NOT EASY BEING GREEN
A family builds
a super-efficient Energy Star home in Scarsdale but has to
fight the town for the right to install solar panels.
O'HAGAN, PHOTOS BY ROY GUMPEL
the advances in ecofriendly design, green building still carries
certain "crunchy" connotations and suggests a self-and
One house, however,
belies everything you ever thought about green building. Heather
and Joe Sarachek's new prestige home showcases how eco-minded building
can be not only what's best for the environment, but also impressively
sleek, sophisticated, and state-of-the-art.
of Contention —
The Saracheks were required to plant a wall of bushes
and trees to conceal photovoltaic panels from their neighbors.
This green glamour
project did not, however, come without a price—and more than
a little controversy. In addition to the added cost of going "stealth
green," as the Saracheks' building contractor, Rob Knorr of
Nordic Construction, describes it, there was also the matter of
a dispute with the Saracheks' town, the wealthy suburb of Scarsdale,
and immediate neighbors regarding one of the home's most important
sustainable energy feature: solar panels.
large kitchen, with enough room for the Saracheks and their
five children, features cherry cabinets and quarzite counters
and has windows and a French door that look onto the terrace.
By the time
the dust had settled, the Saracheks had anted up over $20,000 in
costs and delays to win the fight to garner clean electricity from
solar panels on their home. According to the couple, the outcome
was more than worth all the hassle. "We need to care about
the world we will leave for future generations," says Joe.
Higher Standards After a move to Scarsdale from Manhattan, and first
living in Manhattan, and first living in another home in the Quaker
Ridge section of Scarsdale, the Saracheks bought a new home in the
same neighborhood. What sold them was a large, flat yard with plenty
of room for their large family: four boys and a girl ranging in
age from 15 months to 13 years. The house itself, however, was not
a charmer: a large ranch, typical of the neighborhood.
The couple first
thought to expand it, but the house was found to have extensive
water damage. "We have five kids, and just wanted to be comfortable,"
explains Heather about their decision to tear down and build a new
home. "We kept telling our architect, 'We just want to be able
to open the windows'—something we had trouble doing in our
the sleek downstairs powder room are stone floors of varying
the New York City– and Los Angeles–based architectural
firm Felhandler/Steeneken (www.fswarchitects.com)
and Nordic Construction of Pound Ridge (914-242-0207), the Saracheks
decided to build to the environmental standards the couple had come
to embrace. "We have always been a very health-minded family,"
explains Heather. "We eat right...never use pesticides...so
when it was time for us to build a new home, we knew we wanted it
to be as energy efficient and ecologically conscious as possible."
That meant building to Energy Star standards, which ensures that
the house is at least 30 percent more efficient than code. (The
house has yet to receive its official rating.) While the new home
kept the footprint of the original home, the similarities end there.
The new structure, which took about two years to complete, is a
stately 6,600-square-foot English Arts and Crafts–style home
with a modern interior and six bedrooms. Though the family moved
into the house in April of this year, finishing touches are still
being made. "It never seems to end," says Heather, laughing.
in the Details —
finished basement, with a laundry room and plenty of play
and storage space, is ground zero for the home's state-of-the-art,
super-efficient heating and cooling system, featuring a geothermal
system that utilizes heat from wells drilled 300 feet below
ground. A compact, densely wired utility room houses the controls
and meters for these and all the advanced systems of the house,
including computer, data, phone, alarm, and lighting, as well
as the invertors (shown above) for the 9.2-kilowatt photovoltaic
system, which supplies 60 percent of the home's annual electrical
also lent their expertise to interior design. Sue Steeneken describes
the aesthetic as "strippeddown contemporary with an Arts and
Crafts– style feel." Features that define the home include
floors of stone and dark oak; cherry wood trim; tile, often in geometric
patterns; and a color palette (from zero-VOC paint, of course) of
neutral, airy tones. Anything ornate or showy—in fact, any
flourishes at all—are noticeably absent. "We like the
look of clean lines," says Heather. The first floor features
a large kitchen with countertops of white quartzite veined in green;
living, dining, and family rooms; his and her home offices; an exercise
room; and a master suite. Upstairs is the children's domain: five
bedroom suites (one for guests), three with a bathroom, two that
share a bath. (The youngest three Sarachek boys, who have always
shared rooms, are still bunking together.) No ducky décor
baths or hot-pink rooms to be found here; the kids enjoy the same
well appointed rooms and clean lines found in the rest of the house.
