The Greening of Vineyard Homes

“If you change an island, and you make a big difference, it’s easy to see the difference,” says Sharon Strimling Florio, proprietress of Vineyard Alternative Heating in Vineyard Haven. The Island, she says, is “a finite area to work with. It’s something manageable. It’s a visible area for making big changes in our energy use and it’s a measurable area.”

A very big and measurable change is how Vineyarders are treating their existing and planned homes in terms of sustainability. Perhaps because we’re constantly reminded of the beauty and fragility of nature, or because changes in the economy have such an immediate effect on an insular environment, we’re altering our living conditions to be more penny-wise and earth friendly.

We spoke with a number of experts in the field, from those who know about energy to those who focus on design and décor, to learn how Vineyarders are going green at home. Some homeowners are making such changes as replacing fossil-fueled heating systems with ones that burn biomass. Others are jumping off-the-grid of pollution-inducing, electrical energy in favor of cheap and cleanly harvested energy from wind or sun. Renters on the Island are finding that reusing and recycling saves them money as well as reducing their carbon footprints. And, because of the visibility of most things on-Island, it’s easy to find the resources to do all of the above.

The Vineyard Energy Project is a kind of information clearinghouse for those seeking to explore ways to create renewable energy. Through its website, www.vineyard, and other outreach, it provides resources for solar, geothermal, and wind energy, and makes suggestions for smaller methods of conserving energy – such as replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents or drying laundry outdoors. According to Dave McGlinchey, executive director of VEP, “We get inquiries from everybody: from young people who are just starting out, buying or building their first home, to people who have lived in a home for a while and want to be more efficient.”

He also notes a recent surge in interest in renewable energy among Vineyarders. “There was a little bit of slowdown because of the economic times we live in,” he explains, “but there’s been a lot of incentives put out there by state and federal governments to promote new energy development and energy-efficient building. Also perhaps people are becoming more aware of their carbon footprints.”

One of the foremost areas in which Island homeowners are working to invoke change is in their heating and cooling systems. Sharon at Vineyard Alternative Heating explains, “People use more fuel for their homes than for transportation – especially on Martha’s Vineyard. While it’s very much on people’s minds to drive less, to use less electricity – all of those things that are very important – they also need to remember that while they’re not driving their house to the gas station, they’re filling it up with large quantities of fossil fuel regularly if they’re on oil or propane. With a car, you can cut that in half with a hybrid, but with a house, you can eliminate it entirely.” Many Vineyarders are doing just that by turning to geothermal and solar-powered heating systems, and Sharon’s bailiwick – wood pellet stoves.

The heating of hot water is another area for improving energy efficiency, either by solar or geothermal means, and it can be a great money saver once the initial investment is paid off. According to Tim Twombly, president of SunWaterMV, a resource for Evacuated Tube Solar Hot Water (ETSHW) systems, “Solar hot water is a great way to capture the sun’s energy directly and store it cheaply. Advances in the technology – like the ETSHW systems – are making it the leader in return-on-investment of all the alternative energies, and the most likely to meet the needs of the average homeowner. It ends up being much less expensive than the old gas or electrical systems, even before the government incentives, and in terms of the environment, every system up and running is the equivalent of taking one car off the road.”

Another alternative – one that is recommended by the Vineyard Energy Project – is tankless hot-water heaters that supply water on an as-needed basis. It can also be supplemental to solar hot-water systems for less-than-sunny days.

Jean Kelleher of Kelleher Real Estate Services in West Tisbury recently achieved the National Association of Realtors’ Green Designation. “I have the educational background,” she explains, “to qualify as a resource for people who are interested in sustainability in their homes. I can refer people to providers of green products and systems.” From her own observations, she sees the greening of the Island as a slow process that’s picking up speed. “I can’t say that people call me and say, ‘I’m looking for a house that has a lot of green features to it.’ It’s still new.” However, one of her new listings – one that has a lot of green elements has proved to be a stimulus for discussion. “In the last couple weeks I’ve shown it to people, and they’ve begun to ask questions about other aspects of green that they must be learning about – certain things that they’ve heard are good in terms of being more efficient.”

Homeowners who can demonstrate eco-friendliness and efficiency in their house can apply for recognition as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building, which can increase resale values. Scott McCullough, a designer for Hutker Architects and a LEED-accredited professional, explains: “LEED is kind of a subsidiary of the U.S. Green Building Council and is a program that certifies buildings for their greenness or sustainability.” He explains that, through the program, homes are inspected and rated, then certified on different levels, depending on the number of points the building is awarded. Although Scott does not do rating inspections, his accreditation equips him to design homes with a goal of attaining a LEED certification. According to the U.S. Green Building Council website, there are currently four “LEED for Homes” certified projects completed on the Island. Scott estimates there are three more in the works. By comparison, Cape Cod has about four completed.

A virtual how-to for other forms of sustainability is Edgartown’s 2009 Decorator Show House & Gardens. The showcase by Island designers benefits Habitat for Humanity of Martha’s Vineyard and is open for tours through October. Although no specific guidelines were set for eco-friendly décor, some of the decorators involved independently utilized earth-responsible elements in their designs. For example, in the living room, John Murphy from Vineyard Decorators chose rattan (a sustainable resource) lounge chairs, ecologically harvested wood for the custom-built furniture, and found objects (bottles) for the lamps. Kathy Tate of Kathryn Tate Interiors used sustainable materials including sisal, straw, and bamboo in her first-floor study and peppered the room with antiques – a sophisticated form of reuse, recycle, and repurpose. Paul Lazes of Rock Pond Kitchens designed the kitchen with current technologies for green cabinetry, including using sustainably harvested wood, formaldehyde-free adhesives, and finishes that have reduced amounts of (or no) toxic pollutants.

In general, low-emission, environmentally friendly paint covers all the interior walls, and natural fibers were used extensively, including many draperies, curtains, and slipcovers in washable fabrics. Nancy Kelly of Bradford Designs decorated the second-floor sitting room with wool, cotton, linen, and bamboo – all of which are natural and sustainable. Much of the furniture is slip-covered in cotton: a great use of natural fiber to extend the life of the chairs, sofa, and ottoman beneath.

Outside, the gardens’ drip-irrigation system, fountain pumps, and lighting are solar powered. The barbecue burns wood pellets. The kitchen garden, designed by Barbara Lampson of Land Design, is loaded with recycled materials and earth-smart soil-working techniques. Trader Joe’s shopping bags act as whimsical hanging tomato planters, and all plantings are organic.

Part of green thinking is the idea of supporting local industry. Nancy Kelly, who chaired the Show House, recalls, “When we started this project, one of the things I absolutely insisted on is everybody who worked on this house came from the Vineyard. The people who work here and live here care about the Island.”