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Charlotte architect couple found the perfect spot, then built their perfect retreat in Blowing Rock
By Jessica Beil Hindman, Reprinted from The Charlotte Observer, June 27, 2009
The small, pixilated screen on Susan Hensey's BlackBerry shows an ocean of soft clouds below layers of mountain peaks-- a place of astonishing peace. Who wouldn't long to experience the ethereal place in the tiny fuzzy photo?
For years Susan and Bret Hensey searched Blowing Rock for a vacation home. They wanted something special--an open cabin with a view; not a "second home," but a retreat in the truest sense. They found older homes with views, but the interiors were divided into too many private spaces. They found beautiful, new cabin-style homes low in the valley, but the views were missing. So they decided to build.
The Charlotte couple, who are both architects and live in the Raintree neighborhood, found the perfect site. It had tremendous views of the Blue Ridge Parkway across an expansive valley, peace and privacy, south-facing to capture the warmth and light of the sun, adjacent to beautiful national parkland and close to town. The steep site was challenging, though, and with only a narrow shelf of buildable land.
The couple designed the home themselves. The site dictated the dwelling's form -- long and narrow with views in one direction-- and the setting inspired its look, which pays homage to simple mountain structures.
The Henseys wanted a place that "personifies simplicity, integrates with the outdoors and celebrates the magnificent views."
You enter the home on a covered walkway, under a "treehouse." Immediately, your eye is pulled across the house to a carefully placed window at the far end. Passing through the open kitchen, you reach the two-story family room. A fireplace grounds you to the site and lends privacy to the master suite beyond.
The south side opens up to the views and light, and the north side has a gracious staircase. Upstairs you arrive on an interior bridge, facing the views across the two-story space. Again, the massive fireplace roots you and screens a second master suite.
Opposite, a generous open lift leads across an exterior bridge and to the "treehouse," a secluded covered porch with hammocks. It anchors the thoughtful path through the home and, of course, has spectacular views. It's where the Hensey's 18-year-old son, Grey, hangs out with friends. They also have a 16-year-old daughter, Cheyenne.
When weathering is good
The Henseys selected long-lasting, low-maintenance materials. Rather than deteriorating, the materials are enhanced by the effect of weathering. The cedar shingles and galvanized metal roof evoke memories of North Carolina's tobacco barns and will weather back into the natural environment, causing the house to blend with its setting. Interior materials are likewise simple and ennobling, but unmistakably modern. This house has no drywall, no dust, no paint, no maintenance. Walls and cabinetry are plywood. The wood structure, plumbing and electrical work are entirely exposed.
Radiant heat, an extremely efficient system that pumps hot water through tubes embedded in the concrete floor, keeps the house cozy in winter. The north wall has high windows that pull fresh air up and through the house, keeping the house comfortably cool in summer -- there is no need for air conditioning. Smart House technology controls security, lighting, heating and entertainment. The Henseys can "turn the house on and off" from the Internet, so it is visible from the dark mountain road and warm when they arrive. Apart from the novelty, Smart House monitoring systems offer a safer, more comfortable home while reducing overall energy consumption.
A happy juxtaposition
The house has stunning touches throughout: thick concrete countertops embedded with warm-toned amber and green glass, and a custom wood mantel and dining room table made by a local artist. In contrast to the modest material palette, the house is appointed with high-end, modern fixtures and appliances, with a focus on high quality and low energy consumption. The Henseys love this juxtaposition of time-honored materials and construction principles with contemporary technology and fixtures.
Nature does not always cooperate with budgets. The Henseys designed a $150-per-square-foot project, but upon excavation, a series of hurricanes drenched the site for weeks. Between the water control, erosion and ill-timed cement shortage, they ended up with twice as much foundation at an escalated cost --and a dramatic impact to the overall budget.
The Henseys admit that not all who visit "get it." They laugh, saying their 5-year-old niece asked them, "Where's the paint?" But the home is exactly as they envisioned it, even better.
They wake to the sunrise, a blazing orange streak across layers and layers of mountains. Clouds settle in the valley, float into the open windows and pass through. Spectacular icicles dangle from the sunscreens outside. On a clear day, the Charlotte skyline can be seen 90 miles away. And the magnificent views...
The Rock: A Retreat in the Clouds
Location: Blowing Rock.
Square Footage: 2,700 heated; 1,200 unheated
Cost: Approximately $200 per square foot
Key attributes: Sustainable (green) practices; simple, exposed materials and structure; challenging site.
Design Team: Architects and owners, Susan and Brett Hensey, 8009 Rising Meadow Road, Charlotte 28277
Mