The Greenest House in Ithaca

Photos by Allison Usavage

The Greenest House in Ithaca

Photos by Allison Usavage.

You may have noticed the white stucco house with the green roof that sits on the corner of Cascadilla and Second, behind an incredible garden that seems hardly able to contain itself. Sunflowers, tall as cherry trees, wave in the wind next to garlic, enormous leaves of kale, basil, hot peppers, plump tomatoes, hops, and pawpaws. Grapevines on the trellis in front shade the house in the warmer months but let the warm sun through in the winter. Inside, a masonry heater fired once a day heats the whole house, while solar panels on the roof provide electricity and heat the water.

This is the house that Todd and Laurie built.

It all started in Haiti, where Todd Saddler and Laurie Konwinski met in 1995 while working with an organization called Beyond Borders. “When you live in a place like that,” says Konwinski, “you realize that part of the reason they live in such poverty is because of the way we live here. So we decided we had to do things differently when we came back.”

So they did. They built a centrally located house that generates its own energy and planted a garden that generates food. “Global warming is going to hurt everybody,” says Saddler. “People are going to starve in Africa because the ground is going to dry out. At least we can say, ‘Hey, if we can generate our own electricity and hot water without fossil fuels, then why can’t the government? Why can’t other citizens?’”

They married in 1998, moved to Ithaca in 1999, and started looking for a house. They knew they wanted to live sustainably, but that can mean many things: living someplace rural and off the grid, moving into EcoVillage, building a yurt.

“We decided to live in town because we could walk and bike to most of the things that we do,” says Konwinski.

“We also got to use the existing infrastructure,” adds Saddler. “There’s already a road here, there are water pipes, sewer lines, power lines—we wouldn’t have to build all that stuff and bulldoze trees somewhere in order to do that.”

They also wanted neighbors, another thing they’d enjoyed about Haiti, although for Todd, “a less outgoing person by nature” it took some getting used to. “They don’t have a word in Creole for privacy,” he said. “Whether you’re in the countryside or the city, you know your neighbors, you help your neighbors out, you get used to people coming and going. We learned the value of that while we were there and decided to incorporate it here.”

“Nothing is perfectly sustainable,” says Saddler, “but if we just say, ‘Oh, it’s not perfect, let’s not do anything,’ then we’re not going to make any progress. We need to do the best we can now. If someone comes along later and builds a house that’s greener than our house, that’s great. I’ll help them build it.”

Finding the right spot took a few years. Retrofitting some of the older houses they looked at with the features they wanted often proved impossible, or at least costprohibitive. But in 2002 they bought the lot on Cascadilla Street; the previous house had been demolished. Saddler, a green builder/designer, got to work on the plans. Konwinski got a photo op on a mini excavator when they broke ground in 2004; the couple moved in in 2006.

What do they love most about their house (apart from the $15-a-month NYSEG bill)? “I love the coziness of it,” says Konwinski. “I love the masonry heater. I love that that’s sort of the focal point—it’s beautiful and the center of the house. When it’s cold out, we get the fire going and it really gives you a sense of welcome and security, using an old technology to do something which is very modern. I like that we’re part of the community here. We don’t know everybody, but we have a sense of being part of the place.”

“I guess for me it’s the meaning of it,” says Saddler. “I like to feel that we’re doing the best we can for the next generation. So when people come by and I’m working in the garden and they say, ‘Oh, I love your house, I love the plants,’ that makes me feel like I’m doing my part.”

Recently, Saddler and Konwinski received a “Pride of Ownership” award from Ithaca’s Rotary Club. “This is funny,” says Saddler, holding up the plaque. “I worked for the maintenance department in Bristol, Tennessee, and one of the things I did was help identify properties that would win the “Pride of Ownership” award. And let me tell you, a property with a compost pile visible from the sidewalk was never ever on the list in Bristol. So when we were chosen it was like—‘Wow! We’re not in Bristol anymore.’”

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