The New Net-Zero Dream Home

A couple of Sugarbush skiers just completed the home of their dreams in the Mad River Valley. Their monthly electric bill? $15. 

The drives north started in college. “Whenever I could, I’d head up to ski Sugarbush with my roommate, Ben Rosenberg,” Jon Slater remembers. That was some 30 years ago, when they were at Harvard.  They both went on to medical school. “Then Ben started his orthopedic practice in Middlebury and bought a condo at South Village near Sugarbush, so we had a place to stay up here,” Jon remembers, “and we kept coming up to visit.”

Jon and his wife Lori began driving up from their home in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., on weekends. “We soon had four kids. We’d throw them in the  back of our SUV with one juice box each and packed dinners. We would tie the VCR to the center console and tell them we weren’t going to stop  until we got to Waitsfield,” Lori remembers.  “Each time we crossed the Vermont border, I would just go …’aahhh’ and relax,” says Jon.

  “Pretty soon, Ben said, ‘You’re at my condo more than I am, why don’t you just buy it?’” Jon recalls.

The Slaters did,  but they dreamed of building a house of their own. In 2003, they found a parcel of land across the valley, in Warren. They bought the six acres and thought that one day they would build. “We figured we would wait until the kids got out of college,” Jon said. “For years, Lori would fill these notebooks with clippings and notes about what that house would look like.”

“I can see the top of Castlerock from the couch,” says Jon Slater who asked architect Bill Maclay to position the house so it would face Sugarbush’s slopes. Builders Red House installed the custom-made steel trusses and stained oak flooring. Photo by Lindsay Selin/Red House

They finally began building in 2019.  The home Red House Building completed for them on time this past winter is the polar opposite of where they had been living.

“We have this huge old house in Hastings-on-Hudson with crown moldings and all these cute little rooms. We wanted this to be a very simple, clean ski house – something where we didn’t accumulate a lot of stuff or that needed a lot of cleaning,” says Lori.  They wanted room for the kids and their friends, but not too much room. “We love them but don’t want them moving back in,” Lori says with a laugh. Hence, open closets and bunk beds in one bedroom, a second small bedroom with a queen-sized bed, a bed in the loft and an apartment/office over the garage.

They wanted a heated garage that could take all of their skis and Jon’s bikes. They wanted a hot tub and deck looking out at the mountain. And they wanted it all to be environmentally conscious.

Jon and Lori Slater moved in last January. And have barely ever left.

In 2008 Lori and a friend founded In2Green, a company that weaves recycled and organic cotton yarn into throws, scarves, apparel, and more. Having a home that would be “net-zero” – meaning it would generate more power than it used, was important to her and to Jon, a noted child psychiatrist affiliated with Columbia University.

As it happened, the lot they bought in Warren was one of several owned by architect Bill Maclay, a thought leader in sustainable design.

“I bought farmland way back when with the idea of subdividing and having a few farmhouses there and some shared open space,” said Maclay, who lives near them. Maclay is the author of one of the definitive books on net-zero building “The New Net-Zero.”

In fall of 2018, the Slaters shared their vision with Maclay and his co-worker Chris Cook: a simple, clean, open house that would have killer views of the slopes. And one that wouldn’t cost a fortune.

“Yes, building a net-zero house costs more upfront,” Maclay admits. “But over the life of, say, a 30-year mortgage you are going to save upwards of $60,000 in energy bills.”

To get the view of the slopes of Sugarbush the Slaters wanted,  the hillside home would have to face north and west. “That gave us a few challenges in figuring out big windows and how to site solar panels on the roof so they would be most effective,” says Chris Cook of Maclay Architecture who helped design the house. “They also wanted cathedral ceilings and an open living area and that meant we had to put the bedrooms in the ‘basement’ or on the lowest level.”

The deck features a fire pit and hot tub. Solar panels on the roof provide pretty much all the energy the house uses and the large, triple-pane windows keep it toasty warm. Photo by Jeremy Gantz/Red House

With the house built into the side of a hill, that allowed for a walk-out patio for the master bedroom and windows in each of the lower-level bedrooms. On the south side, large windows pour light down the stairway that leads down to the sleeping quarters.

Red House began construction in May 2019, using double stud wall construction and triple-paned Loewen windows to achieve a “high performance” home rating: a rating with the highest criteria for insulation and materials for windows and walls. The roof has an R-value (a measure of insulation) of 60, walls are 40 and the walls below grade are 20.  Solar panels on the roof then provide nearly all the energy the house needs and heat pumps both warm the house in winter and cool it in the summer months.

“This house was so tight that the winter when we were finishing it all we needed was  a tiny space heater to heat the whole space,” Red House’s Chris Quinn recalls. “The energy bill in the summer and fall has been $15 or $20—and that’s with the hot tub,” says Jon.

A Stuv cube wood stove sits at one end of the big open living room—“and that thing blasts heat!,” says Jon.

To avoid using any fossil fuels, at Maclay’s suggestion the Slaters installed a Bertazzoni induction range. “I often get pushback from clients who are used to cooking with gas, but if you look at the top chefs in Europe now, they are all using induction cooking—it’s healthier, too,” Maclay says.

“A friend suggested we go with all white appliances, and at first I wasn’t so sure about that, but I am so glad I did,” notes Lori.

The couple worked closely with Red House along the way. As Jon says, “During the process there were a lot of key moments where we made some decisions that really added to the house,” says Jon.

Throws from Lori Slater’s In2Green eco-friendly home furnishings company grace the custom bunkbeds Red House built in the guest quarters. Photo by Lindsay Selin/Red House

“At one point, Chris  said ‘Let’s pause because I want to be sure you get exactly what you really want,”  Lori said. “That made a huge difference. We got exactly what we wanted thanks to Chris— and they finished on time so we could move in for the winter.”

Quinn suggested making the structural steel trusses a visible design element and had them crafted by Middlebury’s Nop Metalworks. He also found the narrow spiral staircase that, placed in the entryway, allowed them to add a loft with a bed and desk above the kitchen area. And the spalted maple front door was from timber he sourced locally.

We debated about whether to do a living space above the garage, too,” Jon remembers. “It was going cost more but in the end, having a studio space up there worked out perfectly because our oldest daughter moved in there during Covid-19 and I’ve been able to work from there too now.”

The Slaters moved into the house in January 2020 and, with the exceptions of a few trips back to New York, haven’t really left.

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Lisa Lynn

Editor of VT SKI + RIDE and Vermont Sports.