The story started in Maplewood, New Jersey, where Rob Saffer and Barry Price grew up. “We used to draw houses together,” says Saffer. Price went on to become an architect and landed in Woodstock. Saffer became a marketing executive, lived in Brooklyn, then moved to Woodstock ten years ago.
When Saffer decided to build a house, he realized, after consulting with Price, that building a conventional house was out of his financial range. He ended up using a building kit and researching materials and technologies — from no-mow grass to a computerized ventilation system — that proved not only affordable but also so sustainable, non-toxic, and energy-efficient that his home qualified for a $5,000 rebate by meeting LEED specifications.
LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a third-party verification system that establishes standards and incentives for green building. Ascending levels of greenness characterize the Silver, Gold, and Platinum categories. Saffer’s house is a Gold and is, according to Price, the first LEED-certified home in the area.
Saffer saved a lot of money by taking the role of general contractor. “I’m a do-it-yourself kind of guy,” he admits. On the other hand, “I never hammered anything in my life.”
He bought a house kit from FirstDay Cottage, a New Hampshire company run by David Howard. “Dave is an old Yankee Tea-Party kind of guy,” says Saffer, who ignored politics to work with Howard and his wife. The couple has furnished the plans, wood, nails, sheathing, foam insulation, metal roofing, and construction advice for several hundred homes, including a dozen or so in the Woodstock area.
“You get a handwritten instruction book,” Saffer says, “and hand-drawn plans. They don’t send emails — they send letters.” (FirstDay does, however, have a website.) The drawings include the occasional Pogo-like creature with a sign announcing important precautionary details.
In order to apply for LEED certification, since he was officially the builder of the home, Saffer had to take a three-day green building course, which cost about $300. The instructor’s often-repeated motto was “Build tight, vent right.”
The house is encased in an airtight envelope that enhances energy efficiency but presents a problem. There are no leaks to admit fresh air in the winter, so humidity tends to build up inside. “It’s like living in a plastic bag, if it’s not ventilated properly,” says Saffer.
The solution is a ventilation system, with fans that run on a timer, turning on for five minutes every half-hour to draw fresh air through vents in the exterior walls. When the fans are off, dampers in the vents close to keep heat in the house. A digital display enables Saffer to monitor humidity in the house and adjust the timing of the fans.
The air in the house is fresh, not only because of the ventilation system, but also because Saffer made a concerted effort to keep toxic substances out of the construction process. The house kit features wood for both the indoor and outdoor walls. The only sheetrock, applied just for variety, is in the living room entrance, and it’s coated with a natural plaster.
The day before the foundation was scheduled to be poured, Saffer heard about the toxicity of the “release agents” used to coat the wood framing the concrete. After the cement dries, the oily coating enables the wood to be removed. That night, he researched a greener alternative, and in the morning, he drove to a supplier in Pawling to pick up a huge drum of the less toxic substance.
“Everybody I worked with was skeptical when I asked them to do things in new ways,” reports Saffer. “But the guy who poured the foundation said the new non-toxic stuff worked great, and he would use it from now on. Now everybody’s a believer.”
Other innovative products he discovered include a wood finish made from whey protein, a byproduct of cheese-making in Vermont. A natural oil called Monocoat was applied to the living room floor, which was made of heart pine beams reclaimed from an old factory that was torn down.
Many of the materials used in the house are either recycled or slightly marred. “Whenever I called a supplier, I asked, ‘Do you have seconds?’” Saffer recalled. “I was looking for a kitchen sink, and I called a place in Kerhonkson. The woman said, ‘We don’t make mistakes.’ A half hour later, she called back and said there was a sink in the yard that had been there for years, with weeds growing in the middle.”
The unusual sink is made of black soapstone and cost $500, “about the same as a Home Depot sink,” notes Saffer.
Floor tiles for the foyer were hand-picked from a slate quarry in Vermont, where slightly blemished tiles were reduced from $7 each to $2 for red, $1 for green. Some of the tiles made it onto shower walls in a bathroom.
Saffer found a bathtub on Craigslist, and the seller threw in a shower base for free. Instead of using a standard metallized plastic curtain rod, which didn’t come in the length of the bathtub, he bought a length of copper pipe and two fittings to mount it, for about $12. The bathroom floors are made from cork, which is sustainable, resistant to mold and rot, and warmer on the feet than tile. He estimates that each bathroom, normally built for about $10,000, cost him closer to $3000.
As the house was being built, Saffer consulted regularly with Price, who let him know when a client was tearing down a house. He was able to recycle such items as a toilet and closet doors.
One dilemma was where to put the woodstove that would be the house’s main source of heat. The logical spot was center of the house, but he ended up placing the stove along an end wall, adjacent to the porch where firewood is stored. This location also makes it easy to draw outside air in through a vent in the wall. Ducts convey heated air from the stove down through the basement, where fans send it through more ducts and up to the various rooms.
Not every innovative technology made it past Saffer’s critical eye. An air-to-air heat exchanger, touted as an energy-saving device, would have cost $3000 and saved only $20 a year.
While new homes in the area typically cost $250 to $300 per square foot, Saffer estimates he built his home for half that amount. “And that includes all the extras — solar electric, solar hot water, a generator and whatever little upgrades we had to do for LEED.”