Worley Green Renovation: Conversion of a 1960’s Split-Level Ranch into an Eco-Friendly Dream Home Part 1

By Trish Holder

I sort of envy Amy Worley. Then again, I sort of don’t.

Amy and her husband, Ben, are about begin a major (as in a down-to-the-studs) green renovation of a home in Raleigh, NC – what will become their “forever home” as Amy calls it. Both she and her husband are fulltime lawyers and they have two small boys, both under the age of four. They are, as they say, “in the thick of it” and I’m certain their experiences will prove valuable to any hardworking family anticipating building or renovating a home.

I remember how exciting it was picking and choosing materials for my home. I loved researching the products and I loved learning about the latest green strategies. Ah—but it’s not all fun and games! Building a home is one challenge after another and by the end of the process most homeowners are challenged out. I know I was. So it’s kind of cool that we get to live vicariously through Amy and Ben, while they are the ones that actually have to deal with the ups and downs.

This is the first of several interviews/articles about the Worley Green Renovation. Stick with it and you’ll be ahead of the game when it comes to your own!

Trish: Amy, why undertake this massive renovation when you could build a totally new home for about the same money?

Amy: The home we are remodeling was originally Ben’s grandmother’s. When she became ill, she sold it to his aunt and her roommate who lived it in for several years after that. Ben’s aunt passed away last year after several battles with cancer and her friend felt it was too much house for one person. We wanted to keep it in the family, so we decided to renovate it. It’s your basic 1960s split-level ranch. It lives well but doesn’t have great curb appeal and is a bit “chopped up” inside.

The neighborhood is inside the beltline in Raleigh very near Ben’s and my work. The neighborhood architecture is eclectic and mixed so our preference for a modern redesign will blend well. Also, our boys will be able to walk and/or bike to school and to their paternal grandparents house!

Trish: You and your family have some special needs when it comes to this new home. Can you tell us what those needs are and how they have led you in a “greener” direction?

Amy: First of all I have an autoimmune disease called Psoriatic Arthritis. It’s very much like the more commonly known Rheumatoid Arthritis. It means that I have swelling and pain in most of the joints in my body and that I have to have some accommodations in my daily living. For instance, the kitchen will have very few upper cabinets because my elbows and shoulders are affected and it’s hard for me to bear weight over my head. Also, we’ve worked with our architects at In Situ Studios to create work areas that minimize my need to carry things from one space to another to complete tasks. So, the house has workstations built into the design. Also, the architects designed the house so that the shelving is on rollers and slides out of the closets and cabinets for easy access to me. And the door handles are all arthritis friendly.

Trish: Aside from the special needs, what feeds your desire to have a greener home?

Amy: It’s more of an ethical choice than anything. We feel strongly that we should walk the walk when it comes to building our house. Ben and I are both strong proponents of sustainable living and we didn’t see why building our house should be any different. In our current home we have eliminated paper towels and now use cloth rags instead. We recycle everything we can. I make our cleaning products from vinegar and other environmentally neutral materials. Building a green home seemed like the next logical step.

Trish: You are not a passive, uneducated homeowner embarking on a construction project! What experiences are you drawing from?

Amy: We’ve remodeled one condo ourselves with the help of Ben’s parents. We also built a house from scratch in Charlotte, NC. That house wasn’t as green as this one, but it was a start. We’ve learned a little bit each time about how to do it better.

Trish: What will be the top green features of your home?

Amy: I would say there are five major things that we’re doing that we think really green up our home.

First, In Situ Studios designed the house to maximize our use of space so that we’re not taking up more than our share of space in the world. We have tons of shelves, clever use of vertical space, skylights, and other architectural features built in to the house that make it more environmentally friendly in its design.

Second, we’re using as many NC sourced materials as possible to keep the materials from traveling thousands of miles to get to us, wasting fossil fuels to get here. So, our cabinets and bookshelves are all being built with NC-sourced maple and formaldehyde-free plywood. On the outside, we’re replacing some not-so-lovely blue siding with NC-sourced cypress. Where we can, we’re purchasing our brackets, and hardware from NC companies. Of course, not every product has a NC supplier. Where that’s the case, we’ll get the materials where we have to, but our mantra is “local, local, local.” The third thing we’re doing is installing a geothermal heating and air-conditioning system with three zones for the three levels of the house. This will increase the energy efficiency of the house tremendously and get us off of natural gas. It also comes with a great tax credit!

Fourth, we’re using blown cellulose insulation to further insulate the house and increase it’s energy efficiency while also using a “green” insulation that is non-toxic. We considered spray foam insulation but decided against it because if there is an error in application it is the dickens to fix, and our project is a family home that is irreplaceable. Of course, we’re buying energy star appliances and I’m doing other creative non-consumer things like recovering furniture instead of buying, etc. Once you start looking at ways to green up a project, the options really start to open up!

Trish: You plan to break ground/start deconstruction in July. How long has the plan been actively in the works and what has your biggest challenge been so far.

