It’s ironic that architecture and design firm Modern NetZero is using high technology to take homes back to their natural state. The mission behind the East Hampton-based firm is to produce beautiful homes that are both constructed of sustainable materials and consume no energy. Co-founder Marc Cléjan, who partnered with his wife Anna, put it succinctly: “We’re creating a new category of homes that use architecture, design and technology to improve quality of life while lowering costs and environmental impacts.”
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Marc hails from a reputable career in sustainability, having served for a decade as co-founder and CEO of GreenLogic, a Southampton contracting company that provides alternative energy solutions. For MNZ, he manages the projects and brings all the technology expertise.
Lead designer Anna boasts an artistic background as both a ceramist and interior designer. At MNZ she oversees the design on every project, “from layout and sourcing materials to selecting finishes and fixtures…and staging,” she said. A third partner, Mark Thackrah, serves as architect.
Looking at the six homes the trio has already built (with two more projects in the process of finishing), it is fair to say their oeuvre embraces similar design elements. Aesthetically, all the structures, while ultimately different, share sleek clean lines, open floorplans, warm interiors, wide-plank oak floors, custom kitchens by Bilotta and dramatic, floating steel staircases.
All MNZ structures require optimized siting to ensure that the gleaming glass boxes are oriented to keep the sun out during summer while flooding it with light during months when solar rays are at a lower angle. In this “passive design” approach they employ computer software to gauge with precision where every ray of light will enter the home. Furthermore, they incorporate unobtrusive soffits into the glass, cedar and stucco exteriors to reduce solar penetration. Prices range from $2.3 to $8 million, and designs can be adapted to a wide range of sizes.
What technologies are used to allow a house to produce as much energy as it consumes?
Marc Cléjan: We combine a series of technologies to reach net zero. We are the only company [in the Hamptons] using all these technologies and design components. Most architecture and design is stuck in old ways and is not evolving quickly enough. We look at our package as “special sauce,” if you will.
Starting with the foundation, we use a unique system called insulated concrete forms (ICF). Most foundations out here are formed of wood that concrete is poured into. When the forms are taken away you are left with a slab of concrete, which provides little insulation and is very porous. We use premade ICF blocks that have insulation on both sides. We pour the concrete into the blocks and they stay there, making for a basement that is naturally warm and dry.
We use two kinds of solar technologies: panels that go on the roof to produce electricity and rubber thermal mats that heat the pool. What’s great about them is that our design ensures that neither is visible.
Anna Cléjan: Our lighting is all LED. We spent a lot of time testing dozens of bulbs and found only one that had that a warm incandescent feel. LED consumes about a tenth of the energy of incandescent and in a house where we have about a hundred bulbs, it makes a huge difference. And they last forever—up to thirty years—so you’re not polluting the environment with bulbs.
How are the houses heated?
MC: Our houses are all heated and cooled geothermally, meaning that energy is transferred from the earth rather than being combusted by fossil fuels. It’s a bit of magic that you can take that energy, which measures in at fifty-five degrees, and transform it into eighty degrees. Regular heating systems are ninety-five percent efficient while geothermal is four hundred percent—you spend one watt to move four watts into the house. We’re tied to the grid so when the sun is out, you’re producing more energy than you need, and that energy gets pushed back to the utility and they issue credit. At night you’re taking it back off the grid. We have very sophisticated ways of forecasting how much energy a house is going to consume and how much our systems will produce so that we can maintain our net zero certification.
How do your homes improve your well-being?
AC: First, with all the glazing, they are both filled with light and bring Mother Nature inside the home. We also focus on having a neutral palette that invokes a soothing feel. We take into consideration feng shui elements such as always having an outdoor shower even for some master suites (water), the direction of airflow (wind) and the connection of indoor to outdoor (earth). We always include a fire pit (fire).
Geothermal heat allows for a steady flow of low temperature air as opposed to blasts of hot air that are very drying to the skin. You don’t need a humidifier. We also employ a fresh air exchange system so that the home is flooded with outside air. It’s connected to a “magic box” that conditions it to warm or cool so you’re not bringing in hot or cold air.
Why do you think homeowners have been slow to embrace sustainability?
MC: I think it’s because they’re operating with old information and don’t know what’s available. They’re not aware that they can buy a green house with no aesthetic compromise—they can have a drop-dead beautiful modern house with minimal environmental impact that saves them money and costs the same as an equivalent unsustainable home. It took a company like Tesla to make a beautiful electric car. We think of ourselves as the Tesla of homes—the homes of the future.
You developed a streamlined design/build process that allows homes to be designed and built in about twelve months—half the time for a custom house. How do you achieve this?
AC: In a typical new house it takes an architect about a year of designing, then it takes the general contractor another year to build. We have five design models and can show them to clients who can make decisions based on the real thing, not a piece of paper. Design takes about two months from day one until final plans. We’re also the builder so that when we talk about an adaptation we know exactly what it’s going to cost. We present them with pricing and options right out of the gate with all details worked out. It then takes nine to ten months, including landscaping, till they can literally move in. Everything is on time and on budget.