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

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.