Listening To the Land

Sally Keeney, Correspondent The Chapel Hill News Sunday, March 28, 2010 Stewart Walker and Pam Richey have just moved into the house of a lifetime. Surrounded by 17 acres of woods that Walker acquired over the past 30 years, this warm, contemporary home was inspired by the curve of the land and the track of the sun across it. Thirty years ago, Walker, a licensed massage therapist, and his friend, Gabriel Olmstead, were doing some clearing in the bottomland and Olmstead looked up and said that a plateau area about half way up the hillside would be a great place to build a tepee. "I've wanted to build a house on this plateau ever since," Walker said. Carrboro architect Jim Spencer ( has wanted to build a house on the same plateau since he and his wife had a picnic lunch on it two years ago. He was taken with the curve of the plateau along the wooded hillside, the stream below and the southern exposure of the site. Walker hired Spencer two years ago to design a house that would honor the land, have passive solar features, heart pine floors, a wood stove and, for his wife, a four-wind screened porch and water feature. "He listened to me, he listened to Pam and he listened to the land," Walker said. Now Stewart's favorite place is the balcony off the master bedroom overlooking that bottomland and the roof terrace facing the top of the hillside. His wife, a licensed family and marriage therapist, loves the screened porch and the kitchen with its wall of windows overlooking the back deck and woods. The kitchen's curved island opens to the great room of the house. And what a great room it is 1,200 square feet, two-stories with glass doors opening onto the deck and flooding the room with warm southern light in winter. Large overhangs shelter the house from heat as the sun moves north for the summer. The look of the room is completed by wide-plank heart pine floors that mirror the 64-foot arc of the house. The floors were installed by E.J. Floors of Raleigh ( and made from old mill beams salvaged by a company in Scotland Neck. "We are going to enjoy living here the rest of our lives," Richey said. Richey talks about watching the progress of the sun across the sky over her plateau like people at the beach talk about watching the sun rise and set over the ocean waves. Wright's influence As an architect, Spencer is always cognizant of the sun's arc. After the picnic, he thought of the solar hemicyclo that Frank Lloyd Wright designed for Herbert and Catherine Jacob in the 1940s. See a 1996 restoration of the Middleton, Wisconsin house at Spencer's above-ground convex design is an inversion of Wright's Jacob II house which is concave and bermed. Wright's Jacob II was completed in 1948 at a cost of $20,000. Spencer's was completed last week at a cost of $180 per square foot, which also included extensive surveying, building a private road to the house site and installing the septic system, but not counting the cost of buying the land. Spencer designed the 3,600-square-foot Walker-Richey house with a 64-foot radius laid out to line up with the morning sunrise on the winter solstice at the southeastern point of the house. The heated and conditioned square footage is 2,650. The house has another 950 square feet in decks, screened porch and carport. Spencer said that the 64-foot radius seemed to fit the lay of the land, the track of the sun and open as much of the south facade onto a view of the woods as possible. Spencer suggested to Walker and Richey that Tom Howlett of Synergy Building Company be the general contractor ( Both Wright's and Spencer's designs have C-shaped roofs, but Spencer's is an inverted C, and his above-ground design showcases the metal roof whose lines are slightly reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House thanks to large overhangs. The roof was installed by R.G. Roofing of Garner and had to be hand crimped at the edges because the kerf of the roof is not a standard thing, Spencer said. "Howlett and his subcontractors did things that were out of the ordinary," Spencer said. "There were a lot of difficult things to pull off, and there was such a good spirit with everyone who worked on it wanting to pull it off." Howlett concurs with Spencer's praise of the GAF roofing contractor; not only with the excellent craftsmanship, but also for coming in at a very reasonable price. The kitchen cabinets, which had to mirror the slight curve of the exterior wall, were built by Diane Swan of Diane Swan Galleries of Bynum Church Road, Pittsboro. She spent at least 20 extra hours designing and building those cabinets to fit the curve. The granite countertop also had to be scribed to the curve. The ripple effect The effect of having a curved wall is that it ripples all the way through the construction job, according to Howlett who said that his biggest question mark was laying out the curved house on a sloping site. To allay his worries, he had the surveyors, ENT Surveyors of Hillsborough, stake out the house every four feet before the concrete footers were poured. Then to assure his masons would be able to do a precise job, he had the surveyors come out again and mark the concrete every 2 feet. The surveying costs were higher than typical  "at least twice the cost of what he would usually pay for surveying.   The result,"  Howlett said, "was the masons did a great job, even with no perpendicular north and south walls. Right from the beginning from the footings and masons, everyone did a super job,"  Howlett said. The person that was the most impressive, according to Howlett, was the framer, Oscar Paz, because in order to frame it he had to scribe 2-by-10s to make the bottom and top plates for the 2-by-6 walls. The next bid for framing was twice the price that Oscar bid. The interior trim was done by, who has been in this business for many years. Howlett describes Stroud a "wonderful person and fabulous trim carpenter. The stairs and railings could easily have cost $20,000 each.  Stroud did the whole project for $4,000."  He curved the handrail to the curved wall. He cut it out of a 2-by-10 piece of fur (scribed a curve on the 2-by-10) and ended up with 2-by-3 railing. Howlett said that it was "a challenge from the get go to stay within budget." His original estimate was significantly over what the couple wanted to spend. His firm cut it back to bare bones. They shopped the job extensively. Every raw material, finishes, labor, Howlett had to get a minimum of two bids to build the house within the budget. Walker and Richey knew they would have to go over the bare bones budget, but they committed to try to stay within it and spent many hours helping Howlett shop the job. "I figure we saved them $70,000 because both material and labor costs are down now due to the economy,"  Howlett said. "Whether homeowners are doing remodeling or new construction this is a good time."  To build a comparable curved home, Howlett estimates costs about 30 percent more than a standard house.

