In 2004, when Susan Fullerton and Chris Ennis were falling in love with each other, they were smitten by the city of Wilmington.
Fullerton, a widow, was starting her life over, moving from a Chester County farmhouse to a house in Trolley Square that was rented in 1902 by the artist N.C. Wyeth while he studied with noted illustrator Howard Pyle. Ennis, who was divorced, had relocated from West Chester, Pennsylvania, to a 19th-century townhouse in the Trinity Vicinity.
They met doing volunteer work for Trinity Episcopal Church, painting at Friendship House, a faith-based nonprofit focused on helping displaced people get back on their feet.
“I tell people I picked her up at a women’s shelter,” Ennis recalls.
When they got married and started thinking about their own home, they wanted one that reflected their values.
“We are both passionate about the environment,” Fullerton says. “A green house was a natural choice for us.”
Aesthetically, they both gravitated toward older homes. While they were courting, they took long walks, hand in hand. A frequent destination was Happy Valley, a community that blends 19th-century row houses and newer construction along Brandywine Creek. The property that captivated their imaginations was a rundown, ramshackle farmhouse built in the 1830s.
“We would talk about what we would do with the house if we owned it,” says Ennis.
A few years later, someone else bought the farmhouse. When the owner dug down into the dirt basement, the house collapsed.
“The neighbors told us it sounded like an explosion,” Fullerton says.
A bathroom counter features his and her vessel sinks
Once a challenging fixer upper, the property was now a rare commodity, an open lot in an established city neighborhood.
For the couple, it was ideal location to build their home—and a life—together.
To optimize their 20-feet-by-90-feet lot, they envisioned a three-story house with a functional full-basement and a series of open-air areas that would create the aura of an urban oasis. To translate their wish list into a design, they consulted Element Design Group in Lewes, a green-friendly firm whose projects include an office for Nephrology Associates, where Fullerton, a nurse practitioner, worked before her retirement.
Built in 2010, this house would spring from the 21st century, built to Platinum LEED specifications with such green elements as high-efficiency materials, recycled floors and a living roof planted with drought-resistant sedum.
The project included a 2,725-square-foot house clad in stucco and stacked stone with four bedrooms and four baths, plus five outdoor spaces, including a courtyard, veranda and decks. For Ennis’s classic car, there’s a garage with a remote-control lift.
To create their green home, Ennis and Fullerton expended a lot of their personal energy. They rolled up their sleeves to paint walls, set tile in bathrooms and lay floors. They bought reclaimed wood planks at a salvage center in Baltimore, choosing three distinct species: variegated hickory for most of the first floor, stately cherry for the second floor and sleek, pale maple for the third floor.
In LEED construction, building materials should be sourced as close to the site as possible, to minimize fuel consumption, emissions and wear and tear on roads.
They located a large supply of quarter-sawn white oak close to home when Trinity Episcopal sold pews it was replacing. Ennis, a skilled carpenter, repurposed the pews as kitchen cabinets, stair treads and trim moldings. (Racks for hymnals now hold shoes in a walk-in closet in the master suite.)
The couple didn’t require a formal dining room on a day-to-day basis. But they wanted the option when they host family and friends on holidays. Ennis built a portable oak tabletop extension that seats 12. When they need to seat a crowd, they anchor the tabletop to the kitchen island and extend it into the adjoining foyer.
Radiant floor heating, fueled by a tankless hot water system, warms the concrete floor in the foyer and open living room. Recycled concrete is used to insulate the house. Poured concrete panels, with pre-molded conduits for pipes and wires, were prefabricated in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
“The whole basement went together in two and a half hours, an amazing feat,” Ennis says.
It took a lot of research to come up with the right mix for high-efficiency heating and cooling. The lot isn’t large enough to install the wells for a geothermal system. Solar wouldn’t work either, Ennis says, “because we are in a valley and the angle of the sun didn’t work for us.”
Their solution is a high-efficiency heat pump, with each of the home’s three floors in a different zone. Each zone is timed to reflect their activities throughout the day.
“Our average energy bill is $220 a month, year-round,” Ennis says.
The design also includes ergonomic features that make life more efficient for the homeowners.
In the kitchen, a trough in the middle of the island serves as a secondary prep sink. The upper cabinets slide out like open-sided drawers so they can readily see what’s inside.
In a sumptuous third-floor bathroom, a pair of fillers for a soaking tub are mounted on the ceiling so bathers can recline without bumping into the faucets. In the master bath, rope lighting mounted beneath a clear glass vessel sink is an ambient night light.
The furnishings are a blend of old and new. For years, Fullerton has collected antiques, including family pieces. The Pennsylvania-made rocking chair was her great-great-grandfather’s. The three-drawer oak dresser topped with an arched mirror was handed down from her parents. She found the Windsor-back wooden chairs in the kitchen, originally crafted in Maine, while antiquing in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
A pair of red leather lounging chairs in the living room is from Pala Brothers of Wilmington.
“Pala’s is known for comfort and quality and we like to support local businesses whenever we can,” Fullerton says. “Plus, we love the organic look and feel of the leather.”
The couple enjoys a bird’s-eye view of their neighborhood from the third-floor deck. Throughout the property, there’s a seasonal rotation of plantings to enjoy. Fullerton has studied both landscape and floral design through an intensive, two-year program at Longwood Gardens and takes pleasure in putting her skills to use.
She is especially keen on indigenous plants from Delaware’s verdant piedmont region. She delights in beautyberry, native lavender, allium, native sedum and hellebores, flowering harbingers of spring.
“They support butterflies, bees and birds that come to visit us here in the middle of Wilmington,” she says. “It truly is an urban oasis.”
ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES Susan Fullerton and Chris Ennis chipped in to create their green home, painting walls, setting tile in bathrooms and laying floors. SHOP LOCAL The couple chose furnishings from Pala Brothers in Wilmington. REPURPOSE AND REUSE The couple bought reclaimed wood planks at a salvage center in Baltimore and bought pews from Trinity Episcopal and turned them into kitchen cabinets, stair treads and trim moldings. GREEN THUMB With five outdoor spaces, the couple will rotate the plantings, delighting in local flowers and foliage.