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Case study: Utopian renovation

By on 02/01/2008

It started out as a cabin built in 1925. Over the years, several layers of additions were made to the house on Utopia Road in Asheville, and the hemlocks lining the side yard grew tall enough to shade the two-story abode. But by the time Florida residents Stan and Colette Corwin closed on it in March 2007 and builder Jim Demos began assessing it for renovations, the old house needed some love.

Stan and Colette Corwin, who dream of a summertime garden at their newly refurbished green Asheville residence. photo by Jonathan Welch

Problem solving may be central to any renovation, but revamping an old house to be as gentle on the environment as possible can be especially challenging. The Florida couple had been living in a green home in a rural area outside Fort Myers before deciding to relocate, and they intended to make their new Asheville home as energy efficient and environmentally sustainable as possible.

But the renovation project soon became more complicated than anyone had anticipated. The earthen basement crawlspace had developed a moisture problem due to poor drainage. And while Demos had originally speculated that he’d have to replace about 30 percent of the Sheetrock, they ended up fully gutting the interior after discovering deterioration between the walls. Meanwhile, the Corwins had to scrap their initial plans to go solar and to use a geothermal heating system, due to practical feasibility and cost. The home’s eccentric layout had to be dealt with too, so they hired architect John Legerton to assist with an interior redesign.

Despite the bumps in the road, the Corwins are satisfied with their decision to renovate rather than build. “Way back, we learned that the greenest thing you can do is to not build a new house,” says Stan. With this renovation, notes Demos, they didn’t add any more to the building footprint that already exists, nor did they create any new erosion or runoff problems.

Demos initiated a plan to improve the drainage pathway, and worked with Home Energy Partners to seal up the crawlspace to make it airtight and dry. Since the interior had to be gutted, they decided to use Icynene foam insulation in the exterior walls for a tighter seal all around.

Builder Jim Demos, who conducted the green renovation, surveys Icynene that has been recently applied. The foam insulation renders the home much more energy efficient. photo by Jonathan Welch

Tight insulation for greater efficiency is just the beginning of what sets this residence apart. With the help of plumber Georg Efird, the renovation team installed a gray-water system, which cycles wastewater from the showers, sinks and laundry to the toilets — a very effective way to conserve. The system was the first of its kind to be installed in Asheville. (Efird later led a seminar to bring city and county inspectors up to speed on gray-water systems.)

Alongside the gray-water system, the Corwins installed low-flow showerheads, low-flush toilets, an on-demand hot-water system, energy-efficient lighting, high-efficiency windows, a high-efficiency heat pump and a woodburning stove that takes care of 75 percent of their heating needs. For optimal air circulation during the heat of summer, Demos built a cupola with an electric remote to open and close the windows.

The renovation team was able to reuse much of the lumber that was stripped out, so when it came to buying new lumber for the flooring and deck, the Corwins set out in search of the most eco-friendly material available. They settled on recycled palette flooring, as well as Wormy Red Oak and cypress that had been reclaimed from a river bottom — leftover from an era when the timber industry floated logs down the river to be milled. “The idea of cutting down trees so that we can have a nice deck is abhorrent to us,” notes Stan. For the bathroom floors, they used cork, which is considered green because the trees don’t need to be felled to harvest it.

The kitchen at the Corwins’ home also reflects their green principles. In addition to cabinets built from wood that is FSC-certified — and therefore harvested with sustainable practices — the couple selected countertop material made from a combination of river stone and fly ash from power-plant scrubbers, a waste material.

“We were glad we were able to restore it, do it right, and make it sustainable,” says Colette. The couple is now looking forward to moving in — and starting an organic garden in the backyard.