It doesn’t look like much. In fact, you could say Columbia Island is a concrete slab of an eyesore in the Long Island Sound off the coast of New Rochelle, N.Y. But soon it will be a 6,000-square-foot residence that’s off the grid and self-powered by solar and a solar storage system.
The island is only about 150 by 150 feet and almost all of its space is taken up by a concrete bunker that formerly housed TV transmission equipment for CBS (Columbia Broadcasting Service), hence the island’s name. From afar you might think it resembles a mini Alcatraz.
But the island’s owner, 71-year-old filmmaker and actor Al Sutton, saw something in that concrete pile. On his initial visit to the island he was struck by the natural beauty of the views and how different patterns emerge between the sun and the changing tides. The bird life and everything there is stunning,” he says. “I view it as a place to be inspired by different things. It’s a diamond in the rough.”
Rough may be the operative word. Some of the concrete sea walls were eroding. Corrosion from the salt air has taken its rusty toll on the metal transmission equipment. The island was a fixer-upper of the highest order.
Self-Powering an Island
Sutton, who lives in bustling Manhattan, thought about it and decided he wanted to put something together really well. Tons of old TV transmission and other nonfunctional equipment were removed. He could have had the concrete bunker demolished, but he decided to rebuild it instead. A few years passed with a couple of false starts with contractors Sutton says did not understand the marine environment, then he found Harry Hunt, who runs Marine Solutions and has refurbished everything from boats to high-end cars with marine-grade materials and techniques.
Work on the island resumed in May 2011. A barge was rented to transport 100,000 pounds of machinery including desalination water makers, Mastry marine generators, 60 solar panels and the stainless steel framing for them, a fork lift truck and more.
The two custom-built, synchronized, 45-kilowatt Mastry MasPower generators powered work on the island and photovoltaic solar array, with 60 RECsolar panels of 240 watts each, producing 14.4 kw. The power is stored in an array of 48 marine-grade batteries, consisting of four banks of twelve 4-volt batteries wired in series. Six Xantrex 6-kw inverters and four solar charge converters (one each for 15 panels) combine to provide the island with 5,400 amp hours of storage, Hunt says.
Hunt says that arc welders working at the island have pulled 7,000 kw of electricity from the solar panels at one time, as the panels produce about 10,000 kw, and that the generators have only required a couple of gallons of gas since the solar installation.
The 1,200-square-foot solar array may be augmented by facing Milwind wind turbines. The turbines are S-shaped vertical units designed to operate efficiently at low wind speeds. The S-shaped, Savonius type rotor, gets maximum efficiency of about 20 percent to 30 percent, and feature a closed cylinder to protect inner workings of the turbine from weather.
Presently, heat and hot water is supplied by three 250,000-BTU oil burners, and disbursement of the heat is via an in-floor radiant system, in which the 120-degree Fahrenheit water heats the concrete floor’s thermal mass for more efficient and longer-lasting heat distribution. In addition, a 1,200-gallon-per-day Village Marine Tech reverse osmosis system provides fresh water.
Floating LED Paradise
The structure itself is getting a modern redesign with overhangs, a rebuilt parapet and new stucco. There will be a pier and landscape decking. Hunt may also include a large propeller turbine to produce enough juice to light it up for a modern industrial look.
Sutton doesn’t have any big plans for high-tech systems inside the living space. He’s not seeking electronics to upstage the scenery. But Hunt is looking at a mix of high-tech and low-tech with Honeywell controlling the furnaces by ambient temperature sensors and Danfoss mechanical thermostats that won’t corrode. “Everything we put in is marine-grade,” he says.
One high-tech amenity may be LEDs and floating lights that illuminate the granite sea floor around the island in low tide. That would fit with Sutton’s vision of creating something beautiful and inspirational.
“Something has to change if you change your environment that radically. You remove yourself from all of the conditions in which we live, and you get very powerful images,” Sutton says.
And when the project is finished—or at least habitable, perhaps Sutton will embark on a film about the island and its transformation from an abandoned concrete bunker to a self-sustaining island getaway.