Home Sweat Home

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By Cy Merkezas / Published by Dwell
The land we purchased—a little less than 40 acres in the Floyd County foothills of southwestern Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains—is the hilly, unfarmable center of several large agricultural tracts accessed by a gravel trail that follows a deeded right-of-way through several gates, across a creek, and up a steep hill.

We bought the land on impulse—it was simply beautiful—but afterwards Belinda and I looked at each other and wondered if we were crazy. We didn’t even own a house yet, and there we were buying a lumpy landscape, hundreds of miles from our home in Washington, DC, and commencing a 30-year-and-counting construction odyssey.

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Like most obsessions, it began innocently enough. We had no plans for the property, and for the first three years did little more than make periodic visits. Eventually we purchased a tent and spent the occasional night. We came to love our land, the mountain views, meandering creeks, and beautiful canopy of trees, but we hated camping. Keeping the humiliating rain-soaked details of our shortcomings as campers to ourselves, we began a curious construction project in a distant place, without the benefit of electricity or motorized equipment. These circumstances, and our meager budget, forced us to make no big plans.

Because the site was still inaccessible by vehicles, all the materials—at least in the beginning—had to be carried in by hand. We quickly learned to evaluate every architectural impulse in terms of its true cost: the purchase price plus the human energy it would require to convey. We calculated the material needed for each idea, and then converted it into our standard unit of measurement—wheelbarrow trips. The inevitable outcome was to question every architectural assumption; it also tended to shrink everything we built. Each expedition to the bottom of the hill and back presented more than a quarter hour of sweat-drenched effort, sometimes  with Belinda pulling a rope tied to our one-wheeled beast of burden as I pushed from behind, wondering if my marriage (and my back) would survive. At night, in our unloved fabric cocoon, Belinda remarkably confessed that what had been mostly my obsession up to this point—to build a home in these hills, with our own hands—had become mutual.

We had no image of what we were making, and certainly no architectural plans, we simply set about solving each problem as it presented itself. We worked weekends and vacations with only occasional assistance from friends and family. The process was slow—15 years to finish the cabin—but it gave us time to acquire necessary skills and learn the land. Intimacies of the place—like the arc of the sun in the sky, the direction of prevailing winds, and a growing appreciation of the surrounding cultural landscape—began to inform every decision.

We taught ourselves to lay block, frame roofs, sheathe walls, and build furniture. Belinda became an excellent mason’s helper and jackie-of-all-trades; I learned to sweat pipe and make quasi-acceptable miter joints. In the end we built the little cabin we called Villa Floyd almost entirely alone. This drive to self-sufficiency was not entirely voluntary; we knew only a few people in the area when we arrived, and initially couldn’t afford to seek their help. After that, it just became habit. Learning to do everything ourselves was similar to how early settlers went about ensuring their survival in the wilderness. We were merely continuing the tradition.

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When we began, there were no building codes in Floyd County, so Belinda and I acted not only as clients and designers but as builders and regulatory authorities. We made sketches, passed them back and forth until there was consensus, and then began building what we could fit into a weekend. Disagreements about what to build were rare; our quest for shelter kept the decision-making process simple. We organized the tasks according to need. The most pressing things—a flat spot for a tent, a place to wash, simple shelter—came first, even if the process was unconventional.

It wasn’t obvious at the time, but we were discovering sustainable design—actually inventing it as we went along. For their availability and low cost, we used concrete blocks from a nearby plant and locally harvested  lumber. When our professional lives began to focus on restoring historic buildings, it wasn’t long before materials salvaged from urban palaces found their way to our rural cabin. (We didn’t appreciate until later that the short transport distances with local materials and the use of recycled components also reduced the embodied energy of our project.) In time, our two worlds—the office in the city and the obsession on the hilltop—began to overlap and intertwine. It was to be expected, I suppose, that Belinda’s early work with the American Institute of Architects Research Corporation, one of the first organizations to begin looking at energy use in buildings, and my lifelong interest in climate-responsive indigenous architecture would influence the details of our villa.

The techniques we were developing, and our evolving appreciation of environmental issues, also began to weave themselves into our work in DC. Regardless of what our clients would say they needed, we always tried to make them build only what was necessary, and our knowledge of how much energy goes into erecting a building found expression in the details we designed.

As our pavilion grew into a proper house, we positioned the heaviest masonry and concrete elements where they would be exposed to winter sun—a feature that transformed our construction into a passive solar abode. We had little choice. Without electricity we needed a less time-consuming way of staying warm than constantly burning wood. When the cabin was finally enclosed, a decade and a half after we started, it stayed warm in winter and cool in summer by virtue of its materials and orientation. Now, our visits extend deep into winter. It still feels satisfying simply to pass the night, even with snow blowing sideways.

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By most people’s standards our cabin is too small—nearly all of it would fit inside a typical two-car garage—but the interplay of levels and shifting orientations give the interior a spacious feel, and we are hard-pressed to think of anything that might be lacking. Its compactness born out of minimizing materials also makes it easy to heat. We have added creature comforts, such as commissioning a well and buying a portable generator to pump water into a tank in the attic (which we used to fill by hand). But the process has altered our habits and the  memory of carrying every drop we consumed makes us frugal. Even after the arrival of full-time electricity pro-vided instant access to both cold and (gasp) hot water at the villa, we continue to wash dishes and take showers like we always did, treating water as a precious (and quite heavy) commodity.

Having come this far, we couldn’t stop. We jumped into the construction of a summer guesthouse for fair-weather friends—a tower wrapped in an exterior staircase that leads to a roof deck—and a studio. Older and presumably wiser, we could afford to watch a profes-sional mason lay more blocks in three days than Belinda and I had managed in 15 years—it was humbling, but we had no regrets. The quirky journey of discovery that became Villa Floyd could never have been accomplished with hired help.

We further involved the local community when building our small studio. The region is home to several timber frame companies, and the wood used for it was reportedly salvaged from a dilapidated barn somewhere in the county, and the skilled craftsmen who assembled the frame were practically neighbors. The entire production, from the acquisition of materials to their fabrication and assembly, was concentrated within a 20-mile radius of the site. In the end the studio exceeded our expectations, requiring little additional effort to stay warm in winter, and experiencing only minor temperature fluctuations when unattended—a crucial factor given the electronic devices the studio houses.

The impulse to do what we did isn’t unique, but the twisted course we followed led us to produce a cluster of buildings that are. We came to understand that we had imposed ourselves on a place whose history and traditions we didn’t share. In some ways our very presence amounted to trespassing, and throughout, our goals and resources were in flux. And it must be said that "sustainability," as it is currently defined, was not always our first priority. Instead, we fell in love with a piece of land—a place. We tried to learn what we could from our surroundings and blend that with what we were learning about architecture and construction. That what we produced qualifies as sustainable design is simply the result of a commitment to respect the environment in general, and this place in particular.