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Net Positive Outlook: New Paltz Architect Sets the Standard in Eco-Friendly Construction

From the outside, the building where Alfandre Architecture is headquartered seems unassuming: visually interesting angles, painted a pleasant shade of green, but nothing about its appearance belies its true importance.

Just walk through the door, however, and the differences start to sink in. The noise of traffic on Main Street completely stops when the door closes, and the air feels cool and fresh in the heat of August. Information posted on the wall inside the entrance reminds visitors that despite the very comfortable temperature, this building is net-positive, meaning that more energy is created on site and put into the energy grid than is used running the computers, copiers, and climate-control systems which are standard fare in any office.

Architect Rick Alfandre designed this not only to provide space for his employees to work, but as a model of what’s possible with modern technology and methods. The building at 231 Main Street in New Paltz is certified as LEED platinum, the highest level of the best-known energy-efficiency rating systems. A self-described “child of the ‘60s,” Alfandre has been interested in getting away from fossil fuels since the days when renewable energy was just called “alternative.”

The people pushing for solar power in those days were, in his estimation, the “pioneers of green space and back-to-the-land sustainability.” It was those kinds of ideas that helped shape his own perspective as an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz and during his graduate work at Virginia Tech.

That was at a time when there were “significant incentives” for solar hot water systems, in response to the oil embargoes of the 1970s. By the time Alfandre joined the workforce, however, those programs had been “pushed aside” by a new president, and research into alternative energy sources continued “without government support.” In this case, for good or ill, it was people in private industry who figured out how to implement these technologies.

Aligning his personal values with his professional skills means that the goal for all buildings designed by Alfandre Architecture are “better than code” when it comes to energy efficiency.

“Often we just do it,” he said, but when an improvement adds a significant cost to the construction, they must explain to the client why that’s justified. An increase of construction costs of 3-10 percent can yield 40 times that in benefits, he said.

Over the long haul, the additional investment at the outset leads to cost savings on energy, but there are other ways that an Alfandre-designed building can be more cost effective.

“Spaces are more productive and healthier,” he explained, leading to fewer sick days taken and more work done by employees when they’re in the office.

What makes for healthier and more productive occupants are building features that bring in more daylight, circulate fresh air, and keep out ambient noise. Despite being constructed of insulated cement walls, the windows of the Alfandre building can be opened, because the air doesn’t have to be sealed inside to achieve the efficiency.

That helps prevent the moisture accumulation which can lead to mold, without creating the drafts that result in thermostat wars that only increase discomfort all around. The soft benefits of creating a space with ample natural light, temperatures that are controlled without being constrained, all without creating breeding spots for toxic molds, can help a commercial building pay for itself in short order.

Natural light is easier on the eyes, which contributes to the goals of increased health and productivity alike. Alfandre is familiar with studies that indicate more goods are produced and sold when manufacturing and retail spaces have more daylight and better ventilation. They are also safer spaces, with fewer worker’s compensation claims.

Residential buildings, he acknowledged, are a tougher sell because the savings are often realized only in resale value. Making the economic case for private homes involves calculating how long the owner intends on living in the house, or if renting it out is the plan; borrowing can be a challenge if only because there are still few comparable buildings on the market to use to evaluate the value of such sustainable improvements.

Pushing for these kinds of green buildings means that Alfandre, together with his staff, is doing his part to fulfill the 2030 Challenge. This ambitious goal is, “All new buildings, developments, and major renovations shall be carbon-neutral by 2030.” That goes beyond just energy efficiency, as do the tyical Alfandre buildings.

Entire sites are designed to ensure stormwater runoff is treated on site, urban “heat islands” are eliminated, and both energy generation and usage is responsive to the larger picture. Distributed energy production is absolutely part of that broader solution, because it can prevent the need for additional power plants to be brought online during peak times. The last plants fired up, Alfandre pointed out, are often those powered by coal.

“They’re typically the most polluting,” he said, and reducing the dependence on fossil fuels is good for national security as well as the environment. Local energy producer Central Hudson also benefits from there being fewer demands placed upon the infrastructure by green buildings than conventional ones.

Alfandre tries to help people understand that bigger picture, but his office building at least makes explaining the details easier. An independent engineer verified that it was producing more energy than the occupants used even two winters ago, the coldest since it was constructed. That’s the result of painstaking detail management, such as testing the structure for air leaks before the sheetrock was even installed.

The bigger picture also includes sourcing the building materials from the closest manufacturers, reducing the overall carbon footprint even further. The triple-pane windows did come from Austria, farther than any other one item, but even so Alfandre calculates it was worth the effort to get it right.

Green building is no longer a dream for the next generation to implement. That dream is coming true here and now, in the Hudson Valley, thanks to innovators like Rick Alfandre and the clients who believe in his mission.