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Green Remodeling for a Historic Home: Zabriskie House

Aurora is A very special place: a place of ancient trees, ensconced on the east by rolling hills with uninterrupted views, and protected by the calm shores of Cayuga Lake to the west. The village itself—founded in 1789, now a National Historic District—is brimming with remarkable architectural gems, many of which today make up the Inns of Aurora. We’re dedicated to maintaining the beauty and authenticity of these fine historic buildings, monuments to the families who shaped Aurora. Yet we also believe we have a responsibility to care for our natural environment and minimize our impact on the planet’s health.

This presents a challenge: how do we preserve the integrity of an historic mansion like Zabriskie House, while also transforming it into a functioning public space, in a way that’s as environmentally sustainable as possible?

The recent reconstruction of Zabriskie House exemplifies our sustainable approach to historic renovation: as the newest of the Inns of Aurora, it’s the fullest expression of our commitment to environmental design, using state-of-the-art technology to give new life a 115-year old building.



Historic image of Zabriskie House



The sustainable design of Zabriskie House is the shared vision of two people: Pleasant Rowland, the founder of the Inns of Aurora, and Ted Kinder, Development Project Manager. Ted joined the Inns of Aurora after specializing in historic renovation at MCK Building Associates in Syracuse, which he co-founded in 1978. His background was a perfect match with Pleasant’s environmentally-conscious vision for Aurora, and he began working with the Inns of Aurora team in 2014.

“I’ve always been interested in historic renovation, from my college days all the way through my career,” said Ted. “I have the same philosophy that Pleasant has: why go and create something new, when there are so many beautiful buildings—especially in the Northeast—that could be restored? It just seems a shame to tear them down. They’re part of our history.”

Beyond preserving something beautiful, historic renovation is an important part of sustainable development. Adapting an existing structure requires fewer raw materials and less development of green space than new construction. Without renovation, historic buildings deteriorate into unusable ruins. Renovation reclaims those materials and extends their usefulness.

All of this is in keeping with the spirit of stewardship that has motivated the Inns of Aurora since the beginning: “It started when [Pleasant] came here in 2000, and established a precedent for how she wanted to do these buildings, which was to make them as energy-efficient as possible,” said Ted.

This approach is relatively straightforward for new construction, but much more difficult for historic structures.

The original parlor fireplace
The original central staircase



Designing from the past, as we did with our staircase renovation project, is about invoking the original craftsmanship and artistry of the existing structures. Designing for the future—both for the buildings themselves and for the environment in which they reside—is about adapting the existing structure to modern technology.

Built in 1904—fifteen years before the first central heating system was patented—Zabriskie House was designed entirely around fireplaces and chimneys, not modern utilities. “Trying to get all the new systems through the building with an existing structure like this is really difficult, said Ted. “You’ve got electrical, plumbing, and HVAC that are now extensive set-ups… We’re putting every bell and whistle into these buildings, trying to get them through spaces that weren’t made for that. And everything that we’re doing has to be hidden from the guests and as unobtrusive as possible.”





Schematic detail of the geothermal heating and cooling system in Zabriskie House.


This unobtrusive design is an important commitment to the values of a simpler time. Zabriskie House’s renovation is not just about reusing an old building, or even simply restoring a piece of architectural history—it’s about holding onto the spirit of hospitality that informed the house’s original planning.

Homes were built for different purposes in the last century: while Zabriskie House’s generous social spaces and connection to the surrounding landscape were the norm in 1904, they’re a rare treat for guests who are used to today’s more cloistered spaces. While many contemporary families don’t have a need for formal dining rooms, parlors, and sitting rooms, these spaces still create a harmonious environment for socializing. Preserving that magic for guests to enjoy is a central value of the Inns of Aurora.

This makes designing for modern, sustainable upgrades doubly challenging: in addition to the technical obstacles of adapting the physical structure of the house, there’s also the aesthetic considerations of preserving the interior space’s integrity and charm—as much as possible—as they were originally designed.

Despite the challenges, Pleasant and Ted are committed to a high environmental standard for Zabriskie House.



When it opens in October of 2019, Zabriskie House will feature several innovative green design features, including:

Geothermal Heating and Cooling

Geothermal systems take advantage of the Earth’s consistent below-ground temperature to regulate the building’s climate. The average underground temperature stays around 55° year-round, which is always warmer than the outside low temperatures in the winter, and cooler than the outside high temperatures in the summer. Zabriskie House’s geothermal system sends loops of piping three hundred feet into the ground below the house, bringing thermal energy back up to a heat pump in the basement. This is about four times more efficient than a traditional furnace, which uses fuel to heat the air directly.



Dark Sky Compliant Lighting

Light pollution is a significant issue for both humans and animals. People’s sleep cycles can be disrupted by too much artificial light, which leads to increased stress and illness. Animal ecosystems can also be disrupted by overlighting. To mitigate this problem, Zabriskie House (and many of the other properties at the Inns of Aurora) use Dark Sky Compliant lighting, which is designed specifically to reduce light pollution. In addition to moderating excessive brightness, Dark Sky Compliant fixtures also minimize blue-spectrum light, which can disrupt the sleep cycles of both people and animals.


The parking lot at Zabriskie House is designed to protect the root systems of existing trees and minimize light pollution.


Environmentally Friendly Parking

The guest parking space at Zabriskie House has several interesting green-design features. Rather than sitting on top of the lawn’s slope, the parking area has been graded below the surface in order to shield the surrounding area from shining headlights as cars enter and exit the space. This prevents light pollution from disturbing our neighbors. We also worked with an aroborist to protect the root structure of the trees around the parking area: the parking space is built around the root systems of the trees. Finally, as with all new development at the Inns of Aurora, paving and impermeable surfaces have been reduced as much as possible to prevent rainwater runoff.

High-Grade Insulation

Preventing heat loss is a major concern for any energy efficient house. Although it’s more expensive to install, the spray-foam insulation used in Zabriskie House will limit heat loss much more than traditional insulation. This will keep guests cozy and also reduce the amount of energy needed to run the heat system.



With all of these innovations in place, the charm and character of Zabriskie House will be carried forward in an updated and environmentally-conscious form. Like all the Inns of Aurora, Zabriskie House represents a commitment to the spirit of an earlier time: its meticulous renovation is designed to bring guests back to an era of genteel hospitality while still feeling fresh and alive. This sustainable historic restoration allows us to preserve the cultural and architectural heritage that these beautiful buildings represent, and also protect the natural environment that sustains this landscape.


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