Row House Renovation: A LEED-Certified Home in Richmond’s Fan District

A sustainable row house renovation brings a fire-ravaged home back to life.

| January/February 2012

Susan Miller and Kenneth Kendler’s home had seen more than its share of troubles before they discovered its charred remains in the historic Fan District of Richmond, Virginia, in 2008. Built nearly a century earlier, the shotgun-style home had fallen victim to a cycle of decay as it passed from one owner to the next. On a frigid February night, the home suffered its worst disaster when a small fire broke out in the vacant home next door and, fueled by several propane tanks, burned out of control. By the time firefighters arrived, three homes on the block, including Susan and Ken’s future home, had been destroyed. But what might have seemed like the end of the road for the row house turned out to be the start of a new life. Later that year, Susan, Ken, architect Patrick Farley and builder Blue Crump took on the project of reviving the fire-ravaged home—now nicknamed Phoenix Rising—transforming it into a beautiful, eco-minded, solar-powered home.

Finding a Home in the Fan District

Phoenix Rising isn’t the first solar home Susan, a physician and professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, and Ken, a psychiatrist and professor at VCU’s School of Medicine, have owned. After the 1970s oil crisis, Susan became committed to living in an energy-efficient home. So when she and Ken moved to Virginia from New York in 1983, they bought a piece of south-facing property in Brandermill, a Richmond suburb, and hired sustainable architect John Flippen to build them the superinsulated, passive solar home where they raised their three children. But by the time their children were grown, Susan and Ken were both working in Richmond. Aiming to eliminate the stress and pollution their daily commute caused, they decided to move into the city.

Richmond’s historic Fan District was the ideal area of town for the couple—a walkable neighborhood, its central location meant Ken could bike to work, Susan could take a VCU bus and their youngest son could walk to high school. But their first home in the Fan wasn’t ideal. Its few bedrooms meant Susan and Ken couldn’t accommodate all of their children visiting at once, and the house lacked a parking space for their one car, forcing the couple to compete with university students for street parking. What’s more, the house didn’t have any of the sustainable features their previous home had. So when Susan stumbled across a row of burnt-out homes in her neighborhood, a light bulb went off. “The only way to get a property in the Fan I could renovate for sustainability was to find a home that needed work,” Susan says. When she started researching and found out that Farley, a local eco architect, and Crump, owner of sustainable construction company Cityspace, were renovating one to meet LEED home specifications, she knew it was meant to be.

A Trying Transformation to LEED Home Standards

Susan and Ken eagerly jumped on board with Farley’s plans to rebuild the home to LEED standards, making it the first of its kind in Richmond. But the couple soon found out that renovating a condemned home was far more troublesome than building one from scratch. Almost immediately, the renovation faced problems. As the builders deconstructed the burnt-out interior, they discovered that the back wall had become unstable. Engineers had to be called in to completely redesign and reconstruct the wall. “It was very unexpected and very costly,” Susan says. Structural issues aside, rebuilding the home to LEED’s high standards in an area where contractors were unfamiliar with green construction also proved difficult. “Our people were working out on the edge,” Susan says. “There hadn’t been a home like this built in Richmond before, and the builder didn’t have a lot of experience with green building. We all learned a lot—and the stuff we learned, we learned the hard way.”

The two-story indoor living wall, the crown jewel of the home’s interior and one of the largest residential living wall installations in the United States, had to be redone three times. Poor planning of a rain garden led to basement floods, and staffing changes at the construction company moved the renovation along slowly. But in the end, Susan and Ken got what they wanted: a beautiful, sustainable, solar home that honors its historic neighborhood. Efficient appliances and lighting reduce its overall energy load, and 32 photovoltaic panels produce much of the home’s energy. Solar thermal panels preheat water and act as a sun canopy for the second-floor study. And many of the home’s materials came from sustainable sources, such as the oak used in the flooring, which was otherwise destined to become shipping pallets.

Cycle of Life

Although an energy-efficient, sustainable structure was important to Ken and Susan, so was creating a home that was spacious enough to host their expanding family and comfortable enough for them to grow old in. “Our priority was to have a really livable house that would meet our needs to be our last house,” Susan says. “When we moved in, Ken said, ‘I am never moving again! When I go out of this house, it will be feet first.’”

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