Green Daytripping in New York City's Backyard

Article Photo

For Columbus Day weekend, I was hoping to go on an overnight trip to somewhere local and affordable -- to avoid airports and minimize driving. More importantly, I was not only looking for a retreat from urban living but, as a long-time environmentalist a bit beleaguered by the recent trendiness of my cause, to be re-inspired about the environmental movement. I found my solution in Tivoli, New York with a visit to an uncommon place called Common Fire.

When I called Common Fire and asked if it would be ok if I came up for a tour, Jeff was eager and welcoming, and I was happily relieved that my weekend plans wouldn't have to include begging my Fire Island friends if I could be their third houseguest.

In 2003, in the days before TV spots with celebrities urging us to replace lightbulbs, take shorter showers and wear ecofriendly jeans, before it was fashionable to travel to ecolodges in Africa or to shop at the Bowery Whole Foods, Kavitha Ro and Jeff Golden, an idealistic couple in their early thirties, set out to build a green housing cooperative in the Hudson Valley. Common Fire cooperative opened its doors in June, 2006, after a year of construction .

Common Fire, certified Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council, is currently the "Greenest Building in the Eastern United States" and it demonstrates what a young couple without a trust fund can do. Kavitha Ro and Jeff Golden contributed most of their salaries from work at other non-profits to the project, squirreling away nearly $100,000 over a three-year period. This seed money allowed the nascent organization to purchase its initial 53 acres. Money for construction came from New York State grants and individual donations. The window company Pella donated the windows, which save as much as 28 percent in energy costs. Kenmore donated the EnergyStar rated appliances, including an induction cooktop that uses magnetic forces to heat steel or iron cookware. Currently Common Fire is self-funding. At 3,600 square feet, it is modest in size for the eleven residents who share food expenses as well as monthly mortgage payments and repairs.

The lure of Common Fire for those wanting to learn more about green building is that it affords you the opportunity to go beyond a green home tour or a visit to the Center for Architecture's "Build it Green" Family Day. The U.S. Green Building Council scores buildings on performance benchmarks. Projects are awarded Silver, Gold, or Platinum certification depending on the number of points they achieve. In New York, only seven buildings have earned a Silver certification. (California and Arizona have mandated that all new public buildings be designed to earn Silver certification. ) The Common Fire co-op was the first building in New York State to earn a Platinum certification, the highest rating. It is the second highest scoring building in the entire LEED New Construction rating system.

Right from the start I felt good about my trip to Common Fire. For one thing, I soon realized that it was worth it alone for the train ride from the city, which was filled with gorgeous views of the Hudson River. Jeff had offered to pick me up at the train station, telling me to look for a 6'3" redhead wearing a Hawaiian shirt. We chatted pleasantly as we drove from the station to Common Fire along a wooded country road, dotted with farms selling pumpkins and apples. We passed Healthy Roots, an organic Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm that sells shares in Brooklyn; and the nearby Greig Farm and Montgomery Place Orchards, which each have u-pick-apples operations.

As we pulled into Common Fire's driveway, large solar panels stood on the lawn as if to greet us. I wanted to explore them more closely, but I was more eager to check out the house.

The founders' goal for Common Fire was not initially to be the greenest building in the eastern US, but instead, as Kavitha told me, to have the building "reflect the integrity of the people living in it." The name of the foundation comes from a book that inspired Kavitha and Jeff, "Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World," which stresses the importance of transformational educational relationships and nurturing spaces. The eleven people living there are of various ages and have varied socially conscious interests, including immigrant rights, education, and organic farming. Most are in some way challenging the status quo, whether in the arenas of race, class, gender, or the environment. Social justice work is often difficult, and Common Fire provides a support group of empathetic listeners.

Sitting down at the kitchen table--a log that a contractor had stumbled upon in the nearby woods--I enjoyed a conversation with two of the residents that wandered from the house and climate change to the prison system and muffin recipes. Part of me had feared that a green cooperative in the woods would draw cultish, patchouli-scented folks who were a bit out of touch with the world at large. So I was relieved and pleasantly surprised to find myself feeling engaged and completely at home with these people and their bucolic setting.

