The Greenest Home in Ithaca

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Tompkins Weekly     4-24-24

By Eric Banford

I recently received an invitation to a party at “The Greenest Home in Ithaca” celebrating some friends disconnecting their NYSEG gas line from their home. This self-proclaimed title of “greenest home” intrigued me, so I checked in with co-owner Todd Saddler about this bold statement.

“Back when we built the house, some friends of ours wrote an article about our home in Fresh Dirt Ithaca Magazine titled ‘The Greenest House in Ithaca.’ Instead of asking analytically if it was true, we just embraced it,” he shared with a laugh. “If it caught your attention then it’s serving its function, which is to get people to think about what we can do.”

Over the past few years, as climate change has become more problematic, Saddler and his partner Laurie Konwinski came up with a five year plan to “get off gas,” which was still being used for backup heat, water and cooking. Last September they were able to achieve “net zero,” which is when a home makes all of its own energy. “We installed a 400 amp electric panel, a demand electric water heater (for backup), heat pumps, a charger for our electric car, and an induction range,” said Saddler. “As of September we haven’t used any natural gas, and this week NYSEG disconnected our hookup.”

Todd Saddler and Laurie Konwinski prepare to shut the natural gas valve as the final step in decarbonizing the energy use at their home in Ithaca. Photo provided

The path to building a green home started before the couple moved to Ithaca, when they worked together in Haiti for Beyond Borders. “We did educational and conscience raising work with Haitians and Americans, and one of the things we learned was that the reason people are so poor in Haiti is because of the way Americans live,” said Saddler. “When we decided to move back to the US, we didn’t want to be hypocrites and live the same way that was killing people in Haiti.” Their search for a conscientious community where they could live without driving everywhere, led them to Ithaca.

Saddler went to school for architecture and has always had a concern for both the natural and built environment, and for how these can harmonize. “I thought I could go to Cornell and get a degree in architecture, or I could spend a similar amount of money and build a house,” he said. “I could use what I already know, learn from others, build relationships, and end up with a place to live.”

Saddler started by making a list of green building aspects to make part of their build. “We’re super insulated, relatively air tight, we used local lumber and tried to make it only as big as needed. We have passive solar day lighting and heat gain, windows on two sides of every living space. We have photovoltaic panels on the roof and solar hot water, and we avoided plastics and any toxic building materials.”

“The biggest green component of the house is that it is right here,” continued Saddler. “We didn’t bulldoze a beautiful forest or ecosystem, it was an empty lot. From here we can walk or bike or make a short drive to most of the things that we do. We can be part of our community without a lot of work, there are people already around.”

The other green aspect of their home is their yard, practically every nook is filled with flowers, trees, bushes or vegetables. If you’ve ever driven down Cascadilla Street, you probably know which house this is.

Saddler explained that, “An important guide when we started this process was the Union of Concerned Scientists ‘Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices.’ One of our biggest impacts is gas powered lawn equipment. I’d studied Permaculture so I wanted the yard to be diverse, mostly self-maintaining, and building up soil health. I’m learning as we go and people are always sharing knowledge and plants. It’s a little jungle around here and if you come by in September you can stop by and grab a ripe paw paw.”

Saddler shared that a difficult part of the process was, “Our economy and businesses are not oriented to supply what is needed to make life sustainable. So you have to do your own research. At a store you see materials with a price tag. There is nothing about the environmental impact, that’s all an externality that we’re meant to ignore. In an economy that is life giving, that would be included in everything.”

In conclusion, Saddler shared how he’s shifting his focus. “People are getting the message that we have to change, and the Earth is going to keep reminding us. But the whole economic, cultural, political, psychological system is saying it’s not possible. ‘You can’t do it. We can’t do it.’ One of the things we wanted to do with our party was to say that it is possible to change, it’s possible and fun. Let’s just get started.”

Eric Banford is an IT geek, a hobby journalist and musician, and is tending an edible forest garden on his family’s farm in Danby, NY.

Signs of Sustainability is organized by Sustainable Finger Lakes

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