Synergy Building in The Chapel Hill News!

Check out the article in The Chapel Hill News, September 27, 2009, on the front page of the Real Estate section. Correspondent, Sally Keeney, has written a wonderful article about Tom Howlett's new house.

Hacienda Under the Oaks: Bold colors say ‘bienvenido’ at builder’s personal residence By Sally Keeney Correspondent

If you’ve ever tasted the mango salsa at Flying Burrito in Chapel Hill, then you know the intensity of flavors is matched only by the colors of mango chunks against fresh cilantro and sun-drenched tomatoes.

I had the same sensation when I stepped inside the southwestern/Mexican- inspired house of Tom Howlett. Wow! The great room pops with mango yellow walls, sun-dried tomato counters and an etched concrete floor with sunset swirls thanks to Chris Maestro of Classic Concrete Designs. Turquoise, sand-stone and adobe reds color the walls of bedrooms and baths.

The interior colors are all the more intense against the pale gray stucco exterior. Up the gravel driveway, tumbled glass serves as mulch in the xeroscape garden beds designed by Jonah Roberts of Lael Landscapes of Raleigh. Vines will soon cover the back patio pergola, providing shade in summer and sun in winter. A bank of wild flowers, drought-resistant plantings and ground covers will make “mowing the grass” somebody else’s problem, because there won’t be any at Howlett’s hacienda under the oaks.

“The whole idea of this house is ‘small is beautiful”, said Howlett, who is co-owner of Synergy Building Co. “My dominating intention is to keep the costs low and build this as affordably as I can”.

Howlett’s company has built many affordable homes for Orange County’s Community Home Trust. Cost savings on his own hacienda began with its size – 1800 square feet instead of the average 2,629-square-foot house being built in the second quarter of 2008, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The one-story, three-bedroom/two-bath house has a passive solar design and south-facing orientation. The house has 9-foot, 4-inch high ceilings, wide exterior overhangs to minimize heat gain in summer, and a sealed attic with Icynene spray foam on the roof deck.

