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A family builds a super-efficient Energy Star home in Scarsdale but has to
fight the town for the right to install solar panels.


Despite all the advances in ecofriendly design, green building still carries certain "crunchy" connotations and suggests a self-and style-sacrificing lifestyle.

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.

Bone 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.

The 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.

Building To 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 previous homes!"

In the sleek downstairs powder room are stone floors of varying natural colors.

Working with 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.

Green in the Details

A 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 needs.

The architects 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.

Knorr says 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."

The building 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.

Here 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' request.

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.

Hidden Benefits —

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".

Scarsdale village 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."