Back to nature: A graphic artist creates a great escape in Nelson County

A balcony perches outside the third-floor, which is used as a meditation room. Beneath the exterior cladding, foam panels envelope the house, increasing its energy efficiency. Photo: Prakash Patel A balcony perches outside the third-floor, which is used as a meditation room. Beneath the exterior cladding, foam panels envelope the house, increasing its energy efficiency. Photo: Prakash Patel

The graphic artist, web designer, and bookbinder worked in Charlottesville for many years, running her own business. She shifted gears, taking a full-time job at a non-profit. But after a while, she wanted to get back to being her own boss, and to find a way to spend more time in the country, gardening, hiking, communing with nature, and meditating.

The south-facing roof rises up to the top of the second floor, creating an open interior space with natural surfaces including wood and locally quarried soapstone. Photo: Prakash Patel

She envisioned a minimal, modern, energy-efficient home with a studio, situated on plenty of land to grow her own food. Armed with sketches of her dream home, and a conviction to live sustainably, she called on a former client, architect Chris Hays, of Hays + Ewing Design Studio. When Hays learned what she wanted, he thought immediately of builder Peter Johnson, and the collaboration began.

“It was a very dynamic process,” Johnson says. “The client had strong ideas for the home, and Chris was quick to draw them. I’ve worked with him many times. When he draws out his plans, even in preliminary stages, he puts them into CAD so they are easy to envision.”

The client also had a nice chunk of property, 94 acres with a perfect spot to build. “It was a house to be located on top of a hill with a nice view out to the west,” Hays says. “We were looking at a smallish house, but on the other hand, she was interested in getting up high to see the property.”

All indicators pointed to a vertical space. “We went through a few ideas before we came up with something we were excited about,” Hays says. “We came up with a third floor that she could use to meditate, and also look out at the land and all of the wildlife.”

After a few design iterations, Hays and the client agreed that they’d devised a good scheme. “She said that it really felt right for the place, which is one of the greatest compliments we could get,” Hays says.

Building a modern dream home

The fundamental idea of verticality was reinforced by the client’s desire to install a radiant-heat oven that can also be used to cook. Made by Tulikivi, Finland’s largest stone producer, the soapstone-clad unit is so large and heavy that it requires its own concrete footing and foundation. It also contributes to the home’s energy efficiency. A single firing with split wood provides 12 hours of heat.

One firing of the gray soapstone oven on the first floor provides heat for 12 hours. It is beautiful but, practically speaking, largely redundant, because the house is also heated via solar power. Photo: Prakash Patel

For practical purposes, the Tulikivi is largely redundant—ample energy for heating is provided by solar panels on the south-facing portion of the roof (more on that later). But the oven is quite beautiful, a tall rectangle of mid-gray stone with a cylindrical stainless-steel flue that shoots up through the open-plan home and exhausts through the roof.

“It has emotional and psychological benefits, in terms of the warming,” Hays says. “You also have a cooking compartment up above the main hearth, which has a glass door. From the bathroom, you can see out to the oven and the flames inside.”

Hays also designed the staircase to convey heat from the first floor to the third. This provides warmth throughout the house—including the studio on the second floor—when it’s cold outside, and when temperatures climb, windows on the top floor can be opened to let heat escape.

The roof is a key element of the design, rising up to cover the second floor, flattening out, and then zigzagging down to form a porte cochere. Photo: Prakash Patel

Now, about the roof. On a conventional home, the roof may simply be a cap on a box, but here it’s a key element of Hays’ design. From the south extremity of the structure, the roof climbs at an angle to the top of the second floor; solar panels cover this part of the surface. After flattening out and reaching south, the roof drops more or less straight down, and then completes its zig-zagging journey with an L-shape that encloses the porte cochere, which also serves as the woodshed.

Viewed from the east or the west, the roof establishes the clean, modern feel of the home. The rather simple exterior finishes—horizontal red cedar siding on the east and west walls, and rectangular fiber cement  panels on the north and south—enhance this aesthetic, as do the plentiful (and large) windows.

Beneath the exterior cladding lies an envelope of thick foam slabs, which seal and insulate the structure. “We did blower and duct-blaster tests and were very pleased with the results,” Johnson says. “The house is tight.”

Inside, finishes selected by the client lend a natural feel. “I wanted to go really organic—oak floors, maple cabinetry, porcelain tiles,” she says. “The central space is all enclosed in plywood. It’s like there’s a treehouse in the center of the house. The counters are soapstone that was quarried right nearby the house.”

The client now has the country place she envisioned, with plenty of room for planting outdoors. “My mom always said two things about me: My eyes are bigger than my stomach, and I always bite off more than I can chew,” she says. “I guess that’s why I ended up with a one-and-a-half-acre orchard and garden.”

The client just added chickens to the mix (“Oh, and I have to build a coop,” she says), and she plans on getting goats and honey-producing bee hives. Her enthusiasm and energy are seemingly endless.

“It was a lot of fun working with her, because she cares a lot about design,” Hays says. “It was very much like a partnership. Peter, the builder, was also very invested to get things exactly right. We were a good team.”

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