Ribbon Cutting for Cornwall Solar

Posted on April 21st, 2010 by Nick. Filed under Publication.

A ribbon cutting ceremony is scheduled for April 20 to celebrate the solar panels installed at Cornwall Consolidated School, a project that Cornwall—awarded the designation of “Greenest Town in Connecticut”—is rightfully proud of. All Cornwall Residents and other interested people are invited to attend.

“Cornwall now has the highest percentage of people paying for green power than any town in the country,” said First Selectman Gordon Ridgway last December of the project. “It’s a testament to the town and the people who went out and got all of the signatures to make it happen.”

The nine-kilowatt system was awarded to the town by the CT Clean Energy Fund for having 30 percent of its households signed up for the clean energy option with the Connecticut Light & Power company. The system will save 10,000 kilowatt hours, 11,000 pounds of CO² and $2,000 annually.

“Signing on to the clean energy option on a CL&P bill adds a small surcharge, which contributes so many benefits,” said Katherine Freygang, chairperson of the Cornwall Energy Task Force. “It is the most value packed action you can take to preserve the environment, direct our economy towards clean energy jobs and more affordable resources, and ultimately public health and quality of life. The immediate environmental benefit is that electricity will be produced from clean sources that reduce emissions of toxic gases and CO2. This will help reduce the demand for traditional fuel sources, help diversify our fuel mix, wean us from foreign oil and create jobs at home.”

The celebration will include speakers from the Clean Energy Fund, municipal government and the Cornwall Consolidated School, a demonstration of the panels and the national monitoring system, a dedication to John S. Zinsser Jr., one of the Cornwall Energy Task Force founders, and light refreshment.

More information is available by calling 860-672-6010, e-mailing Ms. Freygang at Kfreygang[at]aol.com or calling the Cornwall Consolidated School at 860-672-6617.

* Article from The Litchfield County Times, April 21, 2010.


High Design, Good Manners

Posted on September 15th, 2008 by Nick. Filed under Publication.

Master Builders

If there is an upside to the current escalation in energy prices, with the consequent increase in the cost of food and other commodities, it is the growing awareness among Americans the the earth is not a giant piggybank that can be robbed of its resources at will.

Indeed, that piggybank is already pretty dinged and banged by greedy assaults launched on it over the past millenia, and it is only  very recently that people have begun to pay attention to the cost.  Suddenly, hybrid cars, renewable energy and, gulp, even conservation and preservation are the talk of the day.  No longer just the purview of fringe-element tree huggers, these issues have become front-page news and the concern of every thinking American.

Even the homes we live in have become a focus of attention, held accountable for 25 percent of global warming.  Increasingly, architects and builders are offering homeowners options for “green” construction that will make their homes both more efficient in energy use and less toxic to their inhabitants.  Among those designer/builders is Nick Xatzís of Pureform Design|Build in West Cornwall, CT.  Mr Xatzís specializes in eco-design and is responsible for the design and construction of the innovative Charny-Rotko residence along the Housatonic River in Cornwall Bridge, CT.

Mr.Xatzís approaches his work with a plurality of skills that may be in his genes.  “I was raised all over the place,” he said.  “My father was in NASA, and my mother was an artist and painter.  I’m still trying to reconcile their influences.”

The artistic side of his temperament held sway in his early career as he worked in the art departments of film companies in Los Angeles, building sets.  “It was all ephemeral,” he conceded, “not built to last, but I got a lot of experience in design and construction.  Later, I got commissions to design and build furniture.”

Eventually, building original furniture consumed more and more of his time, and after moving East, Ruth Charny-Rotko became one of his clients.  “We shared an underlying philosophy,” he said, “and eventually she asked me to design her house.  The Cornwall house was the first that I designed and built from scratch.  I specialize in building green for a thousand and one reasons but mostly it would be irresponsible to do anything else.”

The 1,850 square foot Cornwall house is completely modern in its design and energy efficient in the extreme.  A weekend home designed for maintenance-free entertainment of grandchildren, it features concrete walls and floors — easily mopped up — sleekly designed furniture crafted from recovered materials, and minimalist cabinets.  Mr. Xatzís admits to a small level of frustration because, while the building was designed to be carefree, it does not have the finishing touches he would have liked.  “It’s little things,” he said, pointing to joints in a window casing.  “Just a little touch of caulking would have made it look more finished, but she decided to leave it as it is.”

