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October 25, 2016
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Sustainability house

TRR photos by Cass Collins

Rebekah Creshkoff dreamed of a straw-bale house. A dedicated birder, she had spent her adult life in New York City riding her bike to work every day across Central Park. There, a downy woodpecker had gotten to know her well enough to eat out of her hand.

In 2010, she and her husband Lenny Friedland rented a house for the summer in Narrowsburg. They liked it so much, the next year they found themselves dreaming about building a home. Another rental on River Road in Callicoon turned those dreams into plans.

Their real estate broker, Elise Freda, pointed them to a lot on a blissful stretch of the Delaware River and to Jeff McMahon, a local expert in sustainable building. Jeff saw the lot and quickly dispelled Rebekah’s notion of a straw-bale house, but he merged with the couple’s vision of sustainable, energy-conscious architecture. He told them he could build them a house that was 100% energy efficient. They were savvy New Yorkers, so the concept of 100% anything stretched believability.

They suspended their disbelief long enough to listen to McMahon’s ideas. With local architect Michael Chojnicki, Jeff designed a simple two-story structure clad in recycled barn-board on a poured concrete slab. “Michael is my number one go-to on construction issues in the river valley,” says McMahon. “I learn from all the people involved in the construction process,” he says, including the clients, who taught McMahon about bird-friendly building.

Rebekah is involved with Project Safe Flight, an Audubon Society program that collects data and advises builders on bird-friendly practices. The windows of the River Road house are marked with a special bird tape ( that prevents birds from colliding into them. It also has a pleasing graphic quality. Deep overhangs over windows also help by minimizing reflections. “Sustainability means being sensitive to the outside,” says McMahon. “This is my first experience with a client whose sensibilities were so attuned to the avian species.” The couple’s white-faced cockatiel, Snowflake, slept under cover at the time of this reporter’s visit, but he is reported to prefer the calm of his new country home to the noisy city life. He now exhibits anxiety when he spends too much time visiting the city.

But the river house was designed primarily for people living comfortably inside. Lenny says the all-electric boiler that McMahon specified for the house keeps it comfortably warm in the winter. “When we leave the house in winter for a few days, it’s at 72 degrees,” and using a remotely monitored thermostat, the Eco-Bee, he can see it takes three days for the house to cool down to 60. The floors are radiant-heated polished concrete. The structure’s high insulation value also makes the house quiet, even in a rainstorm.

McMahon specified a type of polyiso foam insulation that is recycled, has a high thermal resistance value, is cost-effective and environmentally responsible with zero Ozone Depletion Potential (ODP) and virtually no Global Warming Potential (GWP).

The homeowners are happy with the energy availability of the house too. “I turn on the hot water upstairs and, boom, it’s there,” says Friedland. Soon, solar roof panels will add to the efficiency. A town resolution recently gave the go-ahead on installation of a 7 kilowatt panel system designed by Gordon Smith that will cover the south side roof.

Inside, the living space is open, with views all around—the river in front and the fields and mountain beyond. The couple is “committed to furnishing via yard sale,” says Rebekah. She is delighted with the choices McMahon made in the building process, like using old recycled porcelain sinks and furniture in the bathrooms and designing his own light fixtures made of barn-board and recycled galvanized metal. “Letting Jeff make those choices hastened the building process” and was in tune with their sensibilities, she says. In the master bathroom shower, an old exterior four-light door serves as a wall adding to the inside/outside aesthetic.

The original house design called for an all barn-board exterior, but when raw materials were expended, Jeff turned to galvanized steel. The result is a home that is a study in light and dark, yin and yang, with the rough brown wood juxtaposing smooth ribbed steel that is the color of a cloudy day. The deeply-pitched roof seems to be built at an angle perfectly aligned with the tree line behind it. The look is spare and not for everyone, the couple admits, but it seems to suit these New York City transplants. Rebekah took an early retirement recently from her job as a writer at a financial services company. Lenny still commutes to the city two days a week.

On a recent visit, with their birding binoculars always at the ready, the couple pointed out a great blue heron next to a flock of young mergansers just across the riverbank. Rebekah likes to sleep on the screened porch in summer, with the stars as her night-light. Two old upholstered rocking chairs make it easy to imagine the couple spending long evenings listening to the river as it passes by. The porch was a must-have for Lenny, who remembers the one of his boyhood in Brooklyn, its breezes cooling the city heat.

McMahon makes his client’s budget a priority in his planning process. He won’t compromise on quality of materials, but he wants to build sustainably with smart solutions. The kitchen in the River House has an induction cook-top, as do many of his homes and is all-electric. You won’t find oil, gas or propane in any of the houses McMahon builds. He is committed to energy that is sourced locally. Appliances are part of the GE Profile Series with a stainless steel look. The electric boilers he uses are rated at 100% efficiency. When the solar panels are installed, they will be tied to the grid and will refund any over-production back to the homeowners.

You might think a house with so much new technology would take time to design and build, but McMahon has streamlined his processes since he built his first home in North Branch five years ago. The owners of the River House saw the property on Earth Day in 2012, closed the deal on June 1 and were in residence by December 2012. Now they get to enjoy the pride of ownership and recognize its commitment, too. As Lenny says, “As a renter you see the sun come up and think, ‘I should get the kayak out.’ Now I think I should mow the lawn.”