November 08: At the bend in the river

November 08: At the bend in the river

A decade ago, Brynne and John Potter were house-hunting and showed up at a certain Locust Grove property with little enthusiasm. “We didn’t like it on paper,” Brynne remembers. Upon walking in the ranch house’s front door, the couple were greeted by thick carpets that had absorbed the effects of long-term smokers and multiple cats. Fortunately, they kept going­—out the back door, onto the deck.

Standing here, with their backs to the house, the two of them felt immediately that this bluffside spot was special. From this high point, you can see through mature trees to another bluff across the river. Below is a confluence where Moore’s Creek flows into the Rivanna. On the near riverbank stretches Pen Park, and on the far bank is Darden Towe, which together fill most of the view with green.

A small footprint makes the Potters’ addition more efficient and less intrusive to their special riverside site.

This was enough for the Potters. Ten years later, they and their two sons (ages 15 and 12) have made this place their home—not just by virtue of time spent, but through thoughtful, green-minded habitation of both the site and the house. The former is easy to love. As for the latter, a recent renovation has made it something of a diamond in the rough.

Green means garden

A tour of the Potters’ place starts in their front yard, where the view may not include the river but is still spectacular: more than a dozen types of trees and bushes that provide food. “I’m actually starting to get sick of them,” says Brynne Potter, speaking of the abundant figs produced by a tree near the street. “I have more figs than I know what to do with.”

She’s also got peaches, apples, cherries, plums, blueberries, limes, black currants, strawberries, pears, hackberries, elderberries, gooseberries, kiwis, apricots, raspberries, and juneberries—each fruiting in its season. “What we did this summer was walk outside with our cereal bowls,” Potter says.

On the left, architect Ted Jones lowered the kitchen ceiling to 7’, making the higher ceiling and big windows in the addition even more dramatic.

All these varieties coexist in a fifth of an acre, along with more standard garden veggies (lettuce, peppers, chard), flowers, and herbs like goldenseal, borage, and comfrey. The garden is already lush, but it’s set to become even more productive; many of the plantings are two years old or less. “I’m focused on growing; I’ll get good at that first,” Potter says, explaining that she hasn’t done much harvesting yet from many of these crops. “For the first few years they grow,” then begin producing heavily later.

Careful placement and use of dwarf tree varieties lets Potter fit so many species into a small space. One might assume she had a long history of caring for plants like these, but she’s just teaching herself as she goes, with help from a few select books. “It’s so easy I don’t understand why everybody doesn’t do it,” she says.

Of course, there have been setbacks: an apple tree has had some fungus problems, and an elderberry’s been nibbled. (“I’m negotiating with the groundhog,” says Potter.) But she seems undeterred, describing the process as joyful. Perhaps that’s because she seems to think of her property as a whole, and beyond that, as part of a larger fabric of neighborhood and environment.

Green means connections

Several neighbors, including Potter’s brother and his family, also have fruit trees. She’s hoping for some cross-pollination, even planning for it. And if trees know no property lines, neither does the rain—one reason that the Potters have tried to take responsibility for the water that drains from their roof. Their gutters tie into an underground system that drains to a rain garden, where they’ve planted noninvasive plants (including another edible species, cranberries). Perched as their property is over a shared environmental resource, the Rivanna, this is a project with benefits wider than their own household.

How to save resources: Reconfigure existing cabinets, and let baskets stand in for drawers in oddly sized spaces.

In a way, a similar ethic was behind the Potters’ goals for their house renovation, which was finished in 2006. On a street of similar houses, they didn’t want theirs to be “the other house on the street,” as Potter says. When they hired Ted Jones, the architect behind the new Waldorf School project, he appreciated this desire to maintain harmony.

“The decision to buy something modest and modify it is a sustainable approach,” he says. “My interests in sustainability are more about creating something beautiful that has a permanence to it that people will keep around.”
Thus, the brick rancher came in for only subtle changes on its facade—a reconfigured entry and some new siding under the eaves—while an addition and new floor plan inside transformed the living space from ordinary to eye-popping. Jones’ design (with contributions by his then-partner Schaeffer Somers) maximizes spaciousness in a not-so-big space: It leads the eye from a glass-block wall at the front door, past an open stairwell that lets light fall into the basement, toward a high-ceilinged rear addition with generous southeast-facing windows. From here, the big view of woods and river, which caught the Potters’ attention 10 years ago, is fully on display.

