A North Carolina residential designer uses her ultra-green remodel as a mode of artistic expression and a model for green building in her community.
When residential designer Jenny Pippin bought her Lake Norman home about an hour from Charlotte, North Carolina, she didn’t have plans for a huge remodel. She did a basic remodel upon moving in and enclosed the carport to create a garage. When the place needed a new roof, Jenny and her husband, Wes Stearns, decided to take the opportunity to make a few other changes. They wanted to add a second story with a new master bedroom that would take advantage of their gorgeous lake view, and their wish list kept growing from there. “The project evolved over a year and a half,” Jenny says. “We went from, ‘We’re adding a bedroom and bath,’ to ‘Let’s add a studio, and while we have the opportunity, why don’t we deal with the site’s runoff issue?’”
Though she was working on her NC HealthyBuilt Homes green building certification from the North Carolina Solar Center at the time she was remodeling, Jenny had long been an advocate of sustainable design, and she was committed to working within her home’s original footprint and to creating as little waste as possible. However, her home’s site had some major drainage issues that had come to light after she enclosed the carport to create the garage. The plot slopes severely from the high front yard down to the lakeshore in the backyard. Water running downhill hit the home and garage and had nowhere to go, creating the potential for mold problems.
Jenny and builder Willis Spivey of Spivey Construction came up with a plan to regrade the site, collecting rainwater via catchment basins throughout the yard, and to build a new first floor, level with the front yard, on top of the original home. Jenny also wanted to move her business to her home, eliminating her long commute (more than an hour to travel just 18 miles, each way), and Wes, a hobby photographer at the time, was planning to build a photography business out of the home. They topped the new first floor, which houses a great room, master bedroom and bathroom, with an airy studio and work space with lots of windows and a stunning view of the lake.
Though they needed to add space to their home, Jenny’s No. 1 priority throughout the remodel was working with the site to better enable her home to coexist with its beautiful natural surroundings. “Working with the site itself was critical to us,” Jenny says. “One of the key things is making sure whatever you do to the site flows with what’s already there—the existing trees, the lay of the land, the path of the sun. It’s like putting a puzzle together.”
Regrading a portion of the site allowed Jenny to make her home’s connection to the water a benefit, rather than a problem. The land needed to drop significantly to get from the driveway level to the lake level, so she and Spivey created a deep drop at the front of the house with a walkway to connect the driveway and front door, which allows the land to dip down below.
Jenny created a pond with a small waterfall, fish and water lilies—a subtle reference to the lake in the backyard. Rain chains and rain catchment basins that feed underground cisterns collect water for the couple’s extensive vegetable gardens. The couple dug up the original driveway, which had dominated the front yard with a large mass of concrete; moved the garage, allowing for a much smaller driveway; and installed a permeable paver path to the front door. They retained all of the lot’s many trees, and planted additional native plants to enhance the formerly barren front yard.
As the site plan and building structure came together, Jenny started to focus on the home’s interior. She called in her friend and colleague, Tracie Johnson-Sawyers of PTI Design (who was also attending the NC HealthyBuilt Homes green building certification program) to help her rein in her options. “Knowing what I know about all the possibilities was one of the most challenging parts,” Jenny says, “because I had to narrow it down and not go crazy. We couldn’t afford to go crazy! But we wanted it to really reflect us and our tastes.”
Jenny wanted the home to work well with her and Wes’ lifestyle, and she took care designing a home that would be highly functional, as well as beautiful. “We like to entertain, and we’ve got a great kitchen for doing that. We have a garden room because Wes has a green thumb and loves working with plants. We have all durable flooring—bamboo, cork or Marmoleum—which allows us not to worry about the dogs coming and going with their dirty feet,” she says. “It’s lower maintenance inside and out. We wanted to enjoy it rather than work on it.”
Though she and Wes needed more usable space to make the home more suited to their growing needs, she was also careful not to create wasted space. “We use all the spaces every day. We’re up in the studio every day, in the great room in the evening, always in the bedroom and bath. We don’t eat out. We mostly cook at home, so we always use our kitchen and our pantry,” she says.
Jenny’s other requirement? Color and personal expression. Johnson-Sawyers calls Jenny and Wes’ home the “high-energy home” because they designed a place that represents and enhances their high levels of energy and enthusiasm for life. “Wes and I are really upbeat, positive people, and bright colors make us feel good,” Jenny says. She loves that her home makes a statement. “We intended to surround ourselves with our art collection, making our home a work of art in itself. We prefer to not have a conventional home. We love to be creative, to be around art and artists, and believe people should express their true nature in their homes,” Jenny says.
