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Case Study: Queen Branch cottage

By Diana Bellgowan on 03/22/2010

In a south-facing cove, where a small stream called Queen Branch meets the Little Tennessee River, the Dean family built their home more than 100 years ago. They lived in the house, ran a general store and farmed the surrounding land for many years, but when plans for a proposed dam on the Little Tennessee River would have submerged the house and much of the property, the family decided to sell to the Nantahala Power Company (now part of Duke Energy). Luckily, the dam was never built, and in 2004 Duke Energy gifted the Queen Branch property to the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee.

Home sweet home: The Dean family built their house on Queen Branch more than 100 years ago, and though the years weren't kind to the house, enough structure remained for a green make-over.

historic photo courtesy of Land Trust for the Little Tennesee / recent photos by Diana Bellgowan

The Land Trust kept the property directly adjacent to the Little Tennessee River and created the Queen Branch Preserve as a place for the public to access and enjoy the river. Then the organization set about protecting the natural landscape and improving the water quality along the remainder of Queen Branch by removing invasive non-native plants and several human-made impediments (including a two-seat outhouse that spanned the stream). The folks at the Trust believe that preserving our Southern Appalachian cultural heritage is an important part of their mission, so they also decided to save the Queen Branch cottage. To do this, they partnered with the Preservation North Carolina Foundation to find someone to purchase and restore the building according to specific historic guidelines.

That's where our part of the story begins.

The first time my husband, Charlie, and I saw Queen Branch cottage with Paul Carlson, executive director of the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee, we were struck by the beauty of the setting, the simple elegance of the home's details and floorplan, and the smart site orientation. The environmental sensitivity, the cultural significance of the site and the good design of the original house made us think Queen Branch would be a great place to combine historic preservation with green building technologies. And that's when we decided to embark on a home-renovation adventure.

It's not that we weren't aware that the house needed a complete renovation, including a new water source; and septic, plumbing, mechanical and electrical systems. And we expected some structural upgrades would be required — the floors bounced, and there were some visible signs of termite damage. But I'm an architect and had worked on several complicated renovation projects. How hard could it be?

We contacted Maggie Leslie at the Western North Carolina Green Building Council, and she introduced us to the NC HealthyBuilt Homes pilot program for gut rehabilitation projects. Then we asked VandeMusser Design for help with some green building system design and HERS testing. Before starting the renovation, VandeMusser suggested getting a baseline reading on the building envelope for a "before" and "after" comparison. When Matt Vande performed the initial blower-door test on the house, it was so drafty his equipment wouldn't give him a proper reading, so he had to extrapolate a rating number. Later, Amy Musser helped us design a new and efficient HVAC system that would fit within the tight physical constraints of the shallow floor framing and the low ceilings of the house.

Then we started the renovation. First, we removed the wallboard and flooring to determine any weak structural areas, and that's when things got really ugly. The demolition exposed both the inadequacy of the original structure and the full extent of termite-related damage.

The house was not a typical framed structure, but a "plank structure" with exterior walls consisting of one-inch thick, rough-sawn planks nailed to the sides of a platform floor, and upper floor and roof joists set in holes cut into the wall planks. The structure was seriously under-designed by modern standards, but it had endured more than 100 years of wind and weather. It might have been salvageable, except for the extensive termite damage. Over the years, poor roof drainage and a damp crawlspace had allowed entry for termites to destroy most of the main floor framing and many planks. Thankfully, sometime in the 1950s, the exterior walls were furred out with two-by-fours to hide electrical wiring. That furring was all that was left holding up the house.

To restore structural integrity and improve the building envelope, we decided to install new pier foundations and eliminate the enclosed crawlspace; this would also help to reduce the possibility of future termite damage and restore the building's original look. Working with structural engineer Bernie Feinberg, we figured out a way to retrofit framing for the floors and restructure the walls while keeping the planks intact.

Once plans were in place for the structural retrofit, it was obvious that the project was too big for us to handle alone, so we asked Ward Griffin of Griffin Realty & Construction to be our general contractor. I had consulted with Ward on a couple of renovation projects in West Asheville and knew he was capable of saving this old house. Ward's crew worked quickly to stabilize the building. Then they began installing new footings, re-building the floors and adding framing at the interior and exterior bearing walls.

Then with the new structure in place, we could concentrate on incorporating green building solutions, including low-VOC interior paints, site-salvaged and local reclaimed oak flooring, spray-foam insulation, site-salvaged stone veneer, re-use of the original metal roofing over a new protective roofing, a whole-house exhaust system, Energy Star appliances and a high-efficiency heat pump (15.75 SEER and 9 HSPF). A hot-water heat pump was installed to improve the efficiency of the electric water heater and help in dehumidification; it also puts out cool air, which is distributed across the refrigerator coils to increase that appliance's efficiency. The lighting utilizes compact fluorescent light bulbs, and all exterior lights are Dark Sky-rated. The toilet and bathroom faucet are low flow, Water Sense fixtures. The air handler and all ductwork are located in the conditioned space to improve efficiency, and the existing, historic windows were restored with new weather stripping added. Finally, Shawn White from Pisgah Pest Control developed a site-specific solution for termite control that will protect the house in a way that would be effective in the rocky site's soil, safe for the nearby stream and nontoxic to humans and animals.

The house is still a work in progress, and we hope to complete the final testing for the NC HealthyBuilt Homes program and Energy Star certification soon. But for now, we're happy to have the house habitable again, and we're proud to think that employing green building technologies in this historic renovation will ensure Queen Branch cottage is still around in another 100 years.
Diana Bellgowan is an architect based in Asheville, N.C. She can be reached at (828) 281-4626 or .