The housing co-op is a blend of old wisdom and new technology. It is a net-zero energy building, which means it produces enough energy on-site from clean renewable sources to meet its needs, and is 100 percent solar powered. It uses half the energy of a comparable building. The architects designed Common Fire to use the natural surroundings for cooling, heating, and light. They oriented the building southward to use the sun's passive energy to heat the building in winter, and to keep it cool in summer eaves block direct sunlight from entering the windows during the hottest hours. The building is set deep in the soil to take advantage of geothermal heating and cooling systems and the heat of the earth is used to heat water that heats the building.

Recycled shredded newspapers are used for insulation and soundproofing. The walls are made of straw. Natural resin holds them together, making them stronger and more soundproof than dry wall. The kitchen counter-top is recycled wood from a former bowling alley.

One of the features that impressed me most was the array of "solatubes". I have seen how skylights could brighten an otherwise dark room in a small apartment, but I had never seen skylights like these, that capture sunlight from the roof and redirect it through reflective tubing down to the ground floor of the house.

The Common Fire building has a three-room root cellar that allows residents to buy significant amounts of local fruits and vegetables in the fall and store them through the winter. The cellars were impressive. They reminded me of when I was little and liked pretending to be in Little House on the Prairie. The house residents also turn fruits into jams; during my visit they were preserving raspberries.

As one of the residents cooked lunch for the house, she asked if I wouldn't mind picking some tomatoes and bell peppers from the yard. Happily I ambled through the organic garden selecting heirloom tomatoes. I began to feel less like Laura Ingalls Wilder and more like Barbara Kingsolver in her recent food memoir "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" as I helped prepare a meal made from local ingredients.

After lunch, I met a five-year-old resident named Ravenna, who was drawing with markers a picture of her home, including the solar panels outside. I wondered how many other five year-olds were that familiar with solar power. She noticed me watching her and stopped drawing to ask if I wanted to meditate with her. Normally, having the short attention span of a busy New Yorker, I never attempt to sit still for more than two minutes, but I figured if a child of five could do it, so could I. We sat on the jute and rubber backed wool rug, and Ravenna demonstrated how to cross your legs, take deep breaths and focus on the inner eye.

Following my crash course in meditation, I took a self-guided tour around the grounds. I finally got a chance to walk up and touch the solar panels. Common Fire uses 60 Sunpower photovoltaic panels (12.9kw). The panels are in a field mounted on steel poles, which allow the angle of the panels to adjust as they follow the sun, increasing energy efficiency by 15%. When I visited, the meters were running in reverse, supplying excess electricity back to the grid. In New York State, government subsidies often cover about half the cost of installing solar panels as long as the system is net metered, allowing extra energy back into the system. But solar power can still be expensive. The panels cost $50,000 after incentives from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority. Though these costs are pricey, the money will be paid back in ten years, and after that the electricity is free for the remainder of the lifespan of the panels--at least another twenty years.

Beyond the solar panel field are brooks and forests to stroll through. Not long after the non-profit started and the land was purchased, Common Fire put a conservation easement on the 25 acres surrounding Common Fire, forever preserving a part of the forest surrounding the house. The founders also have plans to start a green conference center on a different site. And when the foundation sold two 8-acre lots, they put an unusual deed restriction on the land, requiring that future buildings there be green as well. In this way, Common Fire hopes to replicate itself.

As New Yorkers strive to reduce their carbon footprint, choices about the buildings they live and work in have the greatest impact of any environmental decision they will make. When the city completed its emission inventory this past April, the researchers found the largest source of emissions (79 percent) was from buildings. Although large corporations and companies like the Durst Organization garner much of the attention in New York's green building movement, it is the grass-roots organizations like Common Fire which truly inspire me.

As the green design movement catches on and green materials become more cost-effective and readily available, we are witnessing more green building construction and more co-op living and mixed-use zoning. Soon living spaces like the Common Fire co-op may be more of the norm and less of a novelty. Right now it makes for an inspiring day-trip for the environmentalist city dweller.

Contact Common Fire at
info +AT+ commonfire +DOT+ org
464 W. Kerley Corners Tivoli, NY 12583


Great article. I'd like to go there in the snow.

Posted by: Tom Cregan on November 18, 2007 6:46 PM

I too have visited Common Fire and it was an amazing experience. As a survivor of the 60's this current idealism is refreshing and so optimistic. Hope the concepts are catching!

Posted by: Joan on November 19, 2007 2:38 PM

Very inspiring. Would love to know their process in sourcing reusable materials, particularly the bowling alley countertops!

Posted by: Jill Bressler on May 4, 2008 11:22 AM