Building It Green

The Westchester County Times,
December 2004 Edition
By Eve Marx

            Are you a green spirit?  Do you shop for groceries in your neighborhood health food store?  Do you eat organically grown produce, eat free range chicken, use cloth napkins, wear Birkenstocks? Do you smile in an indulgent, good natured way when your friends and family members coyly refer to you as being “crunchy granola”?  If so, you may be the ideal candidate to live in a “green” a.k.a. environmentally sensitive house.  If spending your life in a totally green house is your dream, we know just the guy to build it.

            “He’s just a visionary,” exclaimed Jean Sheff, a Westchester resident who once hired Sylvain Côté, to work on her house.  Côté is the owner of Absolute Remodeling, a Yorktown Heights firm specializing in home remodeling and renovations.  Throughout the seventeen years of their marriage, it was Côté’s wife Tisa’s fantasy to live in a round home, which is easier said than done.  Luckily Côté stumbled on a rare example of octagonal architecture, a 20- year-old home in the Lake Truesdale section of South Salem, a 2400-square-foot residence that, while innovative at the time, was now decidedly dated.  “The visionary” took one look at the space and immediately the ideas began rolling in. 

            After attending the National Green Building Conference in Austin, Texas last spring, Côté said he learned more about home building in three days than in the twenty years he’s been a builder of traditional homes.  “A green home,” he said, “is a blueprint for healthy, comfortable, and affordable living.  A green home cuts energy and water bills.  It uses solar power as an energy resource and has passive heating and cooling.” He also pointed out that by using environmentally protective sustainable materials and state of the art construction techniques, a green home is often less costly to build than many traditionally built ones.

           Calling his house, which the family plans to move into this spring, “The Transformations Project,” Côté decided to expand the living space by adding a third floor to the original footprint, bringing the square footage up to 3600 square feet, still a modest proposal by any measure of local standards.  In a region where a 5000-square-foot home is described as “small,” the Côté home will practically be a miniature.  It will also have a decidedly loft like feel as all the interior space will be treated as a common area with walls erected only for the bedrooms.  A new chimney rising 50 feet lifted the roof line and Côté is installing 200-year-old interior beams suspended by wires.  Trees cut down on the overgrown and somewhat neglected property are being recycled to create a new fence.  Even scrap metal salvaged from interior demolition is being used for a fresh purpose. For the $500,000 he is spending on the project, Côté could have just as easily trashed the house and started a new home from scratch, but he chose not to.

            “We were able to get the materials we needed locally,” said Côté, in a cell phone interview from the construction site.  He said he has never built a green house before and every step of the process has been an education.  “I think this is the first totally green house to be built in the area.  I know of no other one like it.  The house is for our family to live in, but naturally we hope that other people will become interested in what we are doing and want to do the same things.  Our goal is to create a quality home and to share what we learn in the process with other home owners, contractors and architects who have an interest in green building.”

            Hallmarks of a green home include land planning and design techniques that preserve the natural environment without disturbing the land.  The purpose is to reduce erosion, minimize paved surfaces and to protect greenery, especially trees.  Water conservation is also important, as is heating and cooling (HVAC) energy efficiency and environmentally friendly lighting and appliances.   To call a home “green,” recyclable, durable building materials must be used, and during the construction process as many things as possible should be recycled and reused.

             A presumed hurdle for getting future home owners to accept green homes is adjusting expectations and attitudes to embrace a smaller house. With the local proclivity for living large, a modestly proportioned 3600 square house with a half million dollar plus price tag might be too big a pill to swallow.

            But as green-building consultant Kathleen O’Brien, the woman who helped create Built Green, a landmark residential green building program in Washington state put it, “If you’re building a home and you want it to be green, you can do just one thing. Just build it small.”

            Absolute Remodeling can be reached at 914.962.0809.

- Eve Marx, Westchester County Times, December 2004 Edition.



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