Mari Fox: Not your grandmother’s farmhouse

Not your grandmother’s farmhouse

By Mari Fox on 03/05/2012

In early 2010, Rich and Jen Orris found a sweet property less than 10 minutes from Asheville that included just about everything they envisioned for their new life together — except a livable house. The 5-acre farm in Enka was a perfect location for commuting to their in-town jobs, yet suitable for the rural lifestyle they desired. Not to be deterred by the dilapidated condition of the farmhouse, the two launched plans that would require brute strength, sledgehammers and a strong will to take pride and ownership in the revitalization of their abode.

After purchasing the property and having the farmhouse inspected, the couple was assured that the shell of the house — basically the framing, floor and rafters — was in good shape; everything else had to go. The couple wanted a unique, sustainable and energy-efficient home, so after much research and interviewing, they hired local architects Aaron and Calder Wilson of Wilson Architects to redesign the original 900-square-foot, two-bedroom, one-bath floor plan into a more open, spacious area. The updated plans also included a 500-square-foot master-suite addition and a basement dug under the new portion of the house to accommodate plans for canning and storage.

When they began the intense process of choosing a builder, Rich and Jen clicked immediately withJim Demos of Demos Builders Inc. “He is a standup guy and communicated in a way that worked for us,” Rich says. “We talked to a couple of people who had hired him for remodeling work, and they confirmed that he was a down-to-earth, good guy and talented builder.” Demos focuses on smaller, energy-efficient homes that are a little out of the box, with as much locally sourced material as possible — all important qualities for Rich and Jen.

The quaint, yet outdated farmhouse was built in the late 1930s, incorporating most of the offending toxic materials of the day, including asbestos shingles and lead paint. Before construction could begin, the entire home was gutted so the couple could start their journey into sustainable living with a fresh canvas.

The pair wanted to be actively involved in the reconstruction of their new home. So before the construction crew arrived, the couple completed about 90 percent of the demolition themselves. “The demolition gave me a new understanding of what goes into building a house … by what came out!” says Rich. “We did all the demolition by hand over the winter (November – February) and it was cold. The professionals are so much faster.” The salvaged materials will be used in future projects — the original windows for a greenhouse and wooden boards for a chicken coop.

After demolition, all that was left were the original pine floors, framing, roof sheathing and an interior brick chimney discovered behind a wall. In April 2011, Demos and his crew took over the project, and within three months, the transformation was complete. “We took a nondescript farmhouse and turned it into a beautiful, solar-powered home,” Demos says. The upgrades in finishes and energy efficiency give it a modern, comfortable feel that had been missing for decades.

Some of the unique characteristics of this home come from blending old and new. The framing and floors were built to stand the test of time — and did. Simply refinishing the pine floors brought them back to their original beauty. Icynene spray-foam insulation was installed between 80-year-old studs to create an airtight building envelope. The old chimney now forms a backdrop for the new, high-efficiency wood-burning stove. And Jen even had the original claw-foot tub in the bathroom refinished to its stunning former self.

The Galvalume steel roof was chosen for its durability and clean, environmentally friendly properties; the couple plans to harvest rainwater from it for an organic garden. Plus, a metal roof on a farmhouse just looks good.

Crowning the roof are 27 photovoltaic solar panels installed by Sundance Power Systems. The panel array was designed to supply all the electricity needs for the house, and so far, the 5.4-kilowatt net-metered system is just about hitting the mark. The homeowners can even go online and track real-time energy collection and find out how many kilowatts the panels collect in any given time frame.

Another major improvement to the home was sealing the existing crawlspace and installing an energy-recovery ventilator system to introduce fresh air into the home. “An ERV system is really important with the super-tight houses built today,” Demos explains. “In traditional, forced-air heating/cooling systems, the air continuously circulates through the ductwork (like an airplane), becoming old and stale. Older homes were leaky, so the fresh air came in regardless. An ERV system pulls in fresh air from the outside, which improves indoor air quality and provides a healthier living environment.”

Beefing up the insulation with Icynene was a no-brainer once the decision was made to remove the original plaster walls. It’s sprayed on in a thin layer, which fills quickly with air pockets that expand 100 times — creating an air-thermal-noise barrier hidden within the cavity of the wall. This protective layer keeps allergens, pollutants and noise from entering the home, thus improving indoor air quality and livability.

Other notable features include double-paned, argon-filled windows and a mini-split heat pump in the master suite.

Rich reveals that his favorite part of the house is the kitchen-living-dining area. The gray quartz counters, farmhouse sink, new appliances and white beadboard create an invitingly warm space that’s even cozier when he indulges in a favorite pastime: baking.

After the home was finished, the couple decided their farm needed a traditional pole barn. A friend obliged by sketching the initial design. “To get the structure approved by the city was an intense process,” Rich says. “The design had to go through about five revisions before we could have it built.” It had to be done, though; where else would Rich park the tractor or the old automobile he plans on buying and bringing back to life someday?
Rich and Jen plan to live in this home for the rest of their lives, as the family who originally built it did. In the fall, they harvested berries from their farm and used their new cellar to can and store food for the winter. A quarter acre is tilled and ready for spring planting.

What’s next on the front-porch horizon? Perhaps finishing the fence and building a chicken coop, greenhouse and hop farm to supply local breweries. This story is one that will continue.

Design: Wilson Architecture

Builder: Demos Builders Inc.

Solar: Sundance Power Systems

Green business owner and freelance writer Mari Fox lives in Weaverville. She can be reached at