The design of the building, which backs up to the Housatonic River, makes ultimate use of natural breezes to cool it in the summer and relies on solar power to reduce heating costs in the winter.  Eight foot siding doors on either side of the building allow a free flow of air through the building, while the 12 inch thick mortar walls keep out both heat and cold.  The large glass panels of the doors encourage wintertime passive solar heat, while the deep roof overhangs block the sun’s rays when it is higher in the summer sky.

Even the light concrete of the deck reflects light back into the house, reducing the need for electric lights, and radiant heat in the floors keeps the building cozy on the coldest days.

There are decks on both sides of the building to encourage visitors to enjoy the outdoors and visiting grandchildren are entranced by the gate in the deck fencing that allows them to jump directly into the pool below.  “It’s like McDonald’s marketing,” he says with a grin, “getting the kids to beg their parents to come.”

Photovoltaic panels on the south-facing roof generate an estimated 4,000 Kwh of electricity each year.  Stopping in the utility room that Mr. Xatzís termed “a small-scale power plant,” he checked on the amount of solar energy produced over the winter.  “It’s produced 2,000 Kwh since last October,” he reported, “so we’ll probably exceed our expectations this year.  That power was generated during peak hours of commercial usage, and therefore will reduce the need for power from dirty sources.”

The “solar power plant” keeps the water used to heat the building at a constant 125 degrees during the winter, while a high-efficiency propane boiler stands by ready to additional hot water if needed.  The solar panels took care of 80 percent of the hot water needs last winter.

Ms. Charny-Rotko has opted for a fully energy efficient home furnished when possible with items made from recycled materials, but not everyone has the option of starting from scratch.  “We need to refurbish the housing stock we already have,” said Mr. Xatzís.  “There are many little things we can do to make our houses more energy efficient and eco-friendly — little devices that make sure, for instance, that our boilers are given the right information.  I had one client who spent $10,000 on a heating system and expected that it would be efficient, but the control unit wasn’t feeding it the right information.  Imagine an expensive Mercedes with an accelerator that has only 2 positions — full speed and stopped.  Just changing the control unit gave him 25 percent energy savings, and those are perpetual.”

He said forced air heating systems are the least efficient because “the heating medium is the air itself.  We use fossil fuels to heat the air and then drafts sweep the medium out of the room.”  Hot water systems, where the heated fluid circulates through the pipes and radiates heat, are much more efficient, especially in better sealed buildings,” he asserted.

Mr. Xatzís called the average American consumption of electricity “shameful,” noting that the US average is 18 kilowatts for each square foot, as compared to Factor 10 standards in Germany of 4 kilowatts.  Seventy percent of electricity in this country is still produced by burning coal, he reported, making the reduction of electrical use in our homes ultimately more important than switching to fuel efficient cars.

“Everyone knows about using compact flourescent lights to save energy,” he said, “but how many people know that their cable box is one of the biggest gluttons for electricity in the house.  Some people call them vampires — and yet we leave them plugged in all the time.  How much energy would we save if people had them plugged into a surge protector and just switched them off when they weren’t using them?”

The simple addition of insulating door stops will prevent drafts from entering around doors, he advised, and if homeowners are considering replacing worn-out siding, taking that opportunity to wrap the building in insulation will have a dramatic effect.  But attic and roof insulation systems are the most significant.

He said there is still a “technical dispute” about how tightly buildings should be sealed, but the most reliable science dictates that homeowners should seal their buildings as tightly as possible and install fresh air heat exchangers if necessary.  “These devices preheat the incoming cold air with the outgoing stale air,” he explained, “reducing heat loss and increasing indoor air quality.”

He even considers the designing he does on his computer one form of  “green” building, because he can plan innovative solutions that create less waste during construction and few man hours in their creation.  Whenever possible, Mr. Xatzís works from the ideal of an environmentally friendly building, but he concedes there are always compromises.  “There is no purely ‘green’ building, ” he said.  “Pure ”Green’ building doesn’t exist unless you have a bunch of Amish with hand tools working with locally grown materials, etc.  You always have to factor in how far materials have been transported, and how much embodied carbon they represent due to manufacturing.  I always look for locally grown, sustainably harvested materials first.”

