‘Green has popped up,” says Barbara Cuneo. Along with her husband, Alan Kesselhaut, she is a principal in Herrontown Builders, a design/build firm that has been building luxury homes in Princeton for 23 years. An accomplished businesswoman, world traveler, and grandmother of three, she comes across, more than anything, as an avid scholar.
Cuneo and her husband are building their first green house on four acres at 48 Cradle Rock Road, a buccolic area of Princeton Township, off Pretty Brook Road. Nearing completion, the 6,200-square-foot spec house is on the market for $3,195,000. Cuneo is using the project as part of her education in green. Reading, attending conferences, and talking to experts, she is immersed in learning all there is to know about green building, and is applying what she can in this house. She is analyzing the movement, questioning the hype, and studying the ways in which green building can blend seamlessly into the homes of her clients — people who have enough folding green to live in any kind of house they choose.
There could be an argument, of course, that a 6,200-square-foot one-family house on a lot large enough to accommodate every household within, say, the Kennedy clan, is, ipso facto, not green. But as long as the United States isn’t somehow turned into a Communist state, there will be a demand for homes like this. Cuneo is making it her mission to ensure that, large though they may be, these houses sit responsibly on their land — and serve as examples for others.
“We’re doing this spec house to publicize green building,” she says. “We’re showing you can have the classic Princeton house you envision, and it can be green. It doesn’t have to be weird, with grass growing on the roof.”
Smart, aware, and articulate, Cuneo is an ideal spokesperson for practical green.
“Thomas Friedman just wrote in a column (in the New York Times) that green is the new red, white, and blue,” says Cuneo. “In the fashion industry they’re saying that green is the new black. Everybody is having a whole issue with green. It was Al Gore’s film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ that started it all.”
The green movement did precede Gore’s global warming movie, but, as Cuneo points out, it was the movie that added the momentum. “We’re a pop culture society,” she says. And green is suddenly in — and suddenly urgent, thanks in some part to Gore’s cinematic prediction of world-wide meltdown.
“Meteorologists say you can’t look at any event,” but, she notes, “we just got back from Sedona. They haven’t had any real rain in nine years. People think global warming is that you wear a T-shirt (in what used to be winter), but no, it’s extremes of weather.”
When she and her husband set out to build their green house, they had myriad decisions to make.
“When we first started talking about it,” says Cuneo, “Alan said ‘I don’t know if we can do everything.” Undaunted, Cuneo forged ahead. “Nobody is doing everything,” she says. “We do the best we can within the confines of what we know. We have a direction, and we’re making an effort.”
How about her customers? Are they willing to embrace green?
“That’s what we’re struggling with,” she says. The answer in at least some cases is yes. Herrontown Builders is starting a custom house for a client who has just agreed to have it powered by a geothermal pump, one of the most expensive green elements a house can have. In the spec house, which also includes a geothermal pump, most of the green elements are invisible.
“You come in. You turn up the thermostat. Everything is the same for the homeowner,” says Cuneo. She is aware that many people may pay lip service to green living, but that when it comes right down to it, they want all of the traditional comforts — and they don’t want to pay a lot more for them.
Green advocate that she is, Cuneo does work at convincing clients that the geothermal pump is worth the money. The pump draws upon the constant, relatively cool temperature of the soil at about six feet below the ground. It heats it up a bit in the winter, and pushes it throughout the house all year long. In doing so, it cuts power costs by about 70 percent. The pump, which is not much larger than a conventional furnace, costs about three times more than a conventional heating and cooling system, but returns that cost — in the form of lower utility bills — in five to ten years.
“The price of oil isn’t going down. We know that,” says Cuneo, who predicts that the pay-back time on a geothermal pump is going to get shorter and shorter. One of Herrontown Builders’ early clients, she recounts, was an energy trader who saw into the future and had them install a geothermal pump some 20 years ago. “He’s been calculating the savings ever since,” she says. “The difference is enormous.”
Did she and her husband consider using solar power too? The question gets Cuneo’s back up. “People say, ‘Oh solar!,” she says, clearly indicating that she isn’t a big fan. One of her objections, she says, is that when it comes right down to it, the onus of powering the country should not ride on the backs of consumers.
“Every homeowner can subsidize alternative power without spending $70,000 to put solar panels on their roofs,” she says. “It’s a well-kept secret, buried on a PSEG bill. For $15 a month, you can choose from something like five alternative energy companies. The power goes into the grid. The future of alternative energy should be like that. Not each individual making a huge upfront outlay.”
Besides, Cuneo adds, solar doesn’t work in Princeton. “We started talking to solar companies,” she says, “and we found out that there’s something like a 90 percent failure rate in Princeton — too many trees.”
Green elements that Cuneo and her husband have included in the Cradle Rock house include paint that is free of volatile organic compounds and wood joints made of “pieces of wood pressed together.” In addition to “using all of the parts of a tree,” the recycled joints are better than those cut from whole trees, says Cuneo. “All of the good old-growth trees are gone anyway,” she explains. “The wood they’re using now (for joints) is not structurally great. It’s weaker.”
Sourcing the wood for other parts of the house — the floors, for example — brought up a whole nother set of green conundrums.
“We are using oak, like we usually do,” says Cuneo. “I haven’t found a better solution. Bamboo is all the craze, but it doesn’t look right in houses like this. Besides, the chain of custody is unclear. I’ve heard that in Thailand they’re mowing down old-growth forest to plant bamboo.”
