Saturday, January 28, 2012

Small Footprint Building Project In Upstate, New York Exemplifies Green Affordability

By Paul E. McGinniss

Picture above depicts the site for the Building Project in Barryville, NY. The site overlooks the Delaware River - a River that is at the center of a controversy over the detrimental impacts of Fracking For Natural Gas in the region. This pristine region is a source of drinking water for major urban populations living in New York and Philadelphia.

Hi Everyone. So, in the past year I have written about everything from continued devastation caused by the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf and the astonishing film about it, "The Big Fix", to reporting on the brighter side, Green Roofs in Toronto. This post is about something closer to home. Literally. It's about a super efficient eco-loft barn we are helping clients build on the Delaware River in Barryville, N.Y.

This project came to us via the awesome NYC-based Architect, Drew Lang, who introduced us to the amazing clients who wanted advice on how to find a builder and project manager/green building consultant for a small getaway space that could be used as a creative escape from their hectic lives in NYC.

One of the client/owners Jorge, George Abetti and myself overlooking the house site.

This building project involves George Abetti of Geobarns - the gentle genius who I fondly refer to as the Minister of Building. What's cool about George and working with him to build a structure for a client is that he approaches the whole experience with a holistic eye. The process becomes a spiritual group effort that fully involves the client, project managers like us and all the various trades required to complete a structure. As part of a team, everyone learns and grows from their participation. George said in one of his many email missives about his passionate work:

"Even though we have a wonderful design and building system, what we do is only as good as the character and work quality of those who do it. What we are is who we are...and we are truly blessed with extraordinary people who devote their hearts to the work we do...something which no amount of pay or praise can compel in that this can only come from an act of grace."

George discussing with Jorge the best place to situate the structure considering the slope of the land, access point and views of the river.

George sitting down to sketch out his concept for the structure on site after discussing site issues and desires of the client.

One of the best things about the way George works, besides his "be a good steward" advocacy, which by the way, echoes the philosophical - advocacy aspects of the wonderful Living Building Challenge - is Geobarn's innovative diagonal framing technique that George invented. This framing technique uses less wood than conventional wood framing while being stronger engineering wise. It's timber frame style so there is no need for any interior walls or support structure leaving how you design the interior space incredibly open, adaptable and flexible for future needs or space planning. The lumber used is also sourced regionally (Vermont) and comes from sustainably managed forests.

The structure is 600 square feet per level and is built into a small hill. The front entry is on the second level (see picture on left to see view of house from front).

The house in the back has a balcony which will overlook the Delaware River. (Picture on right shows the back of the structure.)

Another green aspect to this project is the installation of an advanced treatment septic system by Eljen. The system uses much less ground space than conventional septic systems and is ideal for sites where there is a limited amount of space for septic fields. The plastic parts to the system are made with recycled materials. The septic effluent, upon leaving the septic tank, is filtered through a special Bio-Matt™ geotextile (fabric). According to Eljen: "Open air channels within the GSF Module support aerobic bacterial growth on the Module's geotextile fabric interface, surpassing the surface area required for traditional absorption systems." After passing through the Bio-Matt, the effluent moves through a layer of sand. So, when the effluent hits the ground soil, it is already pre-filtered."

Tom, the Engineer, measuring the site and determining location for the septic system and well for the site plan.

Here are some highlights of other things we are doing to make this eco retreat as sustainable as possible:

*Blown Cellulose done by BPI Certified Contractor
To minimize heating and cooling load, the structure will be well sealed. Collaboratively, it was decided to use blown cellulose insulation as opposed to spray foam because the cellulose material is from recycled paper and it does not contain any petrochemicals. (Spray foam insulation contains petroleum based polyols. Even most "biobased" foam insulation products such as those from soy are made only partially with biobased oils. They, too, are made mostly from petroleum based polyols.)

*Efficient Ductless Mini Split Heat Pumps for HVAC
Trying to reduce or possibly eliminate the use of propane/natural gas or oil heat, the clients are considering the use of mini split heat pumps which offer heating and cooling. (The electricity required to run the mini splits could eventually be offset by solar PV.) This option was identified after a team conversation about how many anti-fracking advocates still use propane to heat their homes despite their concern over how the gas and oil industry adversely affects the environment. (Propane gas is one component of natural gas and is also derived from the oil distillation process.)

While this structure is not built under any particular green building program, it is interesting to note that the Passive House BKLYN uses mini split HVAC. This is a real indication that it is a good option if you want to head toward Zero Energy Design for a living structure.

*Super Efficient LED lighting scheme to reduce energy consumption
The electric scheme for the house is being analyzed to strategize how to reduce power consumption by immediately installing super efficient lighting including LEDs and solar powered lighting requiring no power draw at all.

