Architect David Borenstein Builds Sustainable and Energy Efficient Home in Milan

A study in green: A Dutchess County architect’s sustainable designs blend practicality with comfort and some quirky charm



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house exteriorSun worshipper: A view of the exterior of the house from the back garden emphasizes the multiple steep-pitched rooflines, and the preponderance of windows and French doors that Borenstein used in his design

Borenstein, who is a plumber and licensed electrician as well as an architect (and a sculptor and an artist), installed the mechanicals in the house himself. “I don’t want to give the impression that I’m a handyman,” he says, but knowing how it’s done helped him make sure things worked properly. “There’s a lot of high-tech stuff out there, and techno junkies want everything state-of-the-art. But many contractors don’t understand the specialized equipment being introduced — they don’t know how to fix it. Any system has to be serviceable and understandable.”

As a case in point, Borenstein recalls his own learning curve when he installed the heat recovery ventilation system, a vital piece of equipment that brings fresh air into the tightly insulated home. “The thing comes in a box with a diagram of how to run the ducts, but there’s actual science when it comes to balancing the system,” he explains. “In my quest to do the job properly, I spoke to five or six contractors, and to my surprise not one of them had a clue how to do it. So I called the manufacturer, who sent me to YouTube. I discovered I needed a special tool called a magnehelic gauge. So I called my supplier and he said, ‘What?’ I finally located one online.”

bathroomQuirks of nature: Concrete vessel sinks, copper pipes, and oversized tiles give the master bath a one-of-a-kind look. Gingko leaves, which the architect sprayed red and embedded in the countertop and doors of the vanity, add to the effect

In addition to sustainable materials — like the silver maple flooring, which besides looking good has the blessing of the Forest Stewardship Council — the house has all the Borenstein trademarks: railings made of copper pipes; one-of-a-kind hand-painted doors and counters; and recycled and repurposed architectural elements that, in this case, include the interior upstairs windows. Beadboard and recycled cupboard doors also give the house the kind of instant character that usually evolves over time.

If the bucket lights make you smile, so might the “windows” in the steam shower that turn out to be empty tequila bottles, stacked on their sides. “Yes, I drank the tequila,” Borenstein says with a laugh. ”But over a period of time, not during a weekend binge.”

The house requires so little fuel to heat it, Borenstein says he “couldn’t find a boiler small enough”

In the kitchen, there are the high-end stainless-steel appliances that are today’s musts, but rather than the predictable granite, Borenstein installed another of his sigantures: wood counters that he painted, decorated with a black Sharpie and oil pastels, and then sealed with epoxy. Do they last? “It’s something I’ve been doing now for more than 15 years, including in student housing at Bard, and they still look great after years of abuse,” he remarks. “If the Bard student can’t wreck something, that’s a television commercial right there... And if the look is not your cup of tea, you can just unscrew them and throw ’em out.”

Overall, Borenstein designs a house to be “relaxing and durable. There’s no such thing as maintenance-free, so durability is very important,” he says. “A house should wear like a pair of blue jeans — change, but still look good.”

» Return to Hudson Valley Home: Spring 2013