The long-run savings will be in energy use. Howlett chose a radiant heat slab on grade instead of a crawl space and Autoclaved Aerated Concrete block as his building material. AAC is a lightweight, precast concrete building material (sometimes called Autoclaved Cellular Concrete or ACC). It is one-fourth the weight of conventional concrete and superior as a thermal and acoustic insulator. It is also fire and termite resistant.

Howlett calculated his home’s AAC walls installed cost just under $7 per square foot ($9 if the square footage of windows and doors are deducted). Those prices include the cost of the block, labor, special thinset mortar, steel rebar and concrete (used to fill the core block and bond beams as well as the final top U-block course).

AAC is unlike many other concrete products because it can be shaped using conventional carpentry tools. But don’t let its light weight and versatility fool you. Anybody who wants to build an AAC block house should have experienced masons do it, Howlett cautions.

“It is a little tricky to do it right”, Howlett says. For a step-by-step look at his house as it was being built, log onto and click on “ Energy Efficient home, AAC block” at the bottom of the screen. Howlett used stucco on his exterior walls and drywall on the interior. “We glued and screwed the sheetrock to the block”, Howlett explained. Then, instead of typical straight-edged metal corner beading, Howlett used plastic, rounded, bull nose edge beading which gives arches, doors and window (check out these guys for fixing broken dual pane window glass) ledges that soft, southwestern look.

“I wanted to build as comfortable and affordable a house as I could,” Howlett said. “I have an aesthetic that would like nicer things, but want and need to buck the trend and go simpler.”

With that in mind, Howlett negotiated costs whenever possible. He says he saved at least $4,000 by choosing less expensive double-hung insulated glass windows. He also minimized glazing on windows on the north side of the house where weather isn’t as intense as other exposures.

He installed a truss roof instead of a stick-frame roof, which saved him about 20 percent of the roof cost. He chose 30-year architectural shingles as opposed to a metal roof, saving another $7,000.

The bathroom is an important room for Howlett. “I call it my de-stress room,” he said. “I have learned over the years – just a good long soak in the tub relaxes me completely.” He’ll smile every time he turns on the water and thinks about how he found a beautiful spout for his soaking tub at the Habitat Re-use Store. The spout cost $45 and had a few missing parts that he bought for $100 at Wilkinson Supply in Carrboro. Retail, the spout would cost $550, he said.

He also recycled beautiful wood kitchen cabinetry from the Re-use Store and had cabinet makers match fillers where needed. He found granite remnants for vanity tops.

Eventually the radiant slab heat will be backed up by solar, but he has deferred building solar collectors ($6,000 savings) and a detached carport. The house is all-electric because natural gas lines don’t run to his property and he doesn’t want the expense of propane.

Despite these cost-saving measures, creating a small house that lives big, green and easy, has cost Howlett $200,000-plus so far, and that doesn’t count his time as general contractor. Nor does it include the extra landscaping elements he and Roberts have planned.

Eventually Howlett wants to distract mosquitoes by berming and back-filling an area to create a running waterfall using recycled water. But until then, there’s always the soaking tub for relaxation.

                             See pictures here!


