For students at the State University of New York at New Paltz, finding inspiration for making eco-friendly decisions is as easy as finding a place to go for the High Holidays. The town’s Chabad Jewish Student Center has gone green.

As renovations and an expansion project progressed at the Chabad House, Rabbi Moshe and Bracha Plotkin were researching some of the more sustainable options available in building materials and design. They quickly realized that the center – which provides everything from religious services to Torah classes to inspiring Shabbat and holiday meals – was sitting on a unique opportunity to reduce cost and help the environment at the same time.

“This turned out to be a win-win situation,” Bracha Plotkin said shortly after last month’s grand opening of the new center. “Time and again, we hear of environmentally-friendly measures costing the proverbial arm and a leg. It doesn’t need to be that way.”

The pro-earth campaign began serendipitously with a municipal order changing the building’s weight requirements. The conventional approach would have been to quadruple the number of support beams, but the project engineer suggested I-shaped beams made from compressed wood chips, a by-product of the milling process. The beams are stronger than solid wood and, because they are made entirely of pre-consumer waste, using them reduces the need for harvested lumber.

“Our engineer specialized in sustainable architecture, and she made certain choices available along the way that other engineers might not be aware of,” relayed Moshe Plotkin, who came to New Paltz in 2003. “It was easy to make those decisions.

“For example, when she presented the option of using bamboo flooring instead of hard wood, an up-and-coming technique, I thought, ‘Well, if you can build it with grass, why cut down a tree?’ ”

The Kitchen is Key

The concepts of eco-friendly construction and upgrading heating and other systems to consume less energy are catching on throughout the United States. According to a report done by McGraw-Hill, by November 2007 – the most recent time period studied – 40 percent of home remodeling in the United States was done with the environment in mind.

Anecdotally, few locales in America have embraced the model as wholeheartedly as New Paltz. Two popular majors at the university are environmental science and environmental studies, and many students are involved in local environmental projects. The local government even opted recently to add solar panels to the town hall. Nonetheless, not every idea put forward by the Plotkins made it past city inspectors.

“We tried adding a few more things to our design, but either the local Building Department voiced opposition, or the Planning or Zoning Board objected,” said the rabbi, an adjunct faculty member at New Paltz.

One of the ideas vetoed by the local boards was a drainage system designed to work without electricity, which the city’s engineer concluded would not be able to handle runoff during a rainstorm. A standard drainage system was installed instead.

Still, the Plotkins managed to incorporate enough ideas to end up with a building that sports a three-story addition, but uses substantially less fossil fuel and 50 percent less water than the previous Chabad House.

Some of the innovations were decidedly “old school,” like placing large windows on the south and east exposures to make artificial lights unnecessary during the day. Others have yet to catch on in home design, such as locating the new commercial-size kitchen in the center of the house: By not insulating its walls, heat generated by cooking is automatically used by the adjoining public spaces, a fact that helped the new part of the building maintain a constant 65-degree temperature throughout the winter, even before a heating system came online.

In addition, smart interior design and the use of highly-efficient light bulbs have made it possible to illuminate the entire addition – including the new synagogue and student activity center – with wattage equivalent to that used by one room lighted by traditional bulbs.

Adding some fun and community spirit to the project, the Plotkins invited their friends and supporters to come over the week before construction began for a unique house-warming party. Everyone took home plants and flowers to be replanted in their own yards, and helped remove fencing that was then reused in other parts of the property.

“As much as possible,” said Plotkin,” we reused building materials either as part of the new structure or as fencing. The extra wafer-board from the old walls was used by students to create posters and a graffiti wall for the school’s Rock Against Racism concert.”

Students praised the new center. David Jakim asserted that the Chabad House set an example in its construction.

“They’ve made creative use of energy that other builders should emulate,” said Jakim, a co-chair of the local Village Environmental Commission who is pursing a degree in Environmental Geochemical Science. The local government should incorporate some of the Chabad House’s innovations in its building codes, he added.

“I think Jews have a large impact on the world,” said Jakim. “There is a lot of potential to motivate others to make a good impact on environmentalism.”