One bathroom features blue marble countertops and a tile floor outlined
in a subtle inlaid rope pattern.
one of the best aspects of the Saracheks' new Energy Star home is
that its green features are not visible. "Architecturally,
it made no concessions to the technology we used," explains
Knorr. Steeneken agrees: "The house is very tight and efficient.
It doesn't use much energy, and will feel comfortable year round."
project, and the Saracheks' ideas, challenged Knorr to think green
as never before, despite his experience as a certified Energy Star
builder. "This home took my 'energy consciousness' to a new
level," he says. "The New York State Energy Research and
Development Authority," from which the Saracheks received a
$50,000 rebate for their use of sustainable energy products, "was
a big asset to me, as well as my industry publications and the Internet."
Additional green features in the Sarachek home that accomplish maximum
energy efficiency without sacrificing the luxury factor are the
radiant floor heating throughout, Icynene insulation (an expanding
acrylic foam that reduces heating and AC requirements by at least
25 percent), Energy Star windows—even compact fluorescent
bulbs in all outlets. Knorr estimates the cost of implementing all
these systems added about five percent to the overall house budget.
The Saracheks estimate that "building green" added about
$50,000 to their construction budget.
Comes the Sun?
Though the Saracheks,
who both work in finance, had a very favorable homebuilding experience,
they did hit an unexpected roadblock when it came time to install
their solar panels. They planned for the panels—designed to
be placed on the rear section of the roof, not visible from the
street—because of the home's direct, unobstructed sun exposure.
"We were a little bit of pioneers with this," says Heather.
"It was a new concept to Scarsdale." The village of Scarsdale's
Board of Architectural Review (BAR) is known for its stringent review
of any and all constructionrelated projects within the village—everything
from a new garden retaining wall to a completely new construction
must be presented to and approved by the appointed volunteer members
of the BAR. When it came time for the BAR to review the solar panels,
a petition in opposition was submitted. Signed by 15 neighbors,
it stated that the panels "would clearly be an eyesore in our
submitted. Signed by 15 neighbors, it stated that the panels "would
clearly be an eyesore in our lovely Quaker Ridge neighborhood"
and asked the BAR to prohibit them. The BAR agreed and, citing concerns
of aesthetics, glare, and visibility, turned down the Saracheks'
The couple did
not take well to the decision. They had presentation boards made
for a scheduled appeal, enlisted the support of the media and environmentalists,
and started their own petition (gathering 150 signatures in favor).
After the second presentation, the BAR reversed its decision, by
a 4-to-3 margin, and allowed the solar panels, the first of their
kind in the village of Scarsdale. The decision came with certain
stipulations, including the mandated planting of several 20-foot-tall
trees at the back perimeter of the property to shield the neighbors'
view of the 30 full-size (28 by 40 inches) matte black panels and
12 half-size panels.
Unlike more conspicuously green homes, the large Arts and
Crafts-style house does not advertise its energy-efficient
systems and construction, a fact that lead the Saracheks'
builder to describe it as "stealth green".
manager, Alfred A. Gatta, says that the village had not "specifically
amended our code to require sustainable design features in construction,
but the Village Board, by resolution, expressed its intent that
in the design of residential structures the Scarsdale Board of Architectural
Review be sensitive to designs that incorporate sustainable energy
and environmental features. It is believed, with the cost of energy
and the depleting sources of oil, that it is not only prudent but
also in the public interest for residents to consider green designs,"
Gatta says. "Clearly our Board of Architectural Review has
found a way to incorporate these features into a design that fits
comfortably into a neighborhood." After the decision, Joe Sarachek
says he commended the BAR for doing "the right thing for our
home, our community, and our environment."