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Green Intentions



One house is new, with old materials. The other house is old, with new (and old) materials. Both are some of Richmond's best examples of sustainable, ecologically sensitive residential design. And both sets of owners are pleased with lower utility bills, beautiful and earth-friendly surroundings, and the knowledge that their homes, designed by architect Patrick Farley, are part of a movement that's taking hold for all the right reasons.

Transformation in Church Hill:

When they have parties in their third-floor loft now, Rebecca Aarons-Sydnor and her husband John Sydnor can forget the roadblocks they had to plow through to resume their social life. Theirs was a huge restoration project by almost any couple's standard: a three-story 1897 building in Church Hill that for 20 years stood abandoned except by pigeons who left their mark. "It was an ugly scene when we first started out,"architect Patrick Farley recalls. "The roof was leaking and I had some trepidation," Rebecca says. John saw something promising: "It was a perfect spot. This area was growing like crazy, and this was one of the best buildings left up here [to renovate]. I came up to the third floor, and that's when, just looking at the space and all the sun and the view, I knew it would be a great building to bring back to the community."

Their goal was to use resources as effectively as possible, and to make environmentally conscious choices throughout the process. She is trained in architecture and works at a sustainable design firm; he's a project manager with the Richmond Redevelopment and Housing Authority. Both knew that their work lives intersected this personal project, and they brought high standards and realistic approaches to problems that were typically wide-ranging but solvable. Everything took longer than they'd hoped and was more expensive than they'd wished. They spent five months living with close friends, who helped them laugh their way through the turmoil.

Now when they look at the low-flow plumbing fixtures, the remilled flooring, the new staircase with joists recycled from the old, the efficient lighting and heating, and myriad green details, they express satisfaction that extends to the neighborhood and the larger community -- people often stop and thank them for saving a local landmark that improves everyone's quality of life.

"We learned that we can handle anything," Rebecca says of surviving the stress of the process, "and it was fun because we have similar tastes." John suggests this might not be the last project. "My father-in-law wants to do another one," he says with a laugh. For now, they're settling into the block with a sigh of relief that was two years, and a century, in the making.

Westhampton Green

A Craftsman-style bungalow in Westhampton has attracted lots of attention, even though when Patrick Farley designed it, the goal was to fit it into the neighborhood as naturally as possible. But people noticed right away that the house was something special, and it's been featured in a television commercial and an upcoming national magazine spread even though it's only three years old.

It's what you don't see at first that gives the house its true significance. It's built to green standards throughout, from the careful siting of windows to the high-efficiency mechanical systems and the use of sustainable materials. The house has a timeless feel with purely modern function and packs livable space into every square inch — another goal of good environmental design.

It is, Farley says, a very intentional house, where economics and ecology go hand in hand. Up-front costs were higher in some cases — the copper roof, the front-loading clothes washer — but those decisions pay off over the long run, and already produce dividends for the environment.

Owners Steve and Patricia Clarke say they've embraced the green aspects of the house, particularly the low electric bill and the livability of the well-crafted, well-designed space. They use healthy cleaning products, including chemical-free soaps, laundry and dish detergent. "It's nice to know we're not working against 50 years of bad chemicals in our home," Patricia Clarke says, noting that the house is decorated with healthy paints and floor sealants that are nontoxic.

Most of all, the Clarkes say they enjoy the closeness that the house invites; it tends to be a place where people like to gather, as the open design is appealing and functional. "We're really close to our neighbors," Patricia adds. "That's one of the things we love most about the house — that there are lots of families on this block and that people enjoy coming over."


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