Geothermal mansion brings Caribbean’s warmth to WNY

The Buffalo News | April 26, 2015 | Column by Michelle Kearns

Dr. Greg Daniel’s East Amherst home embodies the climate of his native Trinidad within a very small carbon footprint

A pair of stingrays splashed and circled in the little pool beneath the waterfall in the atrium.

A white cockatoo and a grey parrot looked on from their perches by the palm trees.

This is isn’t Florida. It’s a geothermal house in East Amherst.

Dr. Greg Daniel walked around in stocking feet. He could feel the warm stone walkway through his socks.

“I say living in this house is like traveling from one part of the world to the next,” said Daniel, a native of Trinidad. “This is definitely the Caribbean.”

The atrium is heated, like the rest of the house, with 4 miles of water-filled coils buried 8 feet beneath the lawn and warmed by the earth. The indoor garden was a balmy antidote to the gray spring day on the other side of the windows.

Daniel designed the house with help from a friend.

“We live in an age of climate change,” Daniel said. “We all need to make an attempt to reduce the carbon footprint.”

His home is an elaborate example of Buffalo-area homeowners opting for the geothermal alternative.

Residents are installing geothermal systems at a relatively fast clip. While this region has slightly less than 8 percent of the state’s population, an estimated 20 percent of the sales of geothermal systems are here, according to NY-GEO, an industry group.

Tax incentives help. Federal credits of 30 percent of the cost can work out to about $7,500 for a home installing a standard $25,000 system.

This brings the cost down to $17,500, about $5,000 more than a conventional oil- or gas-burning set up, according to NY-GEO.

“It’s significantly more popular in Europe,” said Dr. Jens Ponikau, a professor of otolaryngology at the University of Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. Ponikau, who financed medical school in Germany by working for a geothermal contractor, befriended Daniel and designed his system.

In Germany, about 26 percent of new homes are geothermal. By law, he said, new builds have a renewable energy source.

In the U.S., the rate of geothermal installation is closer to 1 percent, said Ponikau, whose own house also is geothermal.

As Ponikau explains it, the earth is holding the sun’s energy in reserve waiting to be put to use. “How cool is that?” he said. “You can tap into the stored energy and you can extract it all winter long.”

Daniel’s house, which is not yet a year old, was designed to be “net-zero.” This means it supplies all of its own energy without fossil fuel.

Sensors the size of half dollars are embedded in Daniel’s walls and regulate the temperature at 69 to 71 degrees. Geothermal energy also heats Daniel’s water. And, it cools the house in summer three to four times more efficiently than an air conditioner, said Ponikau.

At Daniel’s house, solar energy pitches in, too. Panels on the horse barn’s roof supply the electricity and run the pump that sends the earth-warmed water through the pipes in every floor. “It made sleeping at night a beautiful thing because you don’t have that dry, forced air,” Daniel said.

A modern villa

Daniel’s two-story stone and wood frame house at the long end of a drive lined with tall trees replaced another house Daniel bought for $1.15 million 2012.

The house, with a front door flanked by two stone eagles, opens to a sweeping staircase, the only original feature Daniel saved. The place looks like a modern incarnation of a Roman villa. Against the wall, a pair of urns in rose stone stand on pedestals. A mosaic of birds on a grapevine is centered into the cream-colored Spanish marble floor.

Just off the circular entry, a steel Trinidadian drum is poised at the doorway to the great room. Stripes of dark wood run in a grid through squares of marble. A tufted chaise longue stretches out by a shiny black grand piano. Flat yellow fish scurry past sea anemones waving like seaweed in the aquarium on the wall behind the bar.

Doorways beyond lead to an airy kitchen, a library with a spiral staircase to the second floor and a windowed area where a colorful talking parrot calls out to the rest of the 10,000-square-foot house.

On the opposite side of the entry is Daniel’s bedroom, with murals inside the doorway. An elephant gazes straight on and a pair of tigers lounge by a waterfall.

Sensors in the master bathroom’s doorway register the doctor’s presence and warm the water so it’s the right temperature as soon as he turns on the tap. Dangle an arm outside the bathtub and it falls on a marble rim heated from the inside.

“When you get up in the morning,” said Daniel, “the floors are warm.”

The elevator in his walk-in closet goes to a second walk-in closet upstairs. There are three more bedrooms and two full bathrooms, with tropical flowers and birds etched on the shower doors.

A movie theater with six recliners has cup holders that glow blue in the dark. A room with a pool table has a balcony view of a workout room below. A doorway surrounded by another tropical mural with birds flying over water leads to the atrium.

“I wanted to be sure that it could withstand the winter,” said Daniel from his seat by the splashing stingrays. “To my amazement, the house stayed at the perfect temperature.”

‘My life changed’

Daniel met Ponikau after he enlisted Buffalo Geothermal Heating to install the system. The Cheektowaga company, which had Ponikau as its first geothermal client in 2008, was stymied by the complexity of Daniel’s vision.

The doctors hit it off. Ponikau offered to design Daniel’s system.

“My life changed after I met this guy,” said Daniel.

Challenges included radiant heat in all the floors and the atrium, which uses half the energy the house produces. The air inside is a humid 76 degrees and the fish in the waterfall pool stay comfortable at a cooler 65 degrees.

To explain how he made things work, Ponikau went to the basement, which is still full of moving boxes. It was quiet. No rumbling sound of a furnace.

Instead pipes on the wall lead to a square metal box about 2½ feet tall, an Indiana-made heat pump by WaterFurnace.

It extracts heat from the water warmed in the underground coils, which circulate about 1,000 gallons in the house’s pipes.

“You fill it once,” Ponikau said. “And you never touch it again.”

The pump transfers the water’s heat to a refrigerant gas, which gets very hot when compressed. That heat then heats up air and water.

On hot days, the system will reverse, using water to take heat from the house and put it into the ground. It makes Ponikau smile and chuckle a little to think he converted his house, and now his friend’s, to work without burning fuel.

“I actually cherish his approach and I share it,” said Ponikau of Daniel.

Daniel, an emergency room doctor retired from medical practice, and a philanthropist and entrepreneur, has a warm, attentive presence of contained energy. His smooth bald pate gives him a glamorous Hollywood look, like an older Michael Jordan.

He was 17 when made his way to the U.S. from Trinidad. He moved by himself for a University of Wisconsin track and field scholarship. He was on his own. He went from boy to man in weeks.

“It was quite a tectonic shift for me,” he said. “It’s a culture shock. It’s being totally disassociated from your family.”

He came to Buffalo for his residency after medical school. While overseeing emergency rooms for Catholic Health System hospitals, he got an idea that led to him to found one of the first local chains of urgent care centers in 2007.

“While managing the ERs, I saw a need for an alternative environment,” said Daniel, who also has an MBA from the University of California at Irvine.

He sold the urgent care company, Western New York Immediate Care, in 2012 and started his dream home. In the last nine months living in it, the atrium has become his Saturday refuge.

He likes puttering in the garden among the orchids and palms. When he arrives, Grace, the cockatoo, greets him with a tap of her beak. From the hidden speaker that looks like a rock, he can use his phone to turn on smooth jazz for himself and the birds. It’s cool.

“That’s the idea. That’s exactly the idea. To create something cool,” Daniel said. “It’s cool. It’s calming.” As he talked and smiled, the stingrays splashed like punctuation.

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PAUSE, People of Albany United for Safe Energy
PAUSE is a grassroots group of individuals who have come together to promote safe, sustainable energy and fight for environmental justice. We engage the greater public to stop the fossil fuel industry’s assault on the people of Albany and our environment.