Houses that Work for You
What might a Colonial dame think if she stepped into a 21st-century home? She would have been used to cold winter blasts making their way through a home so cold that ink froze in inkwells, windows that leaked drafts constantly, and a “kitchen” that featured an open hearth over which she cooked in heavy cast iron pots.
Meals would have been hours in the making, her life an endless round of growing, processing crops and cooking that tethered her to the hearth. Unless she was very wealthy, her home would have been dark, smoky and sparsely furnished, her life a perpetual battle against dirt and clutter.
Her amazement would have been profound in the light, bright homes of today with their tight shells, large windows and many technological advances.
The Colonial Dame’s home was far from sustainable. As early as the 1740s, people complained about the lack of firewood and the colonies began to import it from other areas. But still the pressure continued—some 30 cords of wood a year was required to keep an average home above freezing—and much of the land was denuded. Today, the focus is on sustainability according to architect Larry Wente.
Wente, who works in both New York City and the tri-state region, said, “Now there is a general consensus that wherever possible we should use sustainable materials, recycled, sustainably harvested wood, old steel and the same with concrete. Almost every part of a building can now be spec’ed as sustainable.”
He said the awareness of conserving and preserving is much more common and is a trend he expects to continue. He remembers pitching sustainability to Columbia University in the past and “They wanted nothing to do with it because of the cost. Now Columbia students almost demand it because other universities took the lead.”
“Now it is more expected and more the norm and in terms of pricing, it is commensurate with other materials. There is no longer a premium to pay for being eco-friendly, particularly for wall coverings, carpet and millwork,” he said.
But being aware of the kinds of materials used is only part of the issue, Wente said. “The other is labor and transportation. That has also taken off in terms of finding more regional labor pools and it is the same with manufacturing and transportation of the materials. Working regionally can go a long way towards getting a LEED certification.”
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is the most widely used green building rating system in the world. Wente said clients seeking LEED certification are usually younger. “There is no financial gain,” Wente said, “but it is a feel-good marketing tool in some parts of the population.” He said the Millennials are “blasé about many things, but not sustainability.”
Nevertheless, sustainability continues to be an evolving field. While many construction materials are sustainable, the materials that hold them together are often not. “When you build with a sustainable material and then install it with unsustainable materials, it defeats the purpose,” Wente said. “There are new techniques being developed—some are successful, some unsuccessful and some not yet proved. But it’s only getting better and becoming more popular.”
Wente said the ultimate in sustainability is preserving an older building and retrofitting it through upgraded insulation, green roofs, solar energy, passive heating and cooling, sunscreens and the like.
“The first step is adapting an older building because of the amount of energy saved by saving the building.” Most of the upgrade of that building will be through “fenestration and insulation,” but the process can be “wildly disruptive.”
“Older buildings generally have no insulation or it has collapsed over the years,” he said. “To install insulation requires removal of either exterior or interior surfaces. It is quite expensive and extremely disruptive, but the result is like a new building.”
He strongly recommends solar energy. “Even in Litchfield County and Dutchess County, we have a fair amount of sun and there are still incentive programs to make it affordable. The technology of solar panels has improved.”
The “fenestration” part of sustainability was explained by Michael Martin, a salesman of Andersen Windows at C.A. Lindell’s in Canaan. Andersen Windows, which has won seven Green Builder Readers' Choice Award for being Most Environmentally Friendly and which was the 2018 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star Partner of the Year for Sustained Excellence, has pledged to reduce its environmental impact by 20 percent by 2020.
And the corporation may have a big impact on energy consumption. CEO Jay R. Lund suggests as many as 1 billion windows across the United States don't perform up to Energy Star standards, making them eligible for retrofits.
The company has introduced both the 100 Series, made of a highly durable composite material called Fibrex, as well as Stormwatch windows, designed to meet the increasing frequency of extreme weather events. The impact-resistant design is able to withstand objects flying at up to 200 miles per hour.
“It’s about 50-50 now between new construction and replacements,” said Martin. He said it is now easy to fit a window to an existing home because the windows can be created in one-eighth-inch increments and come in a variety of materials including vinyl, fiberglass, aluminum and wood. There are 70 colors to choose from, but the buyer should be aware that the material should not be painted. Indeed, painting the windows or doors voids the warranty.
“You can bring in a lipstick color and we can match it,” he said. “The selection is very individual and depends on what the customer wants.”
Perhaps reflecting the move toward more modern designs in homes, he said the current leader is a departure from traditional windows—a black-framed window with horizontal bars.
Beyond customer preferences, Martin said each state has its own energy standards. “We have to meet the state standards and sometimes those of individual towns,” he reported.
So, what if our Colonial Dame wandered into a nice, warm home with its big windows pouring light into the interior and then encountered the modern kitchen? The improvements in kitchen appliances would leave even a 21st-century denizen with her mouth agape in wonder.
“There are hundreds of thousands of options available,” said Zoe Harson, salesperson for Decker & Beebe in Canaan. She said the simple stove has become a technological wonder. While the Colonial goodwife had to spit the wood, lay the fire and keep it burning until she had a good bed of coal a busy 21st-century mother can grab a frozen pizza at the supermarket, take a picture of its bar code with her Smartphone, and set her oven to heat up while she is on her way home.
Another stove can be coded with favorite recipes and will set itself for time and temperature with the touch of a button. Using a microwave? One is available that will allow you to facetime with your family.
A refrigerator can take a picture of its contents so the shopper can check what is needed from the store, or, in another version, a shopping list can be created on the refrigerator door and can be accessed from the store.
“Wi-fi has become very popular with appliances in the last 10 years,” said Harson. “It is all designed to make life more convenient.”
Once the food is home, one refrigerator has a guide that tells you where individual products will stay freshest and some refrigerators also come with air purification systems and interior plastic doors that keep the cold in while you look for the item you need.
Got your hands full of dirty dishes? You can simply tap the door of one dishwasher and it will open.
Harson said that stainless steel finishes are very popular for kitchens now, but that many upper-end kitchens are now equipped with cabinetry that hides the appliances.