“I had one client who wanted to use tropical hardwoods — rainforest wood basically — and I didn’t want to do that.  We have lumberyards with all kinds of beautiful native woods.  Even bamboo — it’s sustainable, right? It’s a grass that grows back without replanting.  But how much fossil fuel goes into transporting it here from China?  I’ll pay more for router bits from an American company when I could buy much cheaper Chinese units, because it’s all part of the same picture.  Outsourcing is a big problem in this country, but we can’t expect the CEO of a big company to behave differently than we do.  If we buy foreign products because they’re cheaper, how can we expect our big companies not to outsource our jobs?”

Mr. Xatzís said that a shift in consciousness is needed in the American public as we go forward, so we assess the hidden costs of our purchasing decisions.

Nicholas Xatzís can be reached [here].

* Article by Kathryn Boughton – taken from Passport magazine, September 2008


New-Fashioned Ways

Posted on September 1st, 2008 by Nick. Filed under Publication.

coverJudith Linscott went to builder Nicholas Xatzís for advice on how to conserve energy and keep her house warm this winter. She figured he would look around and give her a couple of ideas. But no. He gave her an education, instead.

When I asked builder Nicholas Xatzís to check out my drafty old house and make energy conserving suggestions, I figured he’d tell me to insulate the hot water heater, put up some storm windows and actually start closing the damper when the fireplace wasn’t in use. Then I’d hire a guy to do it all. Except for the damper part, which I’d learn to do myself.

Oh, if only life were that simple. Noooo, Nick wanted to talk about the building “envelope.” About “moisture and air incursion and excursion.” About “controlled environments.” Nick wants us to educate ourselves. I wanted Nick to tell me what to do. But he’s smart. And persuasive. (Not to mention handsome.) So I tried to cooperate.

So here’s what we started with:
Every house is different. And surprise! their primary function is not to accommodate antiques or display interesting artwork but to keep the weather off us. That means cold, hot, wet. And that means controlling moisture and the movement of air. Right away, I had a sinking feeling about all this. Nick told me I needed first to define the house’s “envelope” – that is, where I want the controlled environment to begin and end.

For instance, since our house is old (which means, among other things, it is probably built on rubble and has no attic insulation) we should probably consider the basement and attic outside of the envelope. Our concern, therefore, is to efficiently heat and cool the two floors in between. Sort of a new-fangled (that is to say, more efficient) version of my grandparents closing off half the house in the winter.

Suddenly, I remembered that my sister and brother-in-law, then poverty-stricken hippies, did this most efficiently 20 years ago. They lived in a big, drafty house and at night they lowered the thermostat even further, put on wool pjs and, with their two dogs, zipped themselves into a tent they’d set up in the living room. Cozy!
But I digress.

“The smaller you define the envelope, the easier it is to heat,” said Nick. (Much of this tour was Nick patiently pointing out the obvious to me). “It’s usually not cost-effective to include the basement in the envelope.” What is cost-effective is essentially walling off the basement from the first floor – in our case, he suggested insulating between the basement’s beams. He barely glanced at the furnace. “Everybody wants to get a better boiler or furnace,” he said. “But it doesn’t make sense until you’ve addressed the bigger picture.”

So address we did. Back on the first floor, Nick walked around, looking at windows, tapping on walls. “Great house,” he said, then sighed. “It’s definitely a challenge.” Then he added: “Especially in a house of this age.” I felt like I was waiting for the doctor’s verdict.

He wasn’t happy about our windows. They’re “single glazed and drafty.” Well, I knew that. What I didn’t know is that storm windows, at about $100-$125 apiece, are a stopgap; ideally, all the windows should be replaced with double-glazed panes. Which, Nick said, cost somewhere around $800 apiece. That’s for the window, not the labor.

I thought Nick might suggest stove inserts for our three fireplaces. He didn’t. Well, not really. “They’re definitely more efficient,” he said. But added: “Not as pretty.” I took that as a reprieve.

Any exterior door with glass – that’s two out of three, for us – should have a storm door, and all the doors should have gaskets around the frame. “It’s a tiny thing, but it can make a huge difference.” But windows and doors alone are not the problem. That’s because in a house as old as ours (circa 1765) there’s virtually no insulation in the walls. In fact, I learned, even much newer houses have inadequate insulation. I began to panic at the mere thought of removing all the siding and reinsulating the whole house. Major surgery.

“You can take it in pieces,” he said. “If at any time you need anything re-sided, then you can address the problem with new insulation, sheathing and put the siding back in the most modern way.”