Stylistically, the addition is contemporary —obviously distinct from the original rancher—but the glass block at the front door does a lot to knit the two styles together. It’s functional, too. “[The staircase] glows with light,” says Jones, pointing out that allowing more sunlight into the basement means less need to use electric bulbs there.

Green means thrifty

The Potters’ project is a handy illustration of what a collaboration between a green-minded architect and a green-minded builder (in this case, Jobes Builders), can deliver. Bill Jobes echoes Jones as closely as their two last names when he says, “A quality product—a chair or a house or a renovation project—if it’s really well designed and executed, that’s a green strategy in and of itself.”

If reimagining an ordinary rancher is a grand example of re-use, Jobes’ commitment to smaller acts of sustainability are equally important. “His ethic was reusing what we had, minimizing waste,” Potter says. Jobes moved wall studs instead of bringing in new ones, and reused the basement stairway structure while making it two flights rather than one. “There was a big deck in the back, and we took that down [to accommodate the addition] and used [the wood] for all sorts of stuff: formwork, bracing…” he remembers.

The most notable example of reuse in this project? Existing kitchen cabinets, not landfilled to make way for new ones—the usual dream project of any homeowner—but saved and reconfigured. “[Potter, Jobes and I] identified the cabinets that would be saved,” says Jones. “I did a basic kitchen layout and Bill and Brynne took it from there.” That the maple cabinets were well designed and well made enough in the first place to merit this attention proves Jones’ and Jobes’ point: Do it right, and it will have a longer life.

Green means efficient

Besides raw materials, energy and space are resources that any green renovation seeks to conserve. The Potters’ addition maximizes space with its small footprint; says Brynne, a less-than-500-square-foot addition feels like it has added 1,000 square feet to the family’s living space just by improving flow. “It has changed a fairly dark house to a light-filled house,” says Potter. She adds that this, along with “being able to be together without being on top of each other,” has been good for family harmony.

A smaller footprint not only preserves more of the landscape but requires less energy to heat and cool. Jones and Jobes further upped the energy-efficiency of the house with a number of strategies: radiant floor heat, a tankless water heater, efficient windows, and the big southeast-facing windows that let in the winter sun. Also vital: spray polyurethane foam insulation for roof and walls. “Brynne attests to the fact that the cooling load and the comfort in the summer was significantly improved because we foamed the entire roof,” says Jobes.

Even more green technologies are available to the Potters in the future: Jobes’ team put in the plumbing for additional hot water heated by both solar panels and a future woodstove in the addition. (These would both supply the radiant-heat system, reducing the load on the tankless heater.) When the funds for panels and woodstove are available, “we can just plug in,” says Potter.

Where once was an awkward entryway (the closet and front doors would collide if opened at the same time) is now a glass-block wall that lets in the light and allows the family to take off muddy shoes in a sheltered outside area.

Such technologies would likely be smart investments. Indeed, the renovation itself represents an efficient use of monetary resources; Potter explains that, before beginning the project, she and John looked around and found they’d have to double their mortgage to buy another house that would meet their needs. By altering the home they already had, they got what they wanted for less, and took advantage of a city program that defers taxes on renovations that increase a home’s value by at least 20 percent.

Green means healthy

Down in the basement, the house tour concludes with a look at a rec room carved from what used to be unfinished space. Unfinished and damp, that is. When renovators removed drywall here, they found the roots of boxwoods growing right through the foundation. (“It was moister inside [than outside],” explains Potter.)

As a sufferer of mold allergies, she appreciates the effects of a shored-up drainage system along the front of the house. “We really noticed a difference,” she says. The radiant-heat system, too, keeps indoor air cleaner than it would be with a forced-air system blowing dust through the house.

One assumes, though, that it’s more than these unglamorous practicalities that Potter has in mind when she says, “We feel like we’ll be here forever. I’m content.” After all, there’s that view. Then too, there’s next year’s fruit harvest.

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