When Ray Stiefel began planning his energy-efficient Passive House (PH) project in upstate New York, the net zero building concept was virtually unknown in the United States. It took seven years of discussion and research to put the proposal together to build a new neighborhood of 40 homes (mixed duplexes and single-family units) in Ithaca's EcoVillage, and to secure financing and local code enforcement approvals. But one year ago, Stiefel, who is one of the three people responsible for initiating the project, moved into his long anticipated net zero house.

I recently toured the TREE (Third Residential EcoVillage Experience) neighborhood and the U.S. Passive House Institute (PHIUS)-certified house with Stiefel, a former neighbor of mine who shares my interest in living lightly on the planet. On this gray, 20°F December day with a brisk wind, and no solar inputs through the big south-facing windows, Ray and I both had sweaters on, and a portable electric heater was gobbling up watts to boost the house temperature to 70°F. Yet he assured me that over a one-year period, he and his roommate had consumed less electricity than their house had fed into the grid. In fact, he said, that was a source of considerable satisfaction when his annual reconciliation with the electric utility gave him several months of $0 balance on his bill.

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Ray Stiefel’s Passive House in the TREE neighborhood of Ithaca’s EcoVillage. (Susan P. Gateley)

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Another view of Ray Stiefel’s Passive House in the TREE neighborhood. (Susan P. Gateley)

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Duplexes are another home option in the TREE neighborhood. (Susan P. Gateley)

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The TREE neighborhood’s community building shown here under construction in December 2014. (Susan P. Gateley)

Shared Ethos

Because he grew up in an energy-efficient home, also located in upstate New York, that was built back in the early 1980s, Stiefel knew that insulation and site-specific passive-solar design could work even without today's technical advances. “I was confident we would succeed,” he told me as he described the lengthy planning and designing process for the EcoVillage expansion by adding a third “neighborhood” that includes eight PHIUS-certified homes. He had the nearly 20-year track record of two previous EcoVillage neighborhoods of energy-efficient housing going for him, and he had the Cornell University and Ithaca College-driven demographics of this small upstate city as a market. Two- thirds of EcoVillage's approximately 240 residents either commute to the nearby city or work out of their year-round homes. About a quarter of the residents are retired. The shared ethos of sustainable living and self-sufficiency in an intentional community has been key to the success of EcoVillage since it was founded in the early 1990s. It certainly fits well with high-energy-efficiency housing.

I asked Ray how he felt about the house after living for a year in this zone 6 region, with an average seasonal total of about 6,300 heating degree-days. “The internal climate has been very agreeable,” he told me, “very stable. There's been no extreme hot or cold, and good air quality.” He explained that this was partly because the house has energy recovery ventilation (ERV), and partly because he had chosen low- or no-VOC furniture other household accessories. “I'm not particularly chemical sensitive, but I have had people in the house who were that had no problems,” despite the extremely tight envelope, he told me. Ray did say that he sometimes has to adjust the air exchange rate manually when residents take a shower, or when cooking on the stove increases the humidity. He commented on the lack of odors, which was something I noticed when I walked into the kitchen on my visit.

The Details

Stiefel’s 1,450 ft2 conventional timber frame home is slab-on-grade construction, insulated R-19 with additional insulation to 50-plus total. Double walls of 2 x 4 construction have an 8-inch air space between the walls and enough cellulose insulation for an R-53 value. The three large south-facing windows in the main living room and all the other Intus-built windows are triple-pane argon gas filled, and energy-saving blinds help slow heat loss at night. Summertime ventilation and airflow is simplified by a tilt-and-turn design on the smaller windows in the upstairs bedrooms and elsewhere in the house.

Because the EcoVillage expansion was done as a single project, Ray told me that the construction manager was able to save money by buying materials in quantities that allowed for cost savings. Insulation, roofing, siding, and even the windows and lighting were purchased in bulk for the eight PHs. The clustered development also cut labor costs, and Ray did some of the interior finish work on his home himself for additional savings. Despite best efforts for affordability, Ray's house, the first to be completed in the development, came in at just over $250,000. But with careful planning and joint orders with quantity discounts on materials, he expects future similar PHs to cost less.

