Esopus — Anthony Aebi built his $1.6 million green home for the status-conscious American. The three-story, 4,500-square-foot luxury house has hardwood oak floors, a jacuzzi in each of the three full bathrooms and a deck that overlooks 13 acres of woods.
Except for the solar array on the roof, and the sculptures made from logs and rocks on the site, few could distinguish the house from any other McMansion dotting our hills and valleys. Few would know it is considered one of the greenest in the Hudson.
And that, Aebi said, was the point.
“The idea was “let’s put a house together big, show it can be done, and if it can be done easily enough, show people who have money, ‘OK, build your mansion, but you can make it zero-energy,'” he said.
Aebi belongs to a growing cadre of builders who consider themselves part of an emerging green building movement. That means building homes that will free home owners of energy bills.
But as the movement recognizes some early successes — Aebi’s house is purported to have one of the best Energy Star ratings in the state — it still finds itself faced with a familiar “bigger-is-better” American way of thinking. This trend has some experts wondering if the green building movement, aimed at reducing waste and pollution, can realize its goals while catering to a consumer lifestyle that still wants things supersized.
“It’s almost like putting labels like ‘high fiber’ on a box of cereal and inside it’s all junk,” said Gail Buckland, a Warwick writer and sustainable-living activist.
Builders argue that they have no choice but to give consumers what they want.
Aebi plans to use the lessons learned in building his 4,500-square-foot home, as well an adjoining green 5,500-square-foot home in Esopus, to build a subdivision of smaller houses in New Paltz in the range of 2,400 square feet, he said.
It wasn’t long before plans for the smaller homes clashed with market realities.
“The Realtor is saying that for marketing, we need to have a big bedroom that’s got to have a romantic feel to it,” he said. “The other investors are saying what do you need a big bedroom for, especially if we’re trying to get below the average house size?”
Orange County developer Susan Shapiro said she struggled with the same pressures in her plans to build eight green homes in Central Valley. Initially planning to build large, she has chosen instead to gamble by building 1,500- to 2,500- square-foot homes.
“The market in the past has really tweaked people’s expectations, and that’s a problem,” said Shapiro. “But I think people are starting to look and say, ‘Do I really need this? And how are we going to maintain this in 30 or 40 years?'”
For many, the debate over luxury “green” homes is a complicated issue. Land-use policies that don’t encourage smaller lot sizes make it harder to develop smaller green homes, said Rachel Neuhaus, director of government affairs for the Hudson Valley Builders Association.
Tracie Hall, director of the United States Green Building Council upstate New York chapter, has faith that the green building movement will lead to a greater appreciation for a simpler, scaled-back lifestyle.
“Live simply so that others may simply live. I think that will become more than just a sentiment. It will become the philosophy of the movement,” she said.