Restoring the Land: An owner-builder lives out a dream high-performance, biophilic, and permaculture-inspired homestead in the mountains of Yancey County

Sustainable Home Deltec

The land that Sheri bought had once been a tobacco farm, part of the neighbor’s family for three generations. Then it was sold to a would-be homesteader whose big promises and big dreams ultimately outstretched his resources. Instead of building his homestead, he half buried a foundation and then abandoned construction. And instead of putting the land to productive use, he completely buried an existing stream, a tributary of the Cane River. 

Sheri, too, had mountain homestead dreams, and she wasn’t deterred by the obstacles presented by the state of the property when it once again went up for sale. The self-titled “computer geek” envisioned herself gazing, from a sunlight-filled and solar-powered living room of her own creation, upon rows of native and edible plants, bordering a living, verdant mountain stream.  

Sheri got to work acting as her own general contractor for her dream home, registering as an individual member of the Green Built Alliance. For the layout and structure, she chose a panelized home system from a local company that builds the structural envelope components inside a factory in Asheville. This process allowed her to configure her home like a giant Lego kit and have the structural components (open-stud wall panels with pre-installed windows, roof trusses and roof sheathing) delivered to her site and assembled for her. She then finished out the interior herself, at her own pace, with the help of various local tradespeople for the parts that required specialized training. 

Unique Construction Process 

The panelized system allowed Sheri to build a highly insulated and airtight building envelope, two critical strategies for energy efficiency that are best accomplished during construction. The window and room layouts were carefully crafted to follow passive solar design principles. A solar pathfinder was used to help site the south-facing flat section of this oval-shaped home precisely between the potential shading of two nearby mountains. “My windows are just full of light streaming in in winter,” said Sheri. The foundation was an exposed and super-insulated slab, providing thermal mass. Sheri painstakingly installed her own insulation for the roof and walls, choosing mineral wool for its sustainable properties and higher insulation value than other materials.   

Sheri chased a far-too-underutilized point in the Green Built Homes checklist with her foundation, ensuring that her concrete contained at least 25% fly ash. This is an easy yet impactful construction measure, as concrete suppliers in the area report already using mixes that might contain up to 20% fly ash. They can easily go up to 25% if asked, often at no additional cost, repurposing what is otherwise a waste material and reducing the “embodied” energy of the concrete, which is one of the building industry’s most energy-intensive materials to produce. One just has to bother to ask, and Sheri made sure to do so. 

Unique MEP Systems 

Many homeowners in our region dream of radiant floor heat, and yet are dismayed by these systems’ dependence upon fossil fuel boilers. The air-to-water heat pump system that Sheri sought out accomplished radiant floors using heat pump technology—a highly efficient and 100% electric system—to heat water for radiant floors, while also providing cool air through wall-mounted fan-coil units. 

Another common complaint in homes is long wait times for hot water, sending thousands of gallons of water waste down the drain annually in a typical home. Sheri’s home used a manifold plumbing design, using smaller-diameter pipes to bring water to each fixture and wasting less hot water than a traditional trunk-and-branch plumbing design, and it used a built-in hot-water recirculating pump to serve the far bathroom. This pump comes on only when the homeowner presses a button to turn it on, saving more energy than recirculating pumps that are controlled by timers or temperature sensors.  

The home also featured a grid-tied solar PV system, earning it a final HERS score of -12, and an energy recovery ventilator system to bring in constant fresh air. 

A Dramatic Restoration 

Resurrecting Possum Trot Creek to the surface was the right thing for our aquatic and wetland resources, and Sheri accomplished this with local plantings to stabilize the soil along the bank. But she was able to go much further than she had dreamed, with the help of local conservation groups and a little-known US government partnership program for landowners. 

Sheri teamed up with local nonprofit Blue Ridge Conservation and Development to pursue a grant with the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s Partners for Fish and Wildlife program.  This program awards grants to private landowners on a yearly cycle, prioritizing the unique properties of the site, the landowner’s commitment to the restoration, and the ecosystem value of potential improvements. Her project was awarded a substantial grant to completely daylight the stream, and to cover the landscape alongside it with restorative plantings. The permaculture plan that Sheri had worked with local designers to make for the site, including native, edible, pollinator-friendly, and soil-enhancing plant species, was a contributing factor in winning the grant.   

“This site once was a mushy swamp. But now, I can walk about my property and hear water flowing everywhere,” Sheri remarked. Restoring streams on private property offers myriad ecosystem services downstream. Allowing the stream to flow freely allows greater habitat connectivity and passage for aquatic species. The newly planted riparian buffer along the stream–a critical restoration portion of any awarded grant through this program–reduces sedimentation downstream, supports pollinators, and creates prime feeding ground for rare bat species. Downstream, habitat is better preserved for a federally endangered mussel species, the Appalachian Elktoe. 

The three principles of permaculture are care for earth, care for people, and fair share. Everywhere along the new stream there are native elderberries, willows, and more. Rare fish were recently spotted in the once-dead stream for the first time in years. Apples, pears, nut trees, and berries now dot the hillside that was once just grass. Eventually Sheri hopes to set up a farm stand by the road to share what the land has grown.  

Leigha Dickens heads up sustainability and building science at Deltec Homes. She is a former Green Built Homes program manager, HERS Rater, and alumna of the UNCA Physics department.