She does buy from a sustainable forest, but says that there can be issues with that strategy too. “What if the sustainable forest is in Oregon, and the wood has to be shipped all the way across the country?” she asks. How do you weigh the benefit of using trees that you know will be replaced against the energy expenditure of trucking a heavy load across a 3,000-mile-wide country?
Happily, she resolved that problem by buying wood from a sustainable forest just 50 miles away, but she is still casting about for a better way to provide future clients with beautiful floors. “That’s our decision now,” she says, “but I’m a little bit unsure. It’s chicken and egg. Of the choices we had, I still think it made more sense with the information we have.”
While wood flooring can be optional, it would be awfully hard to build a house without concrete. Studying every aspect of green building, Cuneo learned that the manufacture of this essential building element is responsible for about 8 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. It is, she learned, the most abundant manufactured material in the world, and that annual production is about two tons for every person on the planet. So she and her husband decided to use only concrete that has a recycled element to it. “We just poured the footings,” she says. “They contain 30 percent recycled aggregate.” This, like most of the energy saving elements of the house, does not add to costs.
She wishes that the decision on how to illuminate the new house was so easy. “Lighting is the bane of my existence,” exclaims Cuneo. “Trying to figure that out.” She has bought 600 compact fluorescent bulbs — 600! — and is in the process of testing them (and also of trying to give some away). “We bought a whole variety to see what works,” she says. The bulbs use just 25 percent of the energy of an incandescent bulb, but don’t always provide good light.
Cuneo thinks that compact fluorescents are good enough for standing lamps, but not for the “recessed lighting that people want and expect.” She says that “there is no substitute for the old recessed bulb.” Then, clearly struggling, she adds that there is one compact fluorescent that could just possibly be acceptable. But “it’s very slow to come to full light,” she says. She pales at the thought of her clients “flipping a switch on and off and not getting light.”
“It’s a challenge,” she says. “We’re about to have to put bulbs in the fixtures, and I don’t know what to do.”
Crystal clear on one other green lighting issue, Cuneo does not like the concept of motion sensors that turn lights off when the last human leaves the room. “I think we can all learn to turn our lights off,” she says, just a bit tartly.
As Cuneo talks about her journey into the challenges and contradictions of green building, she pauses long enough to recount how she and her husband came to the business of high-end home building that they are trying to transform. It was anything but a straight road.
Cuneo grew up in the upper reaches of Manhattan, the daughter of two Holocaust survivors who met after arriving in the United States. “They had very, very hard lives. They lost family members,” she says. Her father, who is now deceased, had to spend more than five years in Bolivia waiting to immigrate. He had earned the U.S. equivalent of a Ph.D., but had to take a low-paying social work job. “He tried to start his own business, but was terrible at it,” his entrepreneurial daughter recalls with a fond laugh. Her mother, who is now 95, worked as a secretary. “They worked hard. They saved money,” Cuneo says. “They immediately spoke good English. They had to.”
Cuneo attended CUNY (Class of 1965) for both her undergraduate degree and her master’s and Ph.D. She then went into retail, opening a contemporary crafts store that still exists in Massachusetts. From there she went into big retail, working for Herman’s sporting goods, Saks, where she was director of market research and planning, and finally for Lenox, where she was a director of merchandising.
Kesselhaut grew up in Newark, where his parents owned and operated a retail store. He studied graphic arts at the University of Connecticut (Class of 1962), and then worked in advertising for J. Walter Thompson. He soon went out on his own, and started a company that did graphic design at first, but then morphed into a country music magazine publisher.
When that venture ended, he was on the look-out for something else to do, and landed in real estate. He was working on a project in northern New Jersey that was going nowhere at about the same time that Cuneo was thinking she had had her fill of corporate life. Helped along their way by some seed money from Cuneo’s mother, the pair turned to building, and quickly established a niche in the luxury market. They build their custom homes one at a time, rarely completing more than “two-and-a-half” projects a year.
The role each plays is carefully defined. Kesselhaut is the construction manager, working on-site day-to-day. He is also the graphic designer and website creator. Cuneo adds the words — working on all facts of marketing. Both work at sourcing materials. Cuneo is also responsible for paying the bills. “Believe me,” she says, “that’s an important job.” She says that paying sub-contractors and craftsmen on time is key to building and maintaining relationships with the best workmen. Many of the people who work for Herrontown Builders have literally grown up in the company, she says, starting right after college, and staying on as they have children and enter middle age.
Cuneo and Kesselhaut, the parents of three grown sons between them, are themselves into the grandparenting years. But retirement is not on their horizon. “Why retire?” asks Cuneo. “If we want to, we can cut back to just one house a year. We really control this thing.”
The pair decided long ago not to postpone pursuits that others tend to save for after a working life is over.
“We work at having other parts of life,” says Cuneo. “We’re doing a lot of traveling — all over the world. We just renewed our vows in Bhutan. We go to the theater a lot. Things happen that are a slap in the face, that make you realize this doesn’t go on forever. We make a point of doing things we want.”
Learning is obviously one of those things. Energized by the thought of building in new ways, of accomplishing traditional goals by novel means, Cuneo and Kesselhaut are in the forefront of the great green building revolution that is just beginning. Green has indeed popped up, and they are trying to figure out just how to bring it into full bloom.
Herrontown Builders, 443 Herrontown Road, Princeton 08540. Barbara Cuneo, president. 609-921-3519. Home page:www.herrontownbuilders.com.