Small is Beautiful

Small is Beautiful By SALLY KEENEY Correspondent Less is more. Small is beautiful. These phrases and more lauding the virtues of frugality and minimalism have been in the Mother Earth lexicon since the early 1970s.  Whether you are planting a victory garden in a lush suburban backyard or downsizing to a small apartment, the idea is to make the space you have not only aesthetically beautiful and functional, but sustainable as well. High energy costs and demographics are causing home buyers and builders to follow suit. The size of the house, more than anything else, will determine how much energy it uses, both in the creation and transporting of the building materials and in the lifestyle of the family living there. This is why Habitat for Humanity houses are modestly sized.  “Large enough for the family’s needs,” says Susan Levy, director of Orange County Habitat for Humanity, “but small enough to keep construction and maintenance costs to a minimum.”  Orange Community Housing and Land Trust’s mission to provide affordable housing keeps their homes small. Rick Allen of Synergy Building Company has been building houses for the nonprofit developer of affordable housing for several years as well as doing custom renovations and new homes. After house size, Allen says, energy efficiency construction comes next. “We’ve always been trying to prove we could build something comfortable for a family, but small and very efficient,” Allen says. “The Land Trust homes are sustainable in the sense that many of the materials we use are sustainable. The planet won’t be depleted by their use.” Synergy uses low VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints; flooring and cabinets made from products that don’t emit a lot of gases; and open-cell spray insulation that stops moisture and air from coming through the walls. The houses are really air-tight, mold and mildew resistant. These same construction practices hold true for many local builders, including G. Crabtree Home Building and Cimarron Homes. Both have been building homes in the Triangle for the past 25 years. Like the Land Trust and Habitat houses, Crabtree and Cimarron’s homes are Energy Star rated, which means they are 30 percent more efficient than the North Carolina Energy Code requires. They also are certified as Green Home Builders of the Triangle, which means they meet the green building guidelines of the National Association of Homebuilders. Cimarron Homes is building in new neighborhoods in Durham, Orange and Alamance counties, including The Villages at Horton Hills in North Durham and Ashbury on the Orange County side of Mebane. Abigail Ferrance-Wu, one of the Horton Hills’ homeowners, said she and her husband moved from an 830-square-foot apartment with cathedral ceilings to a 1,940-square-foot — double the space — with 8-foot ceilings and no fireplace. “Our utility bills are about five percent lower than in the apartment,” said Ferrance-Wu. She says she loves the extra space because she can leave her crafts projects out in her loft space. Her husband works at home and their three-bedroom house allows one bedroom to be used as his office and still leave one for guests. The Village of Horton Hills has more than 75 acres and, when completed, will have approximately 250 homes from 1,350-square-feet to more than 2,700-square-feet. The subdivision is tucked away off Horton Road in North Durham between Duke Street and Guess Road and is convenient to grocery stores, restaurants and shopping at Northgate and North Duke malls as well as Eno River State Park. Home prices start from the high $120,000s. Children living in Horton Hills would attend Durham public schools: Holt Elementary, Carrington Middle School, and Riverside High School. Most recently Crabtree built two homes that can only be described as “small but beautiful” in Carrboro’s Winmore village. Although each house is just 1,350-square-feet, the homes feel so much larger thanks to 10-foot ceilings on the first floor and 9-foot ceilings on the second floor. “I took advantage of every inch of space for storage,” Crabtree said. The closets have what could be called hat box or blanket shelves around the perimeter. The extra tall kitchen cabinets have glass doors at the top so the cook can easily see what is stored there. To help ameliorate the high cost of building in Chapel Hill-Carrboro due to land and development costs, Crabtree’s small houses are built with high-end materials. For example, the gourmet kitchen has granite counters, designer lighting, and stainless steel appliances. It opens to a great room with gas-log fireplace, hardwood floors, and wood panel doors. The lowest price for a detached, single-family home in Winmore is $305,000. In designing Winmore, Capkov Ventures worked with the Town of Carrboro to design a mixed-use community with a variety of housing types, including small, detached houses. Houses are designed and constructed with materials that keep privacy at the sides and back while having welcoming front porches. “The idea of Winmore is that whatever house you own, your living space is expanded by the community and the architectural planning that went into it,” developer Scott Kovins said. Winmore will include a central gathering place at Philip’s Square for retail and commercial businesses, 26 acres of open space, a community pool and playgrounds on a hillside overlooking Bolin Creek, sidewalks, hiking trails, a nursery/daycare, and an apple orchard. Sally Keeney can be reached at

HGTV’s Beyond the Box

HGTV Beyond the Box Beyond the Box showcases innovative design strategies that help owners save money. In this clip you'll see an example of how Synergy's processes, craftsmanship, and building expertise teamed with intelligent design and committed owners, resulted in a great experience and a truly unique and functional custom home. From HGTV's program guide:
Funky Farmhouse and More Episode HBBOX-102 Head to North Carolina, where a couple built a high-tech farmhouse with a Far East theme. Then, travel to Colorado, where a family of five reinvented the concept of a log home, while another couple designed their home to maximize the beautiful views. Finally, see a simple, elegantly designed home in California with an interior inspired by a Japanese tea house.