Photo of the foundation work being done before the walls are poured.

Photo of foundation from back side of house after the walls were poured.

We'll post more info when the framing and construction of this project starts up again in Spring.

If anyone wants to build an eco retreat upstate, please contact us here at The New York Green Advocate. ( )

We have a great design-build team ready to help you build your green dream or renovate and retrofit existing structures to be more energy efficient, healthy and resilient. Importantly, we can assist you in sorting out the many renewable energy options that can help you head towards a Zero Net Energy life. Should you need assistance in identifying and analyzing land on which to build, my New York State Licensed Real Estate Brokerage, Paul E McGinniss, can provide this service.

Copyright Paul E McGinniss 2012

Monday, January 9, 2012

Transition Movement Takes Off In Upstate New York: My Hometown Starts Transition Town Initiative

Marbletown, Ulster County, New York area becomes the 108th official Transition Initiative in the USA!

Instead of waiting for answers to the challenges facing our region and world at large, a group of committed Ulster County, New York residents, inspired by the worldwide Transition Town movement and its founder Rob Hopkins, is asking questions and forming a community initiative to come up with ways to make Ulster County more resilient and sustainable.

Transition Marbletown joins an ever increasing network taking root in diverse communities, countries and cultures around the world - all joined together with common goals. For the passionate people that started Transition Marbletown, the initiative is sure to be a personal journey, but also a journey for the community as a whole. Rob's ideas of Transition and personal resilience are intertwined with society. He writes: “The concept of resilience works on a range of levels, not just that of community resilience. Personal resilience is vital to sustaining both our own and our initiative’s momentum.”

Rob Hopkins, founder of the world wide Transition Town movement. Rob is a man at the center of world dialog about how to create a life resilient to changes and organizing each household member and each dwelling to fit into a daisy chain of positive energy that makes up a sustainable, self sufficient community.

Below are excerpts from an hour long Skype interview I did last year with Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement. Rob said during my interview with him: “Transition is an invitation to be part of an experiment on a historic scale with people all around the world who are trying to figure out what to do at this really crucial point in history to make places we live in more resilient and less vulnerable.”

Rob Hopkins in the UK with his Green Community Heroes Award from


Paul: There was a good piece called "The End Is Near!(Yay!)" about Transition in the New York Times where they followed a Utah town that was doing a Transition and it was a really well done piece I think.

Rob: Yes.

Paul: The article described how the town really reacted to the Transition initiative and it seemed that it really did come together in a really interesting way.

Rob: Yes, absolutely.

Paul: When I read that article, the writer in the New York Times said: “Transition dismisses Al Gore Types as Techno optimists.” Do you? What does he mean by that and is that true? There's a lot of stuff I've seen about the Transition and a lot of the Transition ideas. Some people seem to think that it's a little bit anti technology.

Rob: Yeah.

Paul: But, I don't personally think that's the case. You even address this in the Transition Handbook, saying it's not anti technology.

Rob: It's not anti technology, but technology is also not a silver bullet, you know. So, actually, there are technologies that we have, the technologies that we already have, and, so, if we decide we are not going to do anything and wait around till somebody invents a car that runs on toothpaste or something, then, actually, we are going to be waiting a very very long time. And so, also, I think what it's really about, is no matter how impressive our phones are or how fast our broadband is that actually at the end of the day the things that matter the most are our core needs which are met in terms of food, energy, building materials, that kind of stuff. And, actually, at the moment those things are carted half way around the world from wherever they can be found cheapest. And, so, we would argue that, yeah, of course, there is a role for technology and, actually, what we see with Transition is, in effect, an international movement of communities that are re-localizing, but are using the web and all of the resources that are available to share what they are doing.

So, it's a sort of global movement of communities localizing, but sharing it globally. It's quite an interesting juxtaposition of things made possible by technology. But, we don't have a kind of blind faith in technology. I think a lot of things that are put forward at this point are trying to convince everybody that business as usual will be possible. That it's just the case that we are still able to have economic growth, globalization, food being brought and materials being flown around the world, wherever we can find them cheapest, and we are somehow going to run the whole thing on soda power instead. So, what we argue is that actually it's the full implication of peak oil, of energy descent, actually taking climate change seriously and that we are going to need to rethink the basic things we do, the scale on which we do things which will still embrace technology, but will be technology focused on addressing the right questions.

Transition Brazil


Paul: I like that piece you wrote, “How Survivalists Got it All Wrong.” Can you comment on that article?

Rob: Well, I guess it's really, particularly in that U.S. context, there is often that perception that fleeing to the hills and living in a bunker with four years of baked beans is an option. And, actually, I think that I've never written anything on the Transition web site that has generated so many comments than that piece. I had all kinds of people emailing,entirely from the States I think, that were slagging off and saying you don't understand, you're naive. They said—and, of course, when everything breaks down and you come knocking on my bunker door, I won’t be letting you in! There was a link to one survivalist web site that said: “What's better, a gun or a club? A gun, because you can use a gun as a club, but not a club as a gun!” And, I thought – my god! So, for me, I suppose the point of that piece was to make the distinction that Transition is about – it's a compassionate response. It's not a selfish response. It's not a response that goes – Uhmm. Everything is me, mine, bring it all and protect it. Hide away and shut off from everybody else. If it's just about everything breaking down and people living in bunkers with years of baked beans, I don't really want to be around to see that.

Paul: Do you think that is more of a North American response?

Rob: Absolutely.

Paul: In other places of the world, people aren't so bunker mentality?

Rob: I have not really encountered it from anywhere else I think. I think it's very much a kind of particular thinking within that kind of peak oil kind of community. You know, people like Matt Savinar who has a web site which forwards people info about peak oil. And, the idea of peak oil for them means, inevitably, the irrevocable crash and collapse of absolutely everything. It's really a North American idea. And, the reason why I wrote that piece, “How Survivalist Got it All Wrong”, is because it struck me as being something really quite dangerous actually. And, quite alarming. Well, people do what people want to do, but it struck me that within that kind of peak oil thinking, the peak oil mindset, there also needs to be something which we are saying that is different. Well, actually, there is another way to do this which is about rebuilding community, assuming there is good in the people around you...assuming that actually they have skills and insights and connections that you can all benefit from sharing. And, so there, that was the reason for writing that article really.

Paul: Well, have you talked with the American chapters of Transition U.S.? Are the American chapters getting flack from “survivalists” or are people really embracing Transition here? I have to talk with the head of Transition U.S., Carolyn Stayton, a little more. But, do you get the feeling that people in the U.S. are being a bit less Armageddon or paranoid about things and getting more into the sharing concept?

Rob: I think the people involved with Transition; I think there's some extraordinary things happening in the U.S. There are some very active initiatives and some really great projects starting to emerge and, yeah, I think it's really fascinating to see actually. I mean one of the great things about Transition is it's very much about a viral thing where people take and make it their own wherever they are and it blends into and arises from the culture and it arises from the place. It's really exciting to see that happening and to see that happening in the U.S. Which is, of course, a quarter of all the resources are consumed in the U.S. So, if Transition is really going to have an impact, the U.S. is really where it really needs to take hold.

Transition Town, Cambridge, Participants in a course called Grow Your Own. Photo by Dave Fox


I read an interesting thing you wrote about a trip to the Hunza Valley in Pakistan in 1990. That trip seemed to have really affected you in some major way. What did you see there that made you start to think about permaculture? What were they doing? It sounds like a fascinating trip.

It's just one of the most beautiful places you have ever seen really. And, they had a kind of agricultural system. There are lots of books you can read that go back to the first people that went there in the 20s and 30s and describe that kind of closed loop agricultural system where they – the whole thing is irrigated off a glacier -- where they have a very exact way of moving the water around through channels where they have slate in one place and blocking the water off so it goes somewhere else. And, the mixture of fruits and nuts and vegetables and grains. It's renowned for everybody living till they are a hundred and leaping around like mountain goats. It was somewhere I was very touched by. There was a sort of quality to it which I thought was quite amazing. And, I didn't know anything about permaculture at the time. And, I was traveling with an Australian permaculturist who kept talking about permaculture and I didn't know what he was talking about. And then, when we got to Hunza, he said, this is permaculture! So, it really stuck with me. I think if I had learned how to say 'Will You Marry Me' in Hunzanize, I would have stayed there!

Is it completely self sustaining? Were they so cut off they had to completely self sustain, they just sort of lived without trading a lot? Is that what it was like there?

Rob: Yeah. But, they were just on that really interesting cusp and opening up to trade. So, they were just, you were just starting to see empty bags of nitrogen fertilizer in the corner of the fields where they had this system (before) where everything was composted and everything was recycled -- human waste was recycled and composted and they had the most incredible fertile soil. Then development was coming along and saying – what you need is nitrogen fertilizer! And, they were going on okay. And, it was just in that really fragile cusp. And, no one was saying, but this is fantastic, it works! We should go for development around this without chucking out what was so special and completely irreplaceable.

Recent Meeting of Transition London


Click Here for Further Info About Transition Marbletown

Designer and architect, Eliel Saarinen, echoes the thinking of Transition: He said: “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context -- a chair in the room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city.”

Copyright Paul E. McGinniss 2011