Drawings and text by Lorraine Plaxico
Because Western North Carolina is in the forefront nationally for green homes, Xpress challenged me to depict and describe a handful of the area’s most intriguing and inspiring green homes. The project took several months and involved scores of conversations with builders, designers, architects, homeowners and the good folks at WNC Green Building Council — plus lots of hours drawing. The outcome is presented here: eight looks at the diversity, creativity and grace of living green in Western North Carolina.
Light-filled art space
DESIGNER: Alembic Studio
BUILDER: Equinox Woodworks
SIZE: 1,650 sq. ft.; 1BR, 2BA, sleeping porch
Alembic Studio designed this passive-solar, energy-efficient home for a creative couple who wanted minimal environmental impact. The placement of windows and the movement of light were important to them, as were outdoor living spaces. The couple requested an artist’s studio that included an amphibian environment, which required humidity control and drainage for terrariums. The designers conducted sun studies and analyzed both the steep site and their clients’ living patterns. To minimize the footprint, Alembic included an elevator and a sleeping porch; the house received Green Built NC Gold certification.
ARCHITECT: Alice Dodson
BUILDER: Scott Piller
SIZE: 4,500 sq. ft.; 5BR, 5BA
Commanding its ridge top like a grand Italian villa, this home is crafted from local stone and hand-hewn timbers. The owners and architect were committed to green technology, and despite its size, the house is extremely energy-efficient. Durisol mineralized wood-chip wall forms filled with mineral wool insulation and reinforced concrete create an envelope with an R40 rating. The versatile geothermal system provides heating and cooling, hot water and in-floor heating. Tax credits and lower energy bills offset the higher upfront cost.
Eco-urban living/learning laboratory
FOUNDING DIRECTOR/DESIGNER: Janell Kapoor
Ashevillage Sanctuary eco-urban demonstration center offers hands-on workshops in permaculture, natural building and other topics. The 1-acre site contains examples of structural earthen wall systems, natural finishes, living roofs and brick ovens. A 1920s house doubles as the center’s headquarters, showcasing both interior and exterior earthen finishes that can be used to retrofit conventional homes. Its brick walls are covered with richly colored, clay-based plasters and three-dimensional organic designs. A free-form arched entrance was created using earthen bricks. Inside, formed and tray ceilings, cased openings and wall niches sculpted out of handmade plasters evoke an adobe dwelling.
ARCHITECT: Bruce Johnson
BUILDER: Lake James Custom Homes
SIZE: 808 sq. ft.; 2BR, 2BA
The owners postponed construction of their main house during the recession, but they found their small guest cabin’s versatile plan extremely livable. The versatile central solar porch has removable panels — screens for the summer and Plexiglas for cooler weather — that enable the residents to enjoy the space during more of the year. Rollout awnings create extra shade, making the porch an inviting living and sleeping space in summer. Heat vented from the adjacent kitchen’s wood stove keeps it comfortable when it’s cold outside. Both living wings feature radiant floor heating. Kitchen storage/seating alcoves double as overflow sleeping areas. A pavilion with a fire pit provides another gathering space closer to the lake.
ARCHITECT: W2 Architects
DESIGNER: Studio Dionisi
BUILDER: Earthtone Builders
SIZE: 1,050 sq. ft.; 2BR, 2BA
This striking contemporary home’s visual impact belies its modest size. A vivid cobalt blue sets off a screaming green privacy/entrance wall. Simple stucco walls reflect the Southwest connections shared by the home’s designer, builder and artist owner.
The design and site orientation provide natural heating and cooling. In winter, the south-facing windows collect heat; in summer, cross ventilation helps keep the home cool. Radiant floor heating and excellent spray-foam insulation ensure that the mini-splitter heating/air conditioning unit is needed only minimally.
DEVELOPER: Green Earth Developments
DESIGNER: Phillip McGuire
BUILDER: JAG Construction
SIZE: 973 sq. ft.; 2 BR, 1.5 BA
A narrow, irregular lot backed closely by a tall embankment became a design challenge rather than a limitation. Stacking and cantilevering maximized space, and heavy landscaping created privacy. The result was a soaring, three-story treehouse with a sweet deck tucked amid the branches.
The site’s tight boundaries dictated 2-by-4-inch framing on one side, but wrapping it with wool insulation maintained high R-values. On-demand hot water and a fresh air circulation system helped the home achieve a Green Built NC Gold certification and 4-star energy rating. The residents were rewarded with monthly electric bills as low as $50.
DESIGNER/BUILDER: Sun Construction
INTERIORS: Denuci Design
SIZE: 1,179 sq. ft.; 2BR 2.5 BA
Occupying every available inch of a challenging, wedge-shaped lot, this angular, three-story home has no yard to maintain. A gas fireplace fits perfectly in the 6-foot-wide, three-story-high rear wall, creating an intimate seating area.
Mini-split units with separate thermostats allow comfortable temperatures on all three floors. Framing the house with less wood (which is a thermal conductor) and wrapping it with nontoxic foam insulation cut energy costs by half. “Urbancrete” retaining walls recycle broken paving slabs. Built on spec, the home sold quickly.
DESIGNER/BUILDER: Sure Foot Builders
INTERIOR/COLOR SELECTIONS: KKJ Designs
SIZE: 2,200 sq. ft.; 4BR, 3.5BA
Crowned by an asymmetrical sunburst design, this tall, elegant three-story hybrid combines traditional and contemporary styles. To maximize space on a lot that sits below street level, a massive retaining wall creates off-street parking and a bridge to the midlevel entrance. It also enables light to reach the lower level (which includes two bedrooms and baths plus a utility room) from all sides. A second laundry serves the third-floor master suite, with an on-demand, natural gas-fired water heater. The home is solar ready, with low-E argon-filled windows.
About the author
Architectural illustrator and fine artist Lorraine Plaxico grew up in a small town in South Carolina; art, she says, “has been a dominant part of my life as long as I can remember, seconded by my writing. I pretty much came with my art ability ‘installed.’”
And though she’s explored many faraway places, “Asheville is the first town in my adult life that offers the variety, novelty and support of the arts that make me feel at home.”
Her work spans a broad range. Homeowners sometimes commission her to produce black-and-white or color portraits of their homes. She also does nontraditional landscapes, usually working on-site. Clients have included HGTV Dream Home, the Grove Park Inn, Biltmore Estate and the Asheville Home Builders Association’s Parade of Homes.
For Plaxico, though, creativity in whatever form is key: “I enjoy the different aspects that writing, photography and cooking provide. Reading, listening to music and traveling are other favorite things.”
Responding to a notice in Xpress inviting writers, photographers and artists to collaborate on stories, she explains, “I decided to send samples of my writing instead of artwork.” Publisher Jeff Fobes, she continues, “suggested the topic, saying there are some intriguing looking green-built homes in this area.”
A meeting with the WNC Green Building Council’s Maggie Leslie yielded suggestions for folks to contact and homes to visit.
Unlike many artists today, Plaxico doesn’t primarily work on a computer. “Art drawn by the human hand,” she believes, “possesses an appeal that computers have yet to match. I ink them, then color them with markers, pastels and colored pencils.” After scanning all the images to create digital files, Plaxico made revisions to the artwork, however, so the final versions were both hand-drawn and computer-aided.
But the hardest part of the project, she reveals, was not the artwork. Rather, it was boiling down her green home blurbs to the requested length. “I am a narrative and descriptive writer. Keeping the stories to around 100 words was a real challenge!”
Learn more about Plaxico’s work at www.architectureartist.com and www.LorrainePlaxico.blogspot.com