The good news was on the second floor, where the windows in three rooms are double glazed. But then we got to the attic. Nick poked and prodded. “I don’t think you’re insulated at all up here,” he said, once more pointing out the obvious: hot air from the house was escaping into the uninsulated attic. “Your heat is just pouring up here.” Through cracks where the attic floor met the wall, he could see daylight from the second floor. “That’s bad, bad.” We could, he said, pull up the plank floors, insulate and sheath, lay down plywood, then replace the planking and tape the seams. That’s a big job, made bigger by the amount of junk we have stuffed in the attic which would have to be moved in order to do the project. Major surgery. Or we could at least plug the obvious cracks. More like a “procedure.”

Nick & HenryNext we went outside. Nick suggested cutting back a juniper that covers part of the living-room window, lessening the warming effects of the sun in winter. Gutters, he said, should be clean and well-maintained, to keep moisture away from the house. (He may have noticed that ours are sprouting a small forest.) He also pointed out places where the clapboards were in bad shape – places that are good candidates for new insulation.

And he repeated his mantra: “Air sealing and insulation, that’s the biggest bang for your buck by far” and, “When you can, do it a portion at a time.” Insulate, sheath, tape, replace with a “high R” board on the outside. (The R-value, Nick informed me, is the level of resistance to heat flow.)

In the end, despite my own high R-value (that would be resistance to information) Nick’s tutorial did the trick. Much as I might like to return to my ignorant, wanton ways and just jack up the thermostat, I’m now pricing storm doors and eyeing rotten window frames. I’ve been reading up on energy audits, insulation and more on the U.S. Department of Energy’s “A Consumer’s Guide to Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy,” which is a little like a long conversation with Nick – only not so much fun, but downloadable. (www.eere.energy.gov/consumer).
I may even learn to close those dampers.

Nicholas Xatzís can be reached [here].

* Article by Judith Linscott – Cover story of Fall Home Improvement magazine,  a supplement to The Millerton News and The Winsted Journal, September 2008.
* Photos by Marsden Epworth


A House to create memories & save energy

Posted on May 15th, 2008 by Nick. Filed under Publication.

What if you could pre-buy 30 years worth of gasoline or heating fuel at a tiny fraction of the current price? Would you do it, or at least try really hard to come up with the cash?

One good thing about soaring fuel prices: They divert attention from the cost of electricity. But electricity is where the potential lies to make significant changes in our bank accounts and the environment.

Nicholas Xatzís offers this analogy.  It’s simple, but an eye-opener.  And it goes straight to the reason why so few homes are harnessing renewable energy sources.  It’s not about a lack of technology.  It’s about a lack of long-term thinking as opposed to what affects us right now. When electricity was cheap, no one wanted “unsightly” solar panels on their roof. When gas was cheap, big cars were in. Who is not now regretting some choices?

Xatzís’ business, Pureform Design|Build in West Cornwall, CT reflects his passion for form following function. He jumped at a chance to design and build a home where every aspect is aimed at energy efficiency and low maintenance. Set well off Route 7 in Cornwall Bridge, the house is not impressive at first sight, and Xatzís makes no apologies for that. It was never meant to be fancy, he said. It’s less than 2,000 square feet, with corrugated galvanized steel siding on the outside and lots of reclaimed building materials and furnishings. It all works in the end with a clean, modern approach that is immediately comfortable.

But the real charm of this home lies in the way it is used -and what it doesn’t use.

Seeking summer memories
For owner Ruth Charny-Rotko, it was about a carefree home where she could relax on weekends away from the city, and bring her young grandchildren in the summer. “Carefree” needed to apply to maintenance, durability and energy costs. It needed to be a place where one could truly relax without worrying about trim in need of paint or whether the winter heating bill could be paid off by August.

It needed to be a place where the grand-kids wanted to come and that their parents would want to inherit.”Ruth used to go to the Hamptons in the summer, but when the grandchildren came along, she realized it wasn’t where she wanted their childhood summer memories to come from,” Xatzís said.

In the open main room of the chevron-shaped house, the three preschoolers ride tricycles on the cement floor.  A gate in the front deck opens to allow them to jump right in to a front yard swimming pool. The back deck offers a view of serene woods that drop steeply down to the Housatonic river.

