October 2009: As an oak grows

October 2009: As an oak grows

It’s a well-known phenomenon, and Thomas Jefferson was a prime example: builders, carpenters and architects whose own homes are perpetual projects. Like a chef too tired to cook his own dinner, those who spend their days building and designing other people’s places typically have precious few hours and little energy to spend on their personal habitats. It’s unfortunate, because more than their professional portfolios of work, builders’ and designers’ homes may best illustrate their skills and sensibilities—their ultimate dream jobs.

Thanks to 14′ timbers discovered after Hurricane Isabel damage, the home’s one main living space looks and feels spacious.

The timber frame Keswick home of Alec Cargile, founder of green building firm Lithic Construction, has been years in the making—the culmination of a drawn-out process that at various times has required him and his wife, Leslie Ryan, to camp in a tent on the property’s wooded 15 acres, to live in the moldy basement of the property’s original vintage farm house and to cook all their meals in an outdoor kitchen.

Surprisingly, save for the moldy basement part, none of this has been hardship. Both former academic wilderness guides for the Sierra Institute, Cargile and Ryan love living an indoor-outdoor lifestyle among the flora and fauna. Because of that and their own attentiveness and patience, they’ve been able to carefully and methodically build a home that truly reflects their personalities and values as well as the mission of Lithic itself: to honor a site’s surrounding environment, to use local and sustainable materials and to highlight craftsmanship.

Cargile started Lithic in 2003 as an old-fashioned guild of craftsman rather than a typical building and contracting firm. The company offers all types of custom building, carpentry, masonry, painting and general contracting, but its core strengths and concerns are historic restoration and construction of ecologically sustainable new homes. Lithic was part of the building team behind the historic restoration of 208 Hartmans Mill Road, a project that the City of Charlottesville’s Planning Commission awarded the 2009 Award for Outstanding Sustainable Development.

“Our ideal work is 1,500 to 3,000 square feet, with old world elements of timber and stone where money goes into craftsmanship and materials instead of sprawling square footage,” says Cargile, who recognizes that his own home is an example of how his company would choose to build always, “if left to our own devices.”

Site sensitivity

Burgundy sheers cover the windows of Lithic’s prototype tiny house that currently serves as the couple’s remote kitchen, while under the adjacent canopy are additional outdoor cooking appliances that Ryan says she’ll miss using when the home’s new kitchen addition is complete.

With its location deep in the back woods, prominent structural stone work, timber frame, and airy, open floor plan, the aesthetics of Cargile and Ryan’s relatively tiny, 640-square foot home (exclusive of a loft and a pending kitchen addition) may be described best as a getaway cabin for a postmodern Bilbo Baggins. Cargile says he didn’t intentionally build the structure in any particular style. “I’ll call it informal design,” he says and then quickly adds: “I have no conflict with the formal practice of architecture, but I start with the basic premise of inhabiting a place and let the structure be informed by that.”

In this case, what first instructed the couple’s choice of how and where to build was their favorite tree on the property—a centuries-old oak with a curved, zigzag trunk that Ryan describes as having “an interesting growth pattern.” They knew they wanted to be near the tree and observe it from their windows.

“The wilderness is perfect already,” says Leslie. “It already has a life of its own—a community of animals, the water running through it. We asked ourselves, ‘How do we participate with what’s already going on without interfering too much?’”

To Cargile, an experienced mason, the answer lay in stone. To construct the home without damaging the root system, Cargile built the foundation on stone piers, and from there he knew he wanted a timber frame using local and sustainably-harvested wood. It just so happens that his search for materials began shortly after the wrath of Hurricane Isabel.

“We thought the house would be one level, but then we found these 14’ timbers from Isabel damage and decided to use the additional height to include a loft,” explains Ryan.

Now that Ryan’s studio has become the couple’s full-time home, the loft, accessible only by an exterior staircase, has become her writing refuge.

The loft, however, was a few years off, as were walls and heat. In fact, for several years, the structure stood as an open pavilion while Cargile became too busy growing Lithic to 30 employees by 2006 from three employees in 2003.