Knowing she wanted a bright, airy home with high ceilings and lots of colors and texture, Jenny turned to Johnson-Sawyers to help her refine her ideas. “The key of the project was making everything flow,” Johnson-Sawyers says. “We not only had the colorful elements, but Jenny and Wes love natural elements, too. We have bamboo; we have cork; we have metal. There were a lot of textures and colors to tie together,” she says.
The Great Outdoors
Nature lovers, Jenny and Wes wanted their home to feel connected with the outdoors, even when they are inside. Jenny brought in natural light via skylights and tons of windows, including high clerestory windows, which drive light deep into interior spaces. “We feel like we’re living in a treehouse,” Jenny says. She also met her and Wes’ desire to spend plenty of time outdoors by maximizing the tradition of Southern porches. Her home has six of them. “Having all the porches gives us the option of being outdoors almost all the time,” Jenny says. “They’re positioned to take advantage of morning sun, evening sun or no sun. You can be blocked from the wind or get breezes. There’s a shady side so we can be out there when it’s hot.”
The entire lower level (the original house) opens onto a wide porch via doors in several rooms. Wes and Jenny’s nephew got married there shortly after the renovation was complete. “That porch is big enough to hold 55 people, a dance floor and a food table. We know, because that’s what we did for the wedding! After the ceremony it rained a bit, and everyone could be up there and dry with no tent,” she says.
And Jenny and Wes’ home has hosted many more guests than those at their nephew’s wedding. When Jenny was finishing up the remodel, she was also the chair of the Lake Norman Home Builders Association’s Green Building Council, and she hosted the group’s annual kickoff at her home and offered tours. She’s hosted quarterly meetings of the American Institute of Building Design North Carolina chapter. She’s held fundraisers for Habitat for Humanity, open houses, tours for area college students and more.
“I’ve been working for years to get people to start building this way. I lived in a passive solar house when I got started in the business back in 1985, and I’ve been trying ever since to get people to consider these concepts,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m trying to get people to do it and they won’t. I might as well do it myself, and then I might as well tell everybody who will listen to me.’ We’ve had more than 800 people come through here, and we still give tours at least once a week,” she says. “When anyone comes in the front door for the first time, their eyes light up. They look around, take it all in and smile,” she says.
Jenny and Wes were committed to creating a healthy home for themselves and for the environment, and they went all the way, choosing eco-friendly, healthy materials for the home’s construction, exterior and interior. They went to great lengths to recycle their existing home, although it would have been less labor-intensive to simply tear it down, says builder Willis Spivey. “It would have been easier just to take the old house down, but Jenny didn’t want to do that. She wanted to recycle by keeping the existing structure and building over it, which made it more difficult but also more interesting,” Spivey says.
Here are some of the other green materials used inside and out:
■ Concrete with local fly-ash for the foundation of the new garage
■ Passive solar design
■ Photovoltaic and solar thermal hot water panels
■ Extensive rainwater harvesting system
■ Original home’s roof lumber reused
■ Maintenance-free building materials such as recycled-content corrugated metal siding and roofing
■ Energy Star windows
■ Envelope sealed with house wrap and Icynene foam insulation
■ Zero-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints
■ Energy Star appliances
■ HVAC system with air purification units to ensure good ventilation
■ Vents exhaust to the outside
■ Water-efficient plumbing fixtures
■ Formaldehyde-free closet and cabinetry materials
■ Bamboo, cork and Marmoleum floors
A Chat with the Homeowners
It’s 3:00 on a hot summer Saturday. Where are you? Jenny: I am most likely on a shady porch overlooking the lake, drinking a glass of wine or ice water.
Wes: I’m on the large lower porch in the shade, throwing the ball for the puppies and cooling under the ceiling fans.
What’s your favorite color and why? Jenny: My favorite color has transitioned over the years to include several colors: purple, orange and green. These colors are energizing and enlightening and make me feel good. However, I love all colors.
Wes: My favorite color is blue, but I am also very drawn to orange. I wore a lot of orange as a kid, and it’s a creative color. Blue creates a calming environment for me and allows me to be a visionary.
What’s one of your favorite ways to eat your homegrown veggies? Wes and Jenny: In a salad or grilled.
Do you collect anything? Jenny: I collect dragonflies. Most of my collection has come from friends and family who know I like them. I also love that the real ones like to hang out around our water garden.
Wes: Rocks. I pick them up everywhere I go. They have good energy.
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