Easy, Breezy Greenies: An Energy Star Home in New York

Going green is sumptuous and simple in this suburban New York home that emits almost no carbon.

| January/February 2009

  • The Nagins’ home is a juxtaposition of open spaces and intimate, detailed pockets.
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • Though it's only four years old, many people think Paul and Rabia's home is a restoration.
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • The Arts and Crafts-style exterior features stucco and local cedar. The Nagins chose exterior colors to match the home’s natural surroundings. “We literally picked up a handful of dirt and gave it to the stucco company to match the color,” Paul says. The green and dark brown mirror the area’s trees.
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • A locally commissioned glass star fits with a sun, moon and star motif found throughout the house.
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • Architectural details enhance the home's traditional feel.
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • The bathroom light fixtures and hardware throughout the house are from Rejuvenation, an Oregon company specializing in authentic reproduction lighting and house parts.
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • Paul and Rabia’s bedroom includes pieces of 1960s art from Rabia’s father’s collection. “You see a lot of wonderful objets d’art in our house. They’re not things we’ve collected, but things our parents, aunts and uncles have,” Rabia says.
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • The Nagins’ friend and ceramacist Beth Bolgla handmade each tile for the unique kitchen backsplash.
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • Paul, Rabia and Avi relax with architect Jeffrey Hall (far left).
    Photography By Stephen Ang
  • Rabia’s mother, a professional musician, played this Steinway piano from age 5. Violinist Avi often performs here.
    Photography By Stephen Ang

Four years ago, when Paul and Rabia Nagin started building their home northwest of Manhattan, they didn’t know much about green building. “We were all sitting around with the architect and we got into a discussion about the heating system,” Paul says.  “I said, ‘I don’t want to burn fossil fuels.’ I just kind of blurted it out without really thinking about what that meant. Everyone looked at me and said, ‘So what are you going to do?’ So I started researching the alternatives.”

As a former computer science professor at Tufts Medical School and Hofstra University, Paul is accustomed to research. “I concluded solar was going to be too expensive and not practical because we’re in the Northeast and it’s a large house. Wind was not an option because we’re at a low point topographically,” he says. “I started looking at geothermal and talking to people and finding that this was something that could really work.”

Paul, the co-owner of textbook company Chimborazo Publishing, and Rabia, a writer and former caterer, also hired an Energy Star consultant to help increase efficiency and achieve Energy Star certification. Their efforts paid off. At the time of certification, the Nagins’ home was the third most energy-efficient home in New York state, according to Energy Star, achieving nearly zero net carbon emissions.

Can a large house be green?

Paul and Rabia’s house is large—6,800 square feet including the finished portion of the basement—because they host frequent gatherings for their intentional community, political groups, fundraisers, music events and yoga classes. Their three college-student sons—Chege, 22; Jesse, 20; and Avi, 17—also often host large groups, and Paul gives lectures to high school and college students at the house. “I’d say at least once a month, we have in excess of 100 people over, and I wanted our house to be a vehicle for that,” he says.

“Literally thousands of people have come through this house. Everybody is just amazed that the technology is here,” Paul says. “If you listen to the politicos, it’s always focused on the year 2020 or 2050 when we’ll have these green technologies, but here’s a house today with almost zero carbon footprint. Getting near zero is entirely doable with stuff that’s here right now.” Because the home is large, it must be extremely airtight to minimize costs and reduce the amount of power the geothermal system requires. After researching insulation options, the Nagins installed cellulose. “We settled on cellulose because it’s basically recycled New York Times, and I can relate to that,” Paul says. “We’re recycling, getting a high R-value, and it’s inexpensive compared with foams.”

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