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The Greening of the Hamlets

The Greening of the Hamlets July 3, 2024
Architect Jesse Schwartzberg is among those featured in The Wild Center’s exhibition “Climate Solutions.”
Architect Jesse Schwartzberg is among those featured in The Wild Center’s exhibition “Climate Solutions.”

Jesse Schwartzberg, the Saranac-Lake based architect whose firm has received countless awards for its net-zero, multi-family residential buildings, says high performance, low-carbon buildings do not have to be cost-prohibitive – for either developers or renters. And there is nothing to prevent them from being built in the Adirondacks.

“We all know we need good housing,” said Schwartzberg. “Communities aren’t required to wait for Albany to produce a political solution. We can create our own examples. That’s precisely what I’ve been doing for the past ten years.”

Since 2015, Schwartzberg has been working with Bruns Realty Group, LLC. to develop market-rate, net zero, multifamily complexes – including two of the largest in the nation, both built in Rotterdam, NY.

This month, the developer will break ground at the 156- unit Ecoflats in Amsterdam, NY, a development that meets the U.S. Department of Energy’s own definition of zero emissions building.

According to the Department of Energy, this latest definition, its most rigorous yet and one adopted just last month, requires that a building be highly energy efficient, emit no greenhouse gasses and be powered solely by clean energy.

Such buildings are healthier not only for the planet, but for the people who live in them.

“Visionary architects like Black Mountain Architecture are creating New York’s low-carbon future by creating buildings that are healthy, beautiful, energy-efficient, and better spaces for families to live and work in,” the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority stated when recognizing the firm’s work on net-zero buildings.

“Buildings are responsible for half the energy used in the United States—which means that combating climate change will require us to fundamentally rethink how we build things,” says Schwartzberg. “The lessons we’ve learned can be translated to projects everywhere—including the Adirondacks, where we need both more affordable housing, and more energy-efficient housing.”

The complex that Schwartzberg designed in Amsterdam, NY does not happen to be situated in a downtown, urban core, but that does not mean that green buildings cannot be built on small lots, similar to many found in Adirondack hamlets, says Schwartzberg.

“If you want to help the environment, the first thing you do is choose your building spot wisely,” said Schwartzberg.

The building that he designed to house his firm, on a narrow side street in the Village of Saranac Lake, “is the perfect example of this. We’re tied into municipal infrastructure; we’re not creating new wells and septic systems,” he said.

And, he added, it incorporates many of the features that he has used in multi-family projects: “It was constructed with carbon-negative materials and doesn’t require large amounts of carbon to be operational. Prioritizing power from natural elements, our workspaces will remain comfortable and efficient year-round.”

The greenest buildings might be those vacant or under-utilized buildings, of which there are many in Adirondack hamlets, that have been repurposed, said Schwartzberg.

“All that steel and concrete is embodied carbon,” he said.

The high performance, low-carbon multi-family buildings that Schwartzberg designed in the Mohawk Valley can be built in the hamlets of the Adirondacks – much reduced in scale, of course.

“Take two blighted houses on two lots, knock them down and put in a six-unit building that is within the hamlet, hooked up to the municipal infrastructure and within walking distance of work or services,” he says.

Green buildings are less expensive to operate over an extended period of time and hence more affordable because of their energy efficiency, said Schwartzberg.

Nevertheless, because of interest rates and construction costs, the return on an investment in multi-family housing is less than optimal.

“The developer has to be mission-driven. He has to be motivated by something more than the opportunity to develop more housing,” Schwartzberg said.

But even with access to a mission-driven developer, private philanthropy, government subsidies or flexible zoning may also be necessary if the stock of Adirondack housing, market-rate or otherwise, is to grow.

“Everyone sees the need for housing and appears to want to help, so let’s roll up our sleeves and do it. And once we’ve done one or two projects and show that it can be done, it will be that much easier for other people to dive in,” said Schwartzberg.

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