All the new TREE neighborhood homes are LEED Platinum certified, and about a third of the 40homes are PH designs. Most of the homes are already occupied, though construction is still under way on the cluster's common community building. All of the homes have steel roofs and steel and cement fiber siding, and high-efficiency lighting and appliances. The ERV system is 80% efficient, and all of the PHs have 4 kWh rooftop arrays of PV panels for power.

An 80-gallon hot-water tank stores heat from the rooftop liquid flat-plate solar- thermal collector. In the summer, water quickly reaches 160°F, and for five months of the year, Stiefel has all the hot water he needs while feeding electric power back into the grid. However, winter's short and often cloudy days in upstate New York are another story. The PVs do put out a little current even on cloudy days to help with water, air, and fluid circulation, and on a sunny, crisp winter day the system heats water to 160°F in a few hours. But not on cloudy days. Stiefel says, “I can coast for two or three days without any new hot water on the volume in the insulated tank.” After that, the electric heater element kicks on for hot water.

Each room in the house has electric heat, and a portable conventional resistance- type heater supplements the passive-solar design. There is no heat pump, and no geothermal or other heat source.

Mind-Set Matters

The discussion about hot water led Ray to muse upon the overall mind-set needed to live in his home. “It's interactive—you have to work with your house. There is some management required,” hot water and the ERV system being examples. This type of tweaking and interacting doesn't bother Ray in the least. He enjoys it and uses his monitoring system app, Site Sage on his smartphone, to check his energy usage and production on 12 circuits in the home even when he is out of town. “I love it,” he says. “If I inadvertently leave the stove on, I can see that, and I can call the neighbors next door and ask them to go turn it off.” Making more power than he uses is a bit of a personal challenge, and one his like-minded village neighbors are happy to assist with.

“With our excessive dependence on fossil fuel, we have moved away from thinking,” says Ray. Someday, he tells me, he believes people will factor energy efficiency into the home-buying process the way they now consider gas mileage when buying a vehicle.

I asked Ray what he liked about the house after living there for a year. “I love how the house warms up as the sun comes in the windows on a sunny winter day. When I'm out skiing and come back in, I know the house will be warm.” Even on the decidedly gray late-December morning of my visit, the living room was pleasantly airy and well lit.

No Home Is Perfect

Of course, no home is perfect. Ray remarks that of necessity, these newest EcoVillage homes are rather bland in an architectural sense. The constraints of minimal surface area and passive-solar collection resulted in units that were decidedly utilitarian but not terribly interesting architecturally. However, landscaping, trellis porch and deck additions, and time will soften the bland look of the village's newest cluster.

EcoVillage has two other clusters of energy-efficient homes. The first cluster, all duplexes, was finished around 1997. All the homes are similar and are of conventional wood frame construction with wood siding. The second cluster, also all duplexes, was built a few years later. These homes are more varied in construction; they include one straw bale building. Many of the houses are of a vaguely saltbox type, with the taller side facing south, and the homes in the first cluster share a 50 kWh bank of PVs.

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See photos and get information on the TREE development at Ecovillage.

When I asked him about the challenges of living in a PH, Ray said his biggest challenge was to reduce the amount of “stuff” he owned in order to fit it all into a 1,450 ft2 home. “The issue of voluntary simplicity and divestment of 'stuff'—well, be prepared for a real divestiture,” he said with a laugh. “We here in the U.S. live such acquisitive lifestyles that it’s a real disincentive to living in smaller, more energy-efficient housing.”

Still, moving hassles not withstanding, when I asked if he would do it all over again, he said, “Absolutely.”

Susan Gateley is a native upstate New Yorker, former teacher, and author.

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