Amy: We started working with In Situ Studios in January 2012 and they really hit the ground running. I can’t say enough how wonderful they’ve been. Any time your working on a project like this cost is going to be an issue. We’re always balancing our desire for a beautiful, environmentally friendly home against our very, very finite budget. And to that end, I would tell people that if you focus on staying local instead of on buying products that advertise as “green” you really can make a big impact for your buck. Also, I can’t tout geothermal enough. Our modeling shows that it pays for itself as fast as five years. Whereas our solar modeling showed that it wouldn’t pay for itself until our grandkids were in the house.

Trish: You’ve chosen to work with an architect. Why?

Amy: First, I should say that as a lawyer, I believe that people should hire professionals because professionals are trained to do what they do. You have no idea the number of folks my husband (who is also a lawyer) and I see who have come to us too late and already messed up their case. I didn’t want to do that with our house.

Future spot for raised bed organic garden.

Also, I had a good idea of what I wanted to achieve but not a good idea of how to get there. Erin and Matt at In Situ came highly recommended by an internationally recognized green architect named Tina Govan from Raleigh. Tina has worked with some of the best sustainable building people in the world. I knew if she vouched for Erin and Matt then they could really get us where we wanted to go. And they have. They have taken a 2000 square foot, uninspired, split-level ranch, and designed my dream home, complete with a fire pit and raised bed organic garden. And they’ve done it within our budget, within our ecological ethic, and we’ve had great fun doing it.

Trish: How has Greenspiration Home influenced some of your decisions?

Amy: I found you when I Googled “green building and personal residence”. I knew there were other people out there who wanted to live their green ethics in their daily lives. Greenspiration got me hooked up with a resource for my cabinets made with NC lumber. I also found Dupont’s green countertop material made from quartz and recycled materials— Zodiaq for our counters. And Greenspiration was integral in getting us hooked into the geothermal market. We’re doing a different kind of in-ground than the one at the Greenspiration Home, but it is still a closed loop geothermal well!

Trish: Are you going for LEED certification?

Amy: I doubt we’ll bother with LEED certification, just because it is very time consuming and we have two small children and full time jobs, but I would imagine that we would qualify based on the steps we’ve taken through our design and what we’ve done with the knowledge gleaned from greenspiration.com.

7 Responses »

  1. I like what I have read here and if possible I would like to be able to follow this project on a more personal level. I am a teacher, builder-remodeler from Goldsboro and am having a difficult time generating interest in Green in my area. I look forward to part 2.

    • Best way to follow it is to sign up for the newsletter, which I know you have done, so you are all set. Just be sure to check all the entries on the newsletter and you won’t miss a thing. Thanks for your interest!

  2. TRish;
    Great blog and I am very impressed with the way the Owners are picking and choosing as well as how they’re moving forward. It would be great if you’ll continue to post updates on the Group site. I think all of the members will enjoy following the progress. I look forward to watching.

    Chuck Hester

  3. AH! It is so exciting to see it there! We can’t wait to break ground. We’re having Habit for Humanity come in during the demo and take all the fixtures and a further way to keep stuff out of the landfill. I’ll enjoy everyone following our adventure.

    –Amy

  4. Don’t let LEED for Homes scare you. It is pretty simple…your architects may very well be LEED APs. It isn’t time consuming, Our Habitat does it all the time, you work with a Green Rater and you have to fill out a checklist, take a few pictures and collect some documentation (like the stickers off your windows and doors). Really, it isn’t much at all.

  5. We renovated this split in NJ…. twice. I lived here for 16 yrs or so. I bought to flip but stayed a while… then flipped. We used all of the highest energy efficient HVAC and boilers at the time and I used material left over from other renovation projects. Additionally, we used mostly Andersen Windows which are always among the highest is energy efficiency ratings [real ratings - not bogus ones like those of lesser brands like Peach Tree]
    It should be noted that ‘green’ is a mindset. I equate many supposed certifications to a person that buys a gym membership,,,,then doesn’t use it… then renews it. Meanwhile they stuff Cheetos into their mug and watch the Food Network all the day long. You can be a good steward while being a good business person and the money spent on needless cross checks can be applied to the actual inputs. That’s when ‘green’ will gain traction. Unfortunately, this industry is beleaguered with people that can’t even get the production side right… let alone some higher standard of efficiency. THAT’S the REAL problem.
    Here’s the split: This house had everything we needed from a basement for my office and drum kits [2 of them] and a Master Suite: . http://www.flickr.com/photos/skytopbuilders/sets/72157626803399839/

  6. The use of lead-based paint was outlawed in the US in 1978. With kids under 6 and your sensitivities, I highly recommend that you test your home in MANY areas before you start demolition. Although the usage of lead paint declined over the last 100 years, there still may be some in your family home. In addition, make sure your remodeler is Certified by the EPA under the 2010 Renovation, Repair, and Painting law to do lead safe work practices. Lead dust from remodeling is the highest cause of lead poisoning. If you remove lead paint from wood, try the Speedheater Infrared Paint Remover; it only heats paint to 400 so no lead fumes created. All, even “green” paint removal chemicals, put nasty fumes in the air. Manual or mechanical sanding or shaving the paint, even with a HEPA vacuum attached can release lead dust. High heat guns create toxic lead fumes. Read up on lead safe work practices at http://www.epa.gov/lead.

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