Lean & green: In a sustainable house, a minimal palette keeps things cool

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Photo: Kip Dawkins Photo: Kip Dawkins

When one Charlottesville couple started building a house in December 2014, they had a front-row seat to the construction: Their new house was going up in what had been a vacant lot right next door to their old house.

In their case, having daily contact with the building process was welcome—they’d been highly involved with the design process, too. With sustainable design and nontoxic materials being key goals for the project, the couple had extensively researched every aspect of the building, right down to whether the gypsum in the drywall was the naturally mined sort, or reused coal ash.

“We did spend an above-average amount of time,” says architect Jeff Sties diplomatically. His clients initially chose him for his green-building credentials, and now that the house is built, they heap praise upon him for his patience with their exacting standards.

Besides sustainability, the couple’s major goals were to build a house in which they could comfortably raise their two young children now, while also aging in place in the future. They needed a lot more space than their previous house could offer. “Our son’s nursery was a guest room, storage room and office,” they say. “It wasn’t working for us as a family.”

Aesthetically, their tastes weren’t an exact match—he fantasized about a steel-and-concrete box, while she craved something warmer—so Sties tried to strike a balance. After dozens of drawings, he found the right solution to address looks, layout, solar shading, budget and many other concerns. It was deceptively simple: “The house really is a box,” says the client.

Gray HardiePanel combined with honey-colored black-locust siding makes for a striking front façade. A band of white wraps the roomy balcony on the second floor. Photo: Kip Dawkins
Gray HardiePanel combined with honey-colored black-locust siding makes for a striking front façade. A band of white wraps the roomy balcony on the second floor. Photo: Kip Dawkins
Quiet finishes

A box, yes—but a highly articulated one, with great thought evidenced in every detail. The size and placement of windows, for example, was part of an intricate puzzle involving the dimensions of the HardiePanel that covers most of the exterior. Minimizing the number of panels that had to be cut would help out with the budget, but the results needed to be pleasing, too. “Creating the variation and pattern—it gives it a timeless quality,” says Sties.

Gray HardiePanel combined with honey-colored black-locust siding make for a striking front façade, where a band of white wraps the second story with its roomy balcony.

Exposed glulam beams over the kitchen and dining areas are a focal point signaling this as the heart of the home. The space is open and airy, allowing light to travel from room to room, and even down from the skylight on the second floor. Photo: Kip Dawkins
Exposed glulam beams over the kitchen and dining areas are a focal point signaling this as the heart of the home. The space is open and airy, allowing light to travel from room to room, and even down from the skylight on the second floor. Photo: Kip Dawkins

That palette—gray, natural wood and white—carries through the interior of the house, too. “We were trying to keep the color palette normalized,” says Justin Walton, who managed the project for Element Construction. While there are several different types of wood used inside the house (reclaimed red and white oak for the flooring; birch for the doors; fir for the cabinetry), their “quiet” finishes, he says, pull it all together.

The clients, who say they’re not particularly interested in redoing interiors for fun, felt a minimal scheme would best stand the test of time. “Kid-friendly modern” is how they describe their style.

The open kitchen-living-dining area is the house’s centerpiece. Part of what gives it its airy, uncluttered feel is that storage has been maximized and carefully planned to accommodate specific belongings. In the kitchen, custom cabinetry by Charlottesville’s Todd Leback features both white and natural-fir finishes, set off by black honed granite and stainless steel countertops. A bank of windows just above the cooktop on the east side of the house provides daylighting and makes a place for potted herbs to flourish.

A tight materials palette shows up from room to room: fir cabinetry, nearly identical to what’s in the kitchen, is also used in the bathroom; reclaimed flooring found in the kitchen lines an accent wall in the master suite. Photo: Kip Dawkins
A tight materials palette shows up from room to room: fir cabinetry, nearly identical to what’s in the kitchen, is also used in the bathroom; reclaimed flooring found in the kitchen lines an accent wall in the master suite. Photo: Kip Dawkins

Exposed glulam beams over the kitchen and dining areas are a focal point signaling this as the heart of the home. “We cook a lot; it’s how we spend most of our evenings,” say the clients. “We entertain in a casual way.” Guests can gather around the kitchen island or at the stools that pull up to a bar-height counter separating living room from kitchen. Along with those stools, the woodstove, a nook for stacking firewood and a built-in bookshelf fit seamlessly into the same axis.

