A sustainable row house renovation brings a fire-ravaged home back to life.
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.
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.
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.
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.’”
To make the home easier to live in as they age, Susan and Ken installed a wheelchair-accessible bathroom on the first floor, as well as a flex room they can convert into a first-floor master bedroom should climbing stairs become difficult. Offices that double as guest rooms ensure the home is spacious enough for three kids and all of their grandchildren to visit at the same time. “Some people might look at our home and say, ‘Why do they need so many rooms?’ Ken and I both have our own studies, but we purposely set them up to work as bedrooms, too,” Susan says.
Susan and Ken also added little touches to make their home more enjoyable to live in. Although she likes living in the Fan, Susan isn’t crazy about the shotgun-style homes common to the district. “They’re thin, long and dark,” she says. To open up the home and bring in natural light, Farley carved an open space above the dining room that spans the height of the two upper levels and added a skylight, which floods all three levels with natural light and showcases the two-story indoor living wall.
On top of the house, a patio and rooftop garden—complete with birdfeeders, a bat house and native plants—offer a retreat from the daily grind of life. “Rooftop living in the Fan is wonderful. You get above the street, you see only the tops of the trees, and you don’t feel like you’re in the city anymore. You get the sense that you’re out in nature,” Susan says.
To support their local economy, Susan and Ken hired local craftsmen and artists—many of them from the nearby VCU—to fill their home with healthy materials. Two VCU art school graduates installed FSC-certified cabinets and handmade tile; the native plants for the living wall were grown by a nursery in nearby Washington D.C.; and the exterior finishes were made from locally harvested black locust. Low-VOC paints and Marmoleum flooring came from a locally owned eco-friendly building supply store, and all of the home’s concrete work, including a third-floor countertop that has their children’s rock collection laid in it, was created by a retired biology professor from VCU.
Local artist Judy Coleman also designed the understated but elegant piece of artwork that graces the home’s entry: a stained glass rendering of a phoenix, an homage to the home’s past. “I said that if we finished this home and got LEED certification, I was going to commission an artist to make that picture,” Susan says. Although the renovation took much longer than expected, and the home missed out on being the first LEED-certified home in Richmond, Susan says the end result was worth it. “We have a wonderful house built exactly the way we live, in the place we want, and we feel proud about the sustainability of it.”
Susan Melgren is Natural Home & Garden’s web editor. Although she currently lives in an apartment, she dreams of one day living in a historic home like the Miller-Kendler’s.
What’s great about living in your home?
It is full of light and greenery and feels healthy.
What books are on your nightstand?
Currently, I am reading John Geyman’s Breaking Point: How the Primary Care Crisis Endangers the Lives of Americans.
Where do you unwind after a long day?
On the rooftop
If you could invite anyone to dinner, who would it be?
President Obama. I would give him an earful about moving the green economy forward and getting an improved Medicare system for everyone.
When architect Patrick Farley initially suggested installing a two-story living wall inside her home, Susan Miller wasn’t thrilled. “I said, ‘Are you crazy?! It’s going to bring dirt and bugs into the house! And how’s it going to get water?’ I had to have my arm twisted about it,” she says.
Designed by Scotty Guinn Dilworth of SG Designs, the vertical garden is composed of ELT Easy Green Living Wall Systems. An automated watering system housed in the basement ensures the wall receives enough water, while the skylight above provides ample daylight. Although she was reluctant to install it, Susan now loves the indoor living wall. “It’s dramatic and beautiful, and it gives the home a completely unique feeling,” she says.
Learn more: ELT Easy Green
Design and Build
Patrick Farley, architect; Laura Pitcher, assistant
Living wall and roof landscaping
Urban Grid Solar
Photovoltaic & solar thermal installation
ELT Easy Green
Living wall manufacturers
Laundry room countertop
Rainwater storage tanks
Virginia Limeworks Plaster
Lime plaster finish
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