Small, Southern Comfortable Home: Natural Home of the Year Winner

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For Giles Blunden, an architect who’s been designing solar homes for a quarter-century, living in an 800-square-foot cohousing unit powered entirely by the sun is just another step in pushing his sustainable agenda forward. The winning entry in the 2000 Natural Home of the Year contest is also a beautiful, comfortable, and efficient dwelling.

“This place is a combination of my real interest in nature and efficient use of materials—not wasting things,” explains Giles, who spent his childhood in the woods on the fringes of the Australian outback before his family moved to Los Angeles, where he was shocked by “what an impact the car culture, in particular, had on the environment.”

After graduating from college in Salt Lake City, Giles moved to Carrboro, North Carolina, a former mill town across the tracks from Chapel Hill, just as the oil crisis was heating up in 1973. By 1975, inspired by policy initiatives and North Carolina’s heavyweight solar energy association, he began designing and building solar homes, including a dome house for himself that was “so far out, nobody would think about it.” By 1990, Giles wanted to build a home for himself and his wife, Ginger Blakely, that could serve as a model for sustainable living without scaring off conservative clients. “I’ve come to understand that our culture is not driven by practicality; it’s driven by a sense of ourselves that has to do with tradition,” Giles says. “Particularly in American culture, we all march to a fairly confined pattern—it’s not very broad. Once you figure that out, you say, okay, what can I do to make this work?”

A Co-Housing Pioneer

A decade ago, Giles became enamored of the concept of co-
housing, which was just making its way to America from Denmark. This form of collaborative community includes both ­private dwellings and shared amenities such as recreation areas and a common house, where group meals are served a few times a week. Giles had watched closely as grassroots attempts at large eco-villages in Los Angeles and San Francisco failed, and he was convinced that a smaller-scale grassroots effort was the key to success. So he, Ginger, and two other women started planning their own small cultural push forward.

They based their plan around the principles of affordability, diversity, sustainable housing, and community. Seventy-five people attended the first planning meeting, and the agenda took on a life of its own. “We got started, and it just kept going—and pretty soon, we realized we weren’t a financial entity, but just a bunch of people having meetings,” Giles says. “So when we found the appropriate land, we set up a development corporation.”

“We weren’t very formal, even in collecting money, until a woman in Florida gave us a check for $10,000 and her friend said, ‘Aren’t you going to get a receipt?’ ” Ginger recalls. “We were pretty naive.”

“We were trusting,” Giles admits. “Everything was based on trust—and it worked, I think, because community was one of the founding principles. People really understood that you can’t have a community without trust.”

The member-owned development corporation, called ­Arcadia, paid $300,000 cash for sixteen and a half acres on the outskirts of Carrboro. Those who could contribute more money than others did so and received 6.5 percent interest; those who lacked funds could borrow from the equity pool at 6.5 percent interest. Arcadia Corporation invested an additional $300,000 for roads, water, sewer, and engineering before it hired a landscape architect to help plan a cluster of thirty-three homes (sixteen of them attached) and a community house. Only then did they hire a development consultant to help them secure a $400,000 loan from a local bank to finish the project.

In 1994, five acres of yellow pine forest was cleared and sold to a local sawmill; stumps were ground into mulch on site. “We were out to save communities of plants,” Giles explains. “By clearing here, we were able to save the stream community [a diverse ecosystem including a ­hickory and oak forest on the uninhabited eleven and a half acres]. In the ecology of the Southern forest, the pine forest is a temporary one.”

Efficient and Effective

Home sites were allotted on a first-come, first-served basis. Giles and Ginger chose a small site because they wanted the tucked-in feeling of an attached house. In keeping with Giles’s search for efficiency, they chose a middle unit; the homes on either side provide insulation. Townhouse construction, in which the homes’ adjoining exterior walls are separated by an inch, creates a sound barrier that enhances energy efficiency.

For $110,000 in construction costs, Giles managed to pack a lot of punch into the amount of space allotted to a master bedroom in many American homes. On the lower level, the bedroom and bath nestle into a berm on the north end and open up to take in sun, breezes, and long views of the forest to the south. Glass doors open onto a stone patio and garden, enclosed on two sides with a fence of scavenged cedar that offers both privacy and a perch for birds. Providing sound barriers on the east side, closets that include shelves and double racks for hanging clothes are built on top of drawers that eliminate the need for dressers.

On the west side, glass blocks enclose a luxurious four-by-six-foot shower with two showerheads.  (The decision not to include a bathtub was a conscious one.  “I don’t like to clean them,” says Ginger.)  The only interior door in the home, salvaged from a local hotel, separates the toilet and the shower from the bedroom. Giles placed the sink in the bedroom, tucked behind a curved stucco wall whose exterior provides space for a super-efficient woodburning stove.

Upstairs, sleek materials such as black concrete flooring, fir trim, and stainless steel cupboards contrast with the pine ceiling, stucco walls, and stamped concrete floor on the lower level. “I tried to make the textures of the floors different,” Giles says. “It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it’s fairly effective in making the place seem larger.”

Floor-to-ceiling windows make up the upper level’s southern wall, contributing so much passive solar gain that Giles and Ginger turn on the radiant hot-water heat only two or three times a year. On especially chilly or overcast days, they light a fire in the bedroom’s woodburning stove; heat radiates from the chimney as it tunnels up through a stuccoed masonry flue on the upper level.

On warm days (and there are many in North Carolina), Giles and Ginger open large double doors in the living room to allow cross breezes and access to the covered front porch, where they often eat dinner or enjoy a glass of wine in the evening. “We’ve had lots of parties here, and when you open it up, it’s like you’re in a big house,” Giles says.

Ginger’s heart lies in the small but incredibly efficient kitchen. It’s open to the living room but defined by a double-sided cabinet with a raised backsplash. The kitchen cabinet frames are built of recycled factory timbers from Montana; the brushed steel fronts include holes reminiscent of old pie safes, which provide air circulation that helps cut down on mold and mildew.

“I think so many kitchens are too big to really work well—you’re racing all over to prepare things,” Ginger says. “I really like my kitchen.” Hers is built around a traditional work triangle; one step gets her from the compact, energy efficient Vest Frost refrigerator to the double-drainboard stainless steel sink and the gas range. Large drawers store cooking pans, and shallow two-inch drawers keep items such as cooking utensils and plastic wraps from getting jumbled. A floor-to-ceiling pantry space eight inches deep holds canned goods and cookbooks; spice jars are stored in a drawer by the stove. A door to the porch allows for breezes and easy access to the recycling bins.

Living Without Air Conditioning

Giles’s greatest triumph was designing a house that remains comfortable without air conditioning in the hot, humid South. Tall ceilings, cross ventilation, and ceiling fans help, and Giles has created a system in which cool air chimneys up from the lower garden doors through an attic door that stays open all summer and out through a cupola above the attic. Ever conscious of mildew, Giles has installed a tiny computer fan on a timer that exhausts air out of the bathroom, and the couple always hangs towels outside to dry. The bathroom and closet doors are louvered so that fresh air can circulate within.

“Many of these features are just common sense things that people have forgotten,” says Giles. From a man who’s doing his best to push the sustainable living envelope, they hardly seem old-fashioned.