Watch It Full Screen Here!


Worry free Building

chnewspic Progressive Construction Company places Emphasis on Enviroment-friendly and Budget-friendly Living Spaces By Benji Cauthren, Correspondent CARRBORO -- Some of the best houses Rick Allen and Tom Howlett build begin on cocktail napkins rather than as architect's blueprints. That's because Allen and Howlett get just as much of a kick out of the creative process as they do watching the actual bricks and mortar building. This is why they encourage customers to bring in ideas, no matter how raw they may be, even if they haven't decided on a set design for their dream home just yet. "Half of our customers come in with plans they had an architect draw up," Allen said. "The other half of our customers have a specific need, whether they need to re-do their kitchen or design a basement space. But they don't know where to start. We try to help them come up with a preliminary design in this case." Allen and Howlett have run Synergy Building Company, the Carrboro-based general contracting company that has been constructing homes in and around Orange County, since its inception in 1996. The company has built a reputation for encouraging customer involvement in all phases of the building process. Allen knows how stressful an experience this can be for most homeowners, a reason he seeks to make the time as worry-free as possible. "Typically, the less surprises for people, the better," Allen said. "There are lots of day-to-day issues in the meat of the process, and people want to know 'when will the guys show up and start banging on my wall, when is my power going to be cut off?'" Credit Allen's background in social work for his eagerness to make customers comfortable. He moved to the area from Illinois, working with the Chapel Hill Police Department before starting Synergy and later teaming up with Howlett. Howlett came to Carrboro from California, a place he credits with shaping his philosophy on construction. Howlett helped run a team of self-described "hippie contractors" in Berkeley during the 1970s who taught locals how to build their own homes. "We would go right from the classroom to the building site and start framing and putting up Sheetrock," Howlett said. "It was an effort on our part to engage people and experience housing on a visceral level." Howlett's outlook on building also was influenced by years spent living in Third World countries in Latin America, as well as Africa, Russia and India. "It gave me a global perspective of how people build their homes and what other cultures are able to get by on," Howlett said. "Cultures throughout history have been able to build their own houses relatively simply without putting themselves in debt for 30 years." Howlett has noticed trends in housing shifting toward smaller, more intimate living spaces. He said that since the tech bubble of the late 1990s burst, people are re-evaluating certain consumer-driven attitudes and shifting their behaviors as they did during the oil crisis of the 1970s. "The cost of oil is high," Howlett said. "People are thinking about downsizing and turning their homes toward the sun, and there's more focus on making high-quality and environmentally friendly and budget friendly living spaces." Allen and Howlett's emphasis on maximizing comfortable, but not necessarily massive, homes is the reason Synergy has a reputation for energy-efficient designs and employing alternative energy sources with environmentally friendly standards. Eliminating mold in crawlspaces has been the most recent effort the company has tackled. Allen says many homeowners mistakenly let in humid air that contributes to mold by attempting to recirculate fresh air in their crawlspaces. "Mold freaks people out, and rightfully so," said Allen. "The Southeast is a hot and humid place, so the conditions for mold exist." To combat the problem, Allen says they are sealing crawlspaces with bio-based foam insulation. This blocks vapor transmission between areas, and is less harmful to the environment and inhabitants of the house. Synergy also is working with a manufactured concrete product called "superior walls," which serves as an alternative to poured concrete. It allows builders to carry concrete on trucks and cranes and build a basement in as little time as one day. "It's such a quick process, and it enhances the ability to insulate for a nice, tight basement," Allen said. James Carnahan, board chair of The Village Project Inc., and member of the Planning Board for the Town of Carrboro, believes that more builders should raise awareness of the need to conserve energy and design more closely knit communities that reduce the need for automobiles.