“We’d have readings there and friends would play music,” says Ryan, reflecting fondly on the interim stage of the space.

Ryan says they also waited to complete the structure for enough money to buy the right kind of windows—energy-efficient ones without casements to avoid fatally obstructing and confusing migrating birds. Cargile and Ryan had spent years observing the birds’ patterns while camping in tents on the property during their off-seasons from the Sierra Institute.

Organic growth

Another reason for the slow development of Cargile and Ryan’s home is that it didn’t start out as a primary residence, but first was intended as a writing studio for Ryan, a project to be funded by the proceeds from a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award that Ryan received in 2000. Though walls and windows finally were constructed and installed a few years ago, the couple didn’t make the structure their primary residence until last year. At that time, they were sleeping in the property’s original farmhouse and planned to renovate that as their main dwelling.

“That house was built in the early 1970s by UVA philosophy graduate students using materials from a farmhouse that was taken down in Palmyra, and with oak that was sawn from trees from the site. It was then moved up the farm road to its present location in the mid-1980s,” says Cargile. 

When Cargile discovered mold in the basement, however, he and Ryan headed for the sanctuary of the studio.


Now that the studio has become a full-time house, it includes one main living area, a bathroom and a utility room/sink area, but no kitchen or separate bedroom as yet. Ryan has now moved her writing studio to the upstairs loft accessible only by an outside staircase. At night, the main floor, which includes one large living area, has become their master bedroom where they sleep on rollaway mats—“like a tatami room,” says Cargile.

Top: In the one and only bathroom, cool soapstone balances the warmth of visible wood. The sage hue above the tiles comes not from paint, but a soil-based pigment the couple sourced from New Mexico. Bottom: Cargile and Ryan fondly recall the years their home was an open pavilion where friends would gather and play music.

The couple has been preparing their meals partly in an outdoor kitchen they constructed on the back patio and partly in a mobile caravan kitchen parked on the property. When they’re not using it to feed themselves, Cargile takes the caravan, which Lithic designed and built as a prototype “tiny house” with reclaimed wood from Charlottesville’s old Jefferson Theater, to green building shows as an example of low-impact living.

When the attached kitchen addition is finished this fall, it will retain elements of the outdoor cooking space with floor-to-ceiling windows that can be removed and replaced with screens during the temperate weather of the majority of the year. Lithic’s masons are currently building the addition’s stone foundation using an old European technique called “chisel-dressed face.”

“Nowadays, builders typically build with concrete or cinderblock, and then veneer it with stone,” says Cargile. 

By contrast, at Cargile’s home all of the stone work, even the chimney, which Cargile constructed himself over several months, is structural stone—the traditional manner of building with the hard stuff.

Even the heating and cooling of the home represents a back-to-basics approach that is old world in its impact but also fresh in its recognition of modern-day energy efficiency concerns.

“This house is a study in how to live in the wilderness,” says Ryan, who, referencing the overhead arbor canopy, adds: “Solar is not an option.”

The home uses an on-demand electric boiler to power a radiant hydronic heating system (hot water circulates through tubes under the floor). The kitchen addition will also be warmed by radiant hydronic heat that is powered instead by a wood stove and an outside fire pit via a stainless steel coil.

“Both of those wood-fired systems will dump heat into the existing house system. The theory is that when we’re burning wood we won’t need the boiler at all,” says Cargile.

In the hottest summer months, the house is cooled by ductless split air conditioning units mounted on the wall. “We do that mostly for the dogs,” says Cargile.

Though the idea to construct an environmentally low-impact writing studio near a beautiful old tree has almost completely transformed into a fully-equipped residence for Cargile and Ryan, you get the sense that the long-term process with its various starts and stops and half-done iterations has been as enjoyable for them as the finished project will be. Ryan says she already misses the outdoor kitchen, and Cargile admits that he’s nostalgic for the skeletal stage of the home when it served as an impromptu performance pavilion.

When all is said and done, he says, “I think we should build another pavilion.”

To which Ryan replies, “I think that’s a wonderful idea.”