Sticking with a good thing: An Innisfree house is remade for the present

A sweeping renovation of a 1970s Innisfree Village house brought the dwelling's functionality into the 21st century, while preserving the look and feel of a place six people call home. Photo: Robertson Renovation A sweeping renovation of a 1970s Innisfree Village house brought the dwelling’s functionality into the 21st century, while preserving the look and feel of a place six people call home. Photo: Robertson Renovation

One of the houses in Innisfree Village—a community in Crozet where volunteers share daily life with adults with intellectual disabilities—has stood since 1973. That was just a couple of years after the village’s founding, and four decades later, the home was sorely in need of an update. Yet the residents, and Innisfree’s director Carolyn Ohle, saw no need to totally reimagine it.

“The layout worked very well,” Ohle said—for one thing, the split-level design allowed some more “distractible” residents to have a place downstairs protected from the comings and goings of others. “But the efficiency was poor,” she added. “We heated the great out-of-doors.”

They turned to Robertson Renovation, a local company run by brothers James and Rob, to bring the house’s functionality into the 21st century, while preserving the look and feel of a house that six people call home.

It was a sweeping renovation. The company gutted the entire structure, even installing temporary jacks in place of the exterior walls so that new ones could be built. Just the roof and two structural beams remained from the original. The house got all-new plumbing, electrical and heating/cooling systems. Its exterior now sports new HardiePlank siding, new decking on the deck, and a fresh walkway to the main entrance. All 59 windows were replaced.

In a sense, it’s as though Robertson rebuilt a copy of the house in the footprint of the original. “It worked before, so we thought we’d do it again,” Ohle said. This boosted the comfort of long-term residents who may have found changes difficult. And the decades of experience amassed by Ohle and the community in general could be brought to bear on a refined design to best serve all the residents.

For example, only through experience might one know that towel bars in a bathroom often end up being used as grab bars. Robertson installed extra blocking behind the towel bars so they wouldn’t get ripped from the wall.

Solid-core doors, too, are an upgrade with more than aesthetic value. “Sound is a huge issue for us,” Ohle said, adding that some residents are quite sensitive to noise, which used to travel easily through the old hollow-core doors.

New maple cabinetry gave the kitchen its third update since the house was built. “We live pretty hard on places,” said Ohle. Now the pantry door has a keypad lock, safely storing residents’ medications, and a swinging gate at the end of the island. “People can be a part of cooking, but not underfoot if there are a lot of hot pans,” said Ohle.

One of the house’s best existing features was a tall bank of windows at one end of the open living/dining area. These were replaced in their original configuration. On the other end of the house, mirror-image windows got a new design with a bit less glass, so that bedrooms could be darker in the mornings.

“We did an incredible amount of energy retrofits,” said James Robertson, who enlisted the help of LEAP (Local Energy Alliance Program) to gauge how well the upgrades worked. Blower-door tests before and after renovation showed that even with a 440-square-foot addition (increasing closet and floor space in two bedrooms), the house is now 71 percent more efficient than it used to be.

That’s due to ample insulation: layers of rigid foam line the exterior walls and roof, and a ventilation system under the roof shingles allows heat to escape before it can penetrate the living space. Mini-split units provide heating and cooling, supplemented by fireplaces.

While bedroom layouts stayed largely the same, two tiny rooms became one (now housing a set of twins) and small changes made the spaces more inviting—like recessed lighting in the basement rooms that keeps their ceilings from feeling too low.

Ohle said that the house has always adapted to the changing needs of the village—a downstairs bathroom was once a darkroom, for example—and will continue to do so in the future. “Everyone has always loved this house because of the air and windows and light,” she said. “It was important to use to maximize its function.”

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