Sometimes location and weather conditions will prove irresistible to a prospective homebuyer, who will acquire a property and go all out to exploit the best the neighborhood and its climate have to offer.
That seems to be what’s happening on Avon Mountain (aka Talcott Mountain), in west-central Connecticut. Bernard Zahren, founder of renewable-energy firm Zahren Alternative Power Corp., which he sold to Cinergy Corp. in 2000, bought a 3,300-sq.-ft. house there with views to the east and west that, as noted in a recent Hartford Courant story, gave new meaning to the word breathtaking. There were, however, problems presented by the early-’60s-era three-bedroom: aesthetically it fell far short of the views and, more critically, it was afflicted by a sieve-like shell that performed especially poorly on Avon’s ridge, where the elevation is just over 830 feet and wind speeds average from 12 to 15 mph.
Bringing a big house down to NZE
Last year Zahren decided to turn the problems into opportunities by renovating the three-story house. He is increasing its square footage by about 60%, to just over 5,327, and expanding its footprint while increasing its energy efficiency. He is candid about the fact that the house is going to be much bigger than the green home ideal, and that it will be equipped with plenty of windows to take advantage of the vistas. But Zahren also will lean hard on renewable energy – a wind turbine, in this case – to take advantage of the wind and help push the building’s performance to net zero energy. The finished structure, as he describes it, will be a “sustainable McMansion.”
“On the kind of beautiful, relatively expensive property that this is, I knew that I couldn’t get away from the expectation that this site deserves a 5,000-square-foot McMansion,” Zahren told the Courant. “But what’s a McMansion? It’s just a big, cheaply built energy guzzler. I decided to prove that we could build a big house with great views, and all the amenities, that was a net-zero-energy structure.”
“We could demonstrate that you can have the comfort of a McMansion without being a carbon hog.”
Capturing energy and stunning vistas
Zahren is spending about $100,000 (including installation, but before tax credits) on a wind turbine and generator from Proven Energy, a specialist in small turbines based in Glasgow, Scotland. The turbine will sit on a tower 100 feet above the ridgeline (which runs north-south) and is designed to deliver 21,497 kWh of power annually, notes Zahren’s architect on the project, Jeff Kamm, whose firm Wadsworth Kamm Architects is based in nearby Glastonbury.
In an email, Kamm told GBA the expansion has required reconstruction of some parts of the house and removal of some materials, such as the original cedar siding, which is being replaced with James Hardie Artisan fiber cement panels. But so far, Kamm says, the project has produced no material waste: what couldn’t be reused onsite was either sorted and recycled or acquired by the ReStore Home Improvement Center in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The renovation is designed to deliver an R-20 foundation, R-40 walls, and an R-60 roof, through a combination of expanding foam insulation between the framing members and foam insulation board on the exterior. But to avoid obscuring the views, there also will be plenty of glass, which will fill 48% of the exterior walls.
Kamm notes that while the original design included four solar hot water units, it appears at this point that only two will be needed to service the five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath home. And even though the estimated output of the wind turbine is expected to be sufficient, there are provisions for a solar-power array on the structure’s highest roof. In addition, Kamm says that he and Zahren “are in the process of reviewing some hybrid systems that would combine solar hot water with other systems such as geothermal but those uses are still under review.”
The Courant adds that the performance of the wind turbine will be monitored closely not only by Zahren but by one of his neighbors, the Talcott Mountain Science Center, a nonprofit education and research center that runs programs for area students. The center has long been experimenting with solar energy and other alternative-energy projects, which makes Zahren’s wind generator an ideal subject for study.
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