Smart choices

Reclaimed flooring does double and triple duty in this house—it was also used to make a bench and a sliding door for the mudroom, and it plays a starring role in the master bedroom, lining an accent wall behind the bed. In a similar, minimalist way, all the bathrooms share the same key materials: large rectangular dark-gray floor tile, cultured white marble countertops and fir cabinetry that’s nearly identical to what is in the kitchen.

Photo: Kip Dawkins
Photo: Kip Dawkins

The master bathroom gets a few special touches, including oversize white shower tile with a wavy textured pattern and a graceful eggshell-shaped tub from Badeloft. (“Kid-friendly modern,” say the clients, means here that their kids and all their cousins can fit in the tub together.)

Under it all, the house’s systems are working hard to save energy and keep indoor air quality high. Photovoltaic panels on the roof, which comprise a single south-facing slope, provide all the electricity needed to run the house. A super-tight building envelope and high-quality insulation keep energy use low. Even the shape of the opening beneath the stairwell skylight is, Sties says, meant to “spread the light”—allowing the clients, per request, to mount the stairs in the daytime without turning on a light.

Having moved in this summer, the clients are savoring all the little touches of beauty and functionality—from a roomy kitchen pantry to the modern-style grab bars in the ADA-accessible first-floor bathroom. All in all, it’s what they’d hoped for: “Clean lines but warm, not the kind of place where you’re afraid to sit down.”

Photo: Kip Dawkins
Photo: Kip Dawkins

Color and glass

Not being oriented toward interior design themselves, the clients brought Roanoke-based Circle Design Studio on board to help complete the look of their new home. Designer Theresa Dorlini says that given the neutral white used throughout the house, “We knew the actual materials were the star of the show: the reclaimed flooring, the exposed beams, the steel on the staircase.” With those materials as a starting point, she and her colleagues searched for ways to inject color with rugs, accessories and artwork.

Iconic furniture pieces, like a womb chair and two Wassily seats, give the space a classic modern feel even as the designers made provisions for the realities of living with two young children—durable sofas and rugs, for example.

Circle also made structural suggestions, including in the master bathroom. “That was an opportunity to create a very open, minimal space,” says Dorlini. “The use of the frameless glass shower enclosure was a key decision to make the master bath feel larger than it is.”—E.H.

The breakdown

2,957 square feet

Structural system: Exposed Ground-Face concrete masonry unit (GFCMU) foundation; 2’x6′ wood frame walls; open web wood joists and custom southern yellow pine glulam beams.

Exterior material: HardiePanel and HardiePlank with extruded aluminum trim joist; custom black locust siding and decking.

Interior finishes: Mixed red/white antique oak flooring and wall paneling; custom antique white oak shelving and treads; custom steel stair and handrails; clear finished custom CVG fir cabinetry throughout; honed absolute black kitchen counters; stainless steel kitchen island; custom matte white cultured marble vanity tops and utility counter.

Roof materials: Prefinished, white standing seam metal.

Window system: Marvin Integrity; Velux skylight (Gaston & Wyatt).

Mechanical systems: American Standard Platinum A2GX Geothermal with two vertical wells, dual zone with Energy Recovery Ventilation, interlocked Broan makeup air system; Supreme “Opus” woodburning fireplace unit; Geospring Pro 50-gallon hybrid hot water heater.

Architect: Jeff Sties, Sunbiosis

General contractor: Mike Ball, Element Construction

Interior designer: John & Theresa Dorlini, Circle Design Studio

Structural engineer: Ben Hays, Constructure Design

Energy modeling: John Semmelhack, Think Little

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