A cabin in the woods: Green renovation meets historical preservation

In 2009, Claus and Debbie Kroeger “were just looking for a cabin in the woods” — preferably a historic one with a little character in its beams. What they found was a 1,100-square-foot cabin on a 165-acre, Reems Creek property that had been a boys’ summer camp from 1920-78.

“Needless to say, [after] 30 years there was a lot of disrepair — a lot of stuff fallen down and, unfortunately, lost,” says Claus. But there was a fair amount to work with, and as he explains, “We just sort of fell in love with [the property]. It had a lot of neat history, and it’s a beautiful piece of land.”

The couple recognized the property’s potential to be the secluded, simple and quiet homestead they had dreamed of. They also recognized its historical significance to the many former campers who still hold yearly alumni reunions there.

But how to renovate smartly and apply green-building principles?
The couple enlisted Fairview-based contractor Larry Wilson of Wilson Construction and Asheville-based architect Duncan McPherson of Samsel Architects, who took stock of the condition of six of the 40-plus buildings that sat on the property. One of those buildings was the 1,100-square-foot cabin, which had been the camp’s “Office and Administration” headquarters. Their cabin in the woods turned out to be cabins in the woods.

“We wanted to build places that we could use for ourselves,” says Debbie. “And then trying to look at what’s valuable, historically, and make sure those don’t decay too badly. Some things, like [the] dining hall, are valuable historically.”

It would have been cheaper and more efficient to tear down the old office cabin and build a new one, says McPherson. “It’s not perfect,” he says of the old cabin. “It’s not as good as a new house. But [renovating it is] a real good attempt at taking something that’s inherently flawed and making it as good as we could, and preserving [it].” He adds, “There’s no reason to renovate this if we didn’t preserve that historical character. We could’ve just built something new.”

A green renovation

Recycling an old building and repurposing a majority of its original materials, as the Kroegers did, is potentially “greener” than building a new home. McPherson says, “If you think about the energy it takes to cut down new wood, and quarry out new stone, and do all these things, reusing everything you’ve got is the least impact possible for building and construction.”

Still, transforming a drafty, rotting and unlivable cabin into an efficient, airtight and modern home was a major challenge. The office had originally been two separate cabins, attached by a dogtrot connecting hallway. These original cabin spaces were converted into the living room and bedroom. The dogtrot became a hallway. Storage structures at the back of the building weren’t salvageable, McPherson explains. “There was English ivy growing in these rooms, and corners of the foundation just completely collapsed.” A kitchen, bathroom and closet space were built in their place, keeping the cabin’s original footprint.

Other renovations included a new front porch, a little bigger than before but built with much of the original materials. The cabin also got a new roof, gutters, foundation repairs, skylights, energy-efficient windows and floors, a rebuilt fireplace and a new one. “The main goal was to make it as airtight as we could,” McPherson says, noting the application of spray-foam insulation and other building-envelope improvements that close gaps where heat and cooling can escape or intrude. He adds, “Mouse-proofing [the cabin] helped us achieve that air sealing and energy efficiency.”

One of the biggest projects was the roof, with the underlying structure in general disrepair, the shingles had been layered on top of one another over the years. The aesthetic and environmental solution was installing Enviroshake, a 95 percent recycled, content-simulated wood shake roof made of rubber, plastic and sawdust. A post-consumer recycled product, this roofing material doesn’t rot and it’s inedible. These factors make it extremely low maintenance and give it an exceptionally long life span, says McPherson. “A roof that you don’t have to replace for 50 to 100 years is clearly more green than something that has to be replaced every 20 to 30 years,” he notes.

Reduce, reuse, recycle

With historical preservation as a main driver, approximately 40 buildings to salvage or cannibalize, and an abundance of natural resources such as stone and wood, the Kroegers were able to source plenty of resources locally, from their new property.

Many of the camp buildings were made with American chestnut — a tree nearly wiped out over the last century by blight. It was a special find, and the couple took full advantage, repurposing the wood into kitchen cabinets, wall paneling and bedroom drawers.

Another prized discovery were the oak timbers used in many of the old cabins on the property. “Tax records show some of [the cabins] being from the late 1800s, so these [logs] are over 150 years old, and they’re still useful. … We really didn’t do anything but re-chink them,” Claus says.

In addition to reusing the chestnut and oak, the Kroegers reused old doors as well. “Only one door in the whole [cabin] was new,” he says. “Every other one was either from this building, originally, or other buildings.”

The Kroegers also used stone found on the property for stonescaping the back patio, and they milled dying hemlocks on the property into useable lumber for a garage. There’s enough hemlock for a future renovation too.

Wood unsuitable for construction fueled the cabin’s wood-burning stove, Claus says.

But some items, like the asphalt roof shingles, went to the dumpster.

Land conservancy and chestnut restoration

The Kroegers also recognized the environmental potential of the land. The couple allowed the American Chestnut Foundation to test-plant three “restoration” chestnut trees on the site. Since 1983, the Asheville-based foundation has been developing a blight-resistant American chestnut seed. Since 2009, the organization has planted restoration trees in woodlands across the Appalachians.

“We’re participating in just a little project to see how they grow, and see if they’ll be blight resistant,” Claus says.

The couple also placed approximately 35 acres of their land in a conservation easement with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. The Kroeger’s land adjoins the 1,800-acre Woodfin watershed, which is also in an easement with SAHC. “It will keep the land in a natural condition in perpetuity,” says Claus. “There are some minor exceptions allowing us to maintain existing trails, cut some firewood and such.”

A conservation easement creates a voluntary land-preservation agreement that restricts land development. Once the easement is established, it passes on in the deed. “It’s a good example of the right kind of mindset for people who do have the opportunity to own some large pieces of land,” says McPherson. The Kroegers “don’t have any intention of putting a subdivision in, and building a bunch of homes on it to make money; they really want to save it, in perpetuity.”

Historical preservation

Overall, environmental awareness in the historical preservation of a private living space sums up the Kroegers’ renovation decisions. From using 100 percent natural tung oil to finish the kitchen cabinets, to continuing to host annual camp-alumni reunions, the couple continues to restore the former camp in a compassionate way.

While the Kroegers have no plans on restoring the property into a functioning camp, they have a warm relationship with its alumni. “They raised money to replace the roof on the chapel,” Claus says. “It’s so generous to do, because it’s so hard for us to get to everything.”

McPherson adds, “Thinking about that kind of history, and power, and importance that [the] land and that place had for so many people gave us a sense [that] it was really important to take care of these buildings. [The] history helped us have some context of the significance of what we were doing.”

Contracter: Larry Wilson, Wilson Construction Company, Fairview 628-9438
Architect: Duncan McPherson,
Samsel Architects, Asheville

Jo-Jo Jackson is a freelance writer.