Save the Environment: Build a House

Green isn’t just a color anymore, it’s a revolution -- and it has come to the North Country

For about ten years, Peter Allen had to go for a bike ride whenever he wanted to take a shower, use the facilities, or anything else that required water. In the house on the outskirts of Plattsburgh which Peter shared with his wife, Eileen, access to that vital natural resource could be gained only by running Peter’s very own bicycle pump invention. So when the need for water arose, Peter would jump on the bike and start pedaling to nowhere. The cycling motion would power a large pump which would draw the water through pipes into the loft and, using the natural power of gravity, distribute water throughout the house.

Life in a completely sustainable home demanded some sacrifices; pedaling for water was one of them. Despite the physical and time expense, this was an action Peter and Eileen deemed necessary for a purpose they saw as essential. Living within the walls of one of the strongest building designs ever created — a matrix of triangle pieces over a light framework known as a geodesic dome — the couple knew that the architecture around them was already helping them toward their goal of environmental sustainability. All they had to do was provide the rest.   

Geodesic Dome
Peter and Eileen Allen's Geodesic Dome house.

It all began for the Allens with the reading of a book.  Eileen’s father, land surveyor George Barber, was inspired to construct the Allens’ home after reading Lloyd Kahn’s 1971 “The Domebook 2,” which was inspired by eccentric inventor Buckminster Fuller and his ideas for a geodesic dome. Taking some of these revolutionary ideas, George began designing his own domes and light framework kits. After building domes for a few friends and not having too much success with his kit business, George decided to construct a dome for his daughter and her husband and began construction in 1982.

Three years later, construction on the roughly 1,500 square foot dome was finally completed and before the Allens stood their new home. Not your average structure, the dome is completely self-sufficient and off the grid. The house is made up of two separate domes, with one rectangular piece connecting them. Each dome has an inner and an outer frame which provides more strength to the rounded structure. The base of the house was built partially underground to maximize the natural insulation.  During construction, the Allens were pleased to install locally milled wood from Beekmantown for the framework and some of the flooring.

Of course, with the house built and habitable, the challenges for the Allens were just beginning — and the bike rides for water was merely one of the obstacles they faced. Since the house is off the grid and about a quarter of a mile away from the main road, the couple had to discover new ways to get their heating, water, and electric. “We didn’t have to be traditional with anything,” said Peter, “and it was a constant transition,” as technology was constantly changing.

hydroelectric pump
Peter and Eileen Allen beside their strip of solar cells with their Geodesic Dome in the bakground.

“As technology evolved, we evolved,” says Peter, and finally in the mid-nineties, they replaced Peter’s bicycle pump invention with a new hydroelectric system, also contrived by Peter. The new system required a few new fittings, however, to make it complete. First, it required Peter to dig a settling pond high up on the property to catch and store the rain water. Second, the system needed to be able to transport the water, so underground pipes were installed from the pond to the house, where a turbine and alternator were also required to generate electricity. With the new system successfully installed, the Allens now had ninety-five percent of their power from just one source, and because of the steady flow of water, they had electricity all the time. After the water fulfilled its purpose, it was released back outside to be used by nature.

To heat their house, Peter came to the rescue yet again installing a looping pipe underneath their concrete floor the entire length of the house. To generate their heat, the Allens had just a simple wood stove, the outside of which was jacketed by a casing holding water. The stove would heat the water which would then expand and flow throughout the pipes under the floor, heating the concrete. The heat would spread evenly throughout the concrete and be released up into the rest of the house. As for water, there are no intricate contraptions, just a humble well which suits the Allens just fine.

Having all of these naturally fueled systems running their home, the Allens said it has made them more conscious of their resource use. They say that they have become more aware of the sunny days which feed their solar cells and the rainy days which feed their well and electric system.

While living in their Geodesic Dome, Peter and Eileen had a large 100x100 foot vegetable garden where she would grow many different varieties of vegetables. From time to time, trading those vegetables with a friend might even get her a fresh lake trout or other goodies. The Allens also housed wide variety of animals on their land including a dog, a cat, chickens, sheep, and goats. According to Eileen, “there’s nothing quite like the sound of a happy chicken.”

The green movement itself has been around for several decades but all through the years it has evolved to accommodate changes in technology, economic highs and lows, and widespread social issues.

The Energy Crisis of the 1970s was a turning point for many across the United States to start looking into being more efficient with their resources. Eileen remembers some of the actions taken by the government to promote smarter resource use throughout the country. Earth Day was enacted as well as the Clean Water Act, and Eileen remembers the reduced speed limits as well. “A lot of people thought it was for safety reasons, but mostly it was to try to save on national gas usage.”

                “I don’t think people have been serious about their resource use,” says Eileen, “there’s so much more interest now that more things are becoming more and more energy efficient.”

Following the Energy Crisis, many new green ideals were establishing themselves in families across the country. Presently, the way in which you participate all depends on your degree of dedication and how much you’re willing to spend to help save the environment. For some, going green simply involves changing all the light bulbs in their house to energy-saving compact fluorescents or even just recycling. For people like the Allens who say, “It was just what we had to do,” it was a natural choice to build their environmentally friendly Geodesic Dome, sever their ties with the power grid and adapt as best they could. There are shades of gray, though, to fill in the gap between these two extremes, it all just depends on how far the person is willing to go.

An environmentally conscious lifestyle is not only limited to houses. It can be tweaked to accommodate updates, renovations, or even full construction of any business, school, or work place.

solar panels
Moore's strip of solar cells soaking up the sun.

Hal Moore of Adirondack Hardwoods has built his whole company, and his family, on green values and practices. Adirondack Hardwoods is in the business of selling specifically Forest Stewardship Council certified hardwoods which have been monitored from the second they were chopped down to ensure their local growth. When he isn’t running his business, Moore also lends his custom cabinet-making skills to his customers.

Moore has been a member of the Forest Stewardship Council since 2000. This company uses what is called a third person verification system which takes several steps and utilizes only certain companies within their program to ensure that their harvested lumber stays local. Before harvesting an area, the company also takes into account all facets of the area, such as the wildlife population, that might be affected and takes care of them accordingly.

Moore’s property also houses a few familiar, and some unfamiliar, contraptions to help him run his business more environmentally. Outside, Moore has invested about $74,000 in a large strip of solar cells. Conducting about 10,000 kilowatt hours per month, Moore feeds the grid and receives a stipend from the power company of what he produced minus what he used. To be able to afford these cells, Moore received a large government grant through the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), which everyone is eligible for if they are interested in making a solar cell purchase of their own.

sawdust bags
14-foot tall bags store the sawdust before it is burned by the furnace to produce heat.

Inside his shop, one of the cheapest investments are the water-based finishes he uses on his cabinets. These finishes replace the Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, which are environmentally dangerous, with completely harmless water. Moore also uses a large sawdust recycling machine which he installed in 2005. This machine has large metal ducts snaked through every room of the shop which connect to every sawdust-producing machine. When the collector is turned on, a vacuum sucks the sawdust through the ducts to five 14ft. tall storage bags in a separate room where it will stay until the furnace is activated. Activation of the special sawdust furnace burns the material and produces heat for both the shop and their home above.

Spending so much money just to be more green has never been an issue for neither Moore nor the Allens. “It’s an investment,” Says Moore, “[These sustainable systems and products] save me money and over time they pay for themselves and more, so I think it was a fairly wise long-term financial move and also good for the environment.” For Eileen Allen, “It’s not about the expense, it’s about the responsibility.”

What do you do to be more sustainable?