“I have done several 10-day ‘sits’ at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Massachusetts, he says, “and auto motion lights like these silently guide you through the meditation areas. They light your path just enough to see where you’re going.”
This idea of soothing, meditative space that both sustains and celebrates the surrounding environment was the path Isaac, his wife Nitza, and their 10-year-old twin daughters chose when they found this house in Nyack, 25 miles north of New York City, and began a green renovation.
“There is a sacredness, a spirituality to caring for the environment,” says Shamah, a former partner in an importing business in New York City’s garment district, and now a psychotherapist in private practice, with an office in the house.
The house sits snugly next door to “Pretty Penny,” Helen Hayes’s grand estate where she lived for over 50 years. In 1996, talk show host Rosie O’Donnell bought both houses, reportedly using what is now the Shamahs’s home for the babysitter.
When Isaac and Nitza bought the 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom house in 2000, it was covered in grey aluminum siding, parts of the third floor had long ago been partitioned for use as a rooming house, and there was a small, hard-to-access kitchen, redone in the 1980s.
The first project was the kitchen. “I wanted them to circulate happily through the space,” says local interior designer Meryl Foster. “The kitchen was diabolical…you had to go through a maze to reach it from the front door. It stopped any organic flow of light and air through the house.”
“To me, it was all about creating a beautiful, green, and healthy environment in the home and the garden,” Shamah explains. “I wanted the house to also reflect the healing aspects of both my therapy practice and meditation.”
Foster designed the layout of the new kitchen and then worked with another designer, Philip Barcellona, during the construction phase, to create the central hub of the family living areas. The footprint was enlarged and appliances and cabinets were replaced.
Whenever possible, Isaac and Nitza insisted on “recycling” furnishings from previous homes. “They have such a casual lifestyle,” Foster says, “that was the lead I took.”
A giant Holly Hunt dining table in the sunroom serves as the family dinner table, while the so-called formal dining room near the front of the house is for ping pong. The sunroom was rebuilt when a back entrance was added to the house, leading up a stairway to the sunroom, with solar window shades, which spans the back of the house. The sunroom then opens into the kitchen, giving a bird’s eye view of Isaac’s organic gardens in the back.
Even in winter, cold frames in the garden burst with lettuce and Swiss chard. At the height of summer, the gardens yield organic tomatoes, eggplant, squash, garlic, rhubarb, soy beans, and more. Leftovers and scraps go back to the garden as compost, mixing in fall leaves collected from neighbors and horse manure (traded for cucumbers) from a nearby farm.
The entrance to Isaac’s office is, appropriately, right off the garden. “In gardening, as in psychotherapy, you’re dealing with the energies of growth and healing,” he says, walking through the raised garden beds that are wintering over. “The house, too, needs to be as much integrated into the Earth and nature as possible.”
One of the first things the family did was have the house tested for air leaks to mitigate loss of heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. Rim joists under the floors were sprayed with polyurethane foam insulation and the plumbing and electrical penetrations between the basement and ground floor were sealed.
On the exterior, the walls were pneumatically dense-packed with loose blown fibrous insulation, primarily recycled newspaper.
About 30 percent of the family’s year-round electricity comes from a 3.4 kilowatt solar installation on the roof. Under the roof, a thick layer of insulation is designed to increase the R value and reduce the loss of heat.
An inverter in the girls’ closet on the third floor changes from DC to AC in the summer and unused power goes back into the grid, giving the Shamahs credit with the utility company, Orange and Rockland. A 90 percent AFUE (Annual Fuel Utilization Efficiency) gas furnace heats the home. Shamah keeps the three zones in the house, and a fourth for his office, set to 68 degrees in the day and 65 at night. All the old double hung windows, and even the crank windows in the curved walls, were replaced with double-paned, vacuum-sealed units.
The second floor master bedroom suite includes a family TV area and a master bath. This bathroom and one more on the second floor, both done in black and white tile, may be renovated in the future. Another bedroom serves as a workout room; a third is for guests.
Up the stairs again, by the path of the meditation lights, at one end of the former “boarding house” third floor, the girls share a suite of rooms in cotton candy pink, where a round tent of hanging ribbons “with a Moroccan feel” that Foster designed after several consults with them, hangs in a corner turret.
“From a psychological point of view,” Isaac says, “children are often put into a space of someone else’s creation. I think it was important for them to be part of the process.”
At the other end of the third floor is Isaac’s meditation room with a few simple floor pillows and sweeping Hudson views.
“It’s all about doing the internal work,” he says, “so your mind, your garden, and your house are as healthy as possible.”
Resource List Motion-Activated Night Lights Cooper Lighting Peachtree City, GA.; cooperlighting.com Interior Design and Resources Meryl foster Nyack; (845) 353-2888; merylfoster.com Interior Design PM Barcellona Design Services Nyack; (845) 353-7809
Furnace Lennox Richardson, TX; (800) 9-lennox; lennox.com Furnishings Holly Hunt Chicago, IL; (800)320-3145; hollyhunt.com Energy Use and Air Leak Assessment Choose Green Energy Union City, NJ; (917) 257-6659; choosegreenenergy.com Interior and Exterior Insulation Zero Draft Mississagua, Ontario; (877) 272-2626; zerodraft.com Solar Energy ISI Solar New City; (845)-708-0800; isi-solar.com Solar Inverter Xantrex Burnaby, British Columbia; (604)422-8595; xantrex.com Curved, Double-Pane Windows Full Circle Glass Pearl River; (845) 735-4137; fullcircleglass.com