Keeping costs down, forever
The house itself is all about long-term planning. “It wasn’t inexpensive to build. That wasn’t the plan.The plan looked at the future. Now she has a home she can leave to her kids without it being a burden.”

Eighteen solar voltaic panels – the exact same panels that will soon be installed on Cornwall Consolidated School – take up most of the roof at the front of the house. They are barely noticeable (as if that matters anymore). The energy they collect is sent to a small basement utility room where the harnessed electricity also powers a compact boiler and hot-water heater. Everything is computer-controlled. including a four-zone heating system.

Using found materials helped keep the cost down – and make the home unique – but the interesting part is that the solar voltaic system that will keep it inexpensive to own was pretty darn cheap. With the extensive financial help the government offers, a four-zone heating system (and the hot water it provides) cost less than $40,000.

Heat circulates through exposed pipes that hang just below the high ceilings on the main floor, and through radiant tubes in the 8-inch cement floors, which are an integral part of the home’s insulating quality. The bottom floor is almost entirely below ground-level on one side. It keeps the interior very comfortable year ’round in a third bedroom and playroom.

Designer Nicholas Xatzís’ house has a circular staircase with an unusual railing – actually flexible excavator exhaust hose (right). The home’s main room features an indestructible cement floor, a hanging, rotating fireplace and a table made from a free-form wood slab and scaffold legs.

Eliminating those fossil fuels
A propane-powered clothes dryer is probably responsible for most of the propane use there over the winter. The tank was last filled in the fall. Right now, it’s at about 80 percent. As for the gas dryer, dealers and installers often shy away from recommending conversions from natural gas to propane. It’s costly and they hesitate to guarantee safety of a retrofit. But Xatzís said it’s the only way to go. Anything that uses an electric motor to produce heat or hot water is by far the least energy efficient.

“People need to understand that the number-one factor in making a house green is to eliminate gas emissions. That means electricity you buy. Seventy percent of it is still produced from fossil fuels:”

The home has been producing its own electricity since August. So far it has produced 2,263 kilowatt hours. The system is designed to produce about 3,800 kw annually. That’s calculated to be more than enough for part-time house use. A typical home of its size, with a family in residence all year, requires about 4,000 kw hours. Excess electricity sent to the grid translates into energy credits (yes, that means the energy company pays you, essentially).

Trellis, ivy keep it cool
Xatzís’ design also sends surplus energy to the pool where a sort of symbiotic relationship keeps the pool water warm while providing a “heat sink.”

Even though producing electricity through a solar voltaic system is virtually free, a responsible designer weighs the capital costs against future operation. The Charney-Rotko house is designed to be able to accommodate more panels. Full-time use might require a bigger system.

“But what do you do in the summer when you’re not heating the house? The green approach is not to create a lot more electricity than you need.”
A passive plan for reducing the system’s output is planned by installing a trellis with leafy vines over a portion of the front deck. As the leaves open and spread during the summer, they will cover some of the panels, reducing the sunlight that reaches them.

Passive solar design plays a big role here, as well. The home’s “arrowhead” roof points directly north. That gives it optimum solar exposure. It’s placement and large windows and sliding doors all play a role in circulating air. Nature provides the air conditioning and children don’t have to be reminded to close the doors.

Unseen elements, such as framing that does not touch the inner and outer walls, is also used. Xatzís explained that wood transfers cold from the outside and heat from the inside.

Xatzís stressed that any building can be made greener. “You don’t have to have a perfect southern exposure to use panels.And you don’t have to change the look of your home. You can make a cape as green as this house. I’m working right now on a solar retrofit of a house built around 1800. It the end, it will still look very traditional.”

* Article by Karen Bartomioli – taken from The Lakeville Journal, Thursday May 15, 2008
* Photos by NichoIas Xatzís


Building a Green Home

Posted on March 1st, 2008 by Nick. Filed under Presentation.


Downs Project Published!

Posted on June 1st, 2006 by Nick. Filed under Publication.

The Downs project in Silverlake, CA which consisted of a complete remodel of the 1400 sq. ft. dwelling with significant structural changes has been published in Barbara Bestor’s new book titled Bohemian Modern: Living in Silver Lake.


Mirror for Julianna Margulies

Posted on March 1st, 2000 by Nick. Filed under Furniture.

Here’s some back-dated news regarding a mirror & frame made for Julianna Margulies from patinated solid cherry.