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Consumers struggling with oil or other energy bills might look wistfully upon an Esopus dwelling, the first in the state to become certified with a net zero energy rating.

The rating, from the state’s Energy Star Labeled Homes program, does not mean no energy is used. It is. And bills for such homes are expected during the year, but so are refunds, ultimately resulting in the equivalent of no fees. That is quite an accomplishment, especially in a home that exudes luxury and comes with a price-tag of $1,055,000.

Esopus builder Anthony Aebi (pronounced “Abbey”) refers to the three-story, 4,000 square-foot edifice that he completed more than a year ago as a mansion. Amenities include bathrooms with Jacuzzis, granite kitchen counters and maple cabinets with brushed-nickel door pulls. Timber from the 15-acre property enhances the home, including red-cedar trim in bathrooms, wide pine flooring in bedrooms and maple shelves in closets.

Along with the luxury, however, are major elements that speak of responsible living upon the earth, like insulated concrete forms for walls and framing, solar cells on the roof, geothermal wells and a ground-source heat-pump system that provides heating and cooling, and a heat-recovery ventilation system that replaces stale air with fresh, clean air.

Except for the roof-mounted solar panels, most of the gear that operates those systems is unseen, in quarters on the main floor just off the family room.

“I used to call it the boiler room,” Aebi said, with a grin, “until I realized I had no boiler.”

Within the space is a pressure tank for the well, a pre-heat tank for the geothermal system, water heater and, among other elements, the ventilation system.

“That conserves 80 percent of the energy for heating or cooling,” Aebi said. “This house is so tight that a group of people here could use up all the oxygen (without the air-exchange system).”

In addition to recognition as a net zero energy home, the structure also garnered a gold designation in the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program by the U.S. Green Building Council. In addition, it was a finalist in the Nov. 2008 issue of New York House Magazine.

Aebi, of Greenhill Contracting, used plans from Ashokan Architecture and Planning of Kingston, to build the house.

It has been on the market about a year, but so far no nibbles, only interest and excitement, according to real-estate broker Donna Russell, owner of Country Visions Realty in New Paltz. She said some visitors to the home told her the Energy Star appliances, including a stainless-steel, double-door refrigerator, were not high-end enough. Some expected more traditional rooms, she said, rather than the home’s connected kitchen-dining area and the adjoining living room with only a partial wall. Such plans are not traditional, Russell said, but they allow for better air flow and therefore more-efficient heating and cooling.

No complaints were made about the home’s positioning, which, nevertheless is not optimal for viewing. It is, instead, ideal for energy-retrieval from the sun, in its true-south placement.
“You can’t, always, in a zero-energy house, have a full front-door presentation,” Aebi said.

There are some financially appealing elements that come with such an energy-saving home, however. Aebi said potential buyers for the home can expect tax credits of about $5,000 from the state and between $12,000 and $13,000 from the federal government.

But there also are roadblocks. Appraisers tend to view such homes no differently than what Aebi calls “stick-built,” conventional counterparts.

“No credit is given for solar panels and none for triple-pane windows,” Aebi said, and next to “construction method,” appraisers are likely to check “good” as they would for the method used in a traditional homes, he said. They are likely to give higher marks, however, for “energy-efficiency.”

Aebi expects, therefore, his top-rated home would be appraised, not for the asking price of more than $1 million, but more likely $850,000. In turn, he said, that can make securing a loan difficult, especially in today’s tumultuous economic climate. In New Paltz, where Aebi has begun building more modestly priced homes, at $500,000, one client, he said, went though a series of “trials and tribulations” before a successful loan approval.

For people who are not in the market for a new home, Aebi said, it is still possible to receive some energy benefits beyond switching to better insulation, energy-saving lights, Energy Star-rated appliances and the like. Home-owners fortunate enough to have a south-facing roof, for instance, might consider the installation of solar panels, Aebi said, especially as prices continue to fall. He said 2-percent loans also are available through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, although taking that route, he said, means giving up energy-related tax credits.
Even people whose homes do not face true south could save by switching to solar hot-water units, he said, which are inexpensive to install.

Conscientious use of utilities can make a big difference, too. Even a zero energy rating will not compensate for constant overindulgence, Aebi said. Russell said she touts the motto: “Live comfortably. Act responsibly.”

As for the future of net zero energy homes, more incentives must be legislated and fair appraisals implemented before they can take off, Aebi said. He hopes incoming president Barack Obama will back such initiatives. Because resources like oil are limited, it is vital to do so, he said.

“It’s so doable. It’s nothing difficult” and technology has greatly improved through the years, Aebi said. “It’s gotta be done. Otherwise humanity’s toast.”

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