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The Green Dream

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The Topels' 4,500-square-foot post-and-beam home was more expensive to build than a conventional house, but energy-saving materials and methods have already cut their utility bills by half. Photograph by John LewisDesigning their new home, Avrim “Ave” Topel and his wife, Vicki, were intent on downsizing.

When finished, they indeed wound up with a slightly smaller home—and significantly reduced their footprint on the planet.

“It’s always exciting building a home,” Vicki says. “This one wound up being exciting on several levels.”

The Topels’ contemporary take on a rustic retreat was designed by Matthew Moger of Lyman Perry Architects in Berwyn, Pennsylvania. Moger blends clients’ wishes with the demands of the site.

A grove of poplars, growing in a natural arch above an open field on the Topels’ five-acre parcel in Kennett Square, called out to embrace the house. The structure, essentially, completes the circle of the trees, in harmony with the setting.

The couple, who also built the expansive, 5,300-square-foot farmhouse down the lane, knew the land well. They also knew what they wanted in a home—and what they wanted was less.

 Most of the building materials were found locally to reduce the impact of transportation. Photograph by John LewisThat made sense. Their son and daughter are both young adults who are building new lives away from home. Ave Topel is semi-retired, so he and Vicki enjoy spending months each year at their beach house in Rehoboth Beach.

But instead of a smaller model of the home they had enjoyed for years, the Topels found inspiration in their timber frame barn. They called the man who built it, Hugh Lofting, founder of Hugh Lofting Timber Framing in nearby West Grove, Pennsylvania.

Amy Cornelius, Lofting’s construction manager, suggested the couple build a green house, combining their affection for natural materials with environmentally friendly design and such features as compact fluorescent lighting, high-efficiency windows, and wood salvaged from old buildings or from suppliers certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.

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Artisan David T. Smith crafted bookcases in the library, as well as a vanity in a bathroom and an armoire in the foyer. Photograph by John LewisThe green home would cost more to build, but over the long haul, the Topels could expect significant savings on energy.

So the couple plunged in. They settled on a 4,500-square-foot design that would concentrate the public and private living spaces on the first floor.

A smaller, second story would accommodate bedrooms and en-suite baths for the Topels’ children, as well as a “pajama room,” a casual gathering area where they could entertain friends, play games or watch TV. The space is heated and cooled in a separate zone to save energy when the younger Topels aren’t home.

“Our approach in designing this home was to intentionally bring attention to the green and sustainable design elements that enhance the green living experience inside and out,” Ave says.

The Topels call it TGA: The Green Aesthetic.

That includes the features you see throughout the house—and what you don’t see. There are no interior corridors; they eat up space that must be cooled and heated. Rooms flow from either side of a central atrium, with public spaces on one side and private spaces, including a music room and a sumptuous master suite, on the other.

Smith also crafted pine cabinets for the kitchen. Photograph by John LewisWalls were built using structural insulated panels—known as SIPs—that are fabricated by sandwiching insulation between two layers of plywood. (Because the house is airtight, it requires a system that regularly brings fresh air into the living space.)

The Topels were so engaged with the concept of an environmentally friendly home that they decided to go for LEED certification, which meant meeting stringent requirements for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

To that end, they brought in Tad Radzinsky, president of Sustainable Solutions Corp. in Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, to oversee elements ranging from the site plan to heating and cooling systems.

Timber framing, a technique with roots in both ancient Japan and medieval England, might be considered the antithesis of high-tech design. Essentially, framers secure heavy timbers to one another with mortise and tenon joints instead of nails.

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Letting the outdoors in through large windows was important to the owners. Photograph by John LewisBut timber frame structures last for centuries, so they are the height of sustainable building. And the massive Douglas fir timbers are a visually stunning counterpoint to the 20-foot ceilings in the home’s gathering area, which encompasses a sitting room, kitchen and dining space.

Five enormous windows provide jaw-dropping views of woods and meadows, where a half dozen deer bound by as if on cue.

Bringing the outside in also includes a healthy dose of humor. The exterior wall of a powder room is sheathed in wood siding reminiscent of an outhouse. There’s a crescent moon sliced in the door. Inside, the toilet and faucets are low-flow designs that save water.

The massive front door is a functional sculpture crafted by a coppersmith in a technique known as firescaling. The copper is heated to 1,800 degrees, then spattered with molten wax. The coppersmith pummels the surface with rags and brushes to create a weathered look.

Most materials in the house—and the artisans who crafted them—were found locally. That’s important in green design because trucking goods contributes to carbon emissions and wear and tear on roads.

Granite for the massive, two-sided fireplace was quarried in Avondale, a stone’s throw down the road. The mason who created the focal point is Gary Odle, who hails from Landenberg. Brick for a garden pathway was salvaged from the U.S. Mint in Baltimore.

One of the few resources the Topels found outside the area was the Shaker-style cabinetry throughout the house. Ohio-based artisan David T. Smith crafted pine cupboards in the kitchen, bookcases for the library, a bathroom vanity, a painted red hutch and the big armoire in the foyer. The armoire doubles as a coat closet.

The landscape abounds with indigenous plants, including sedges, native grasses and wildflowers. Requiring mowing only once a year, the meadow naturally reseeds itself. Drought-tolerant sedum grows on a living roof that keeps the house cool.

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The Topel home is one of only nine houses in America selected as a U.S. Green Building Council Project Profile in the LEED For Homes certification program. The program was launched in February 2008. By January, only 1,304 of the 13,836 homes that had sought certification received it.

After more than a year in their home, the couple reports their energy bills have been cut in half. The house also has generated a cottage industry for its owners, who have written a book about their experiences.

“Green Beginnings: The Story of How We Built Our Green & Sustainable Home,” by Avrim and Vicki Topel, is available at Amazon.com, as well as retailers such as Ninth Street Book Shop in Wilmington and Fairfax Hardware in Talleyville. To learn more, visit the Topels’ website, www.greenbeginningsconsulting.com.

The Topels also offer tours of their property for other people who are considering green homes. “We are up to our eyeballs in green and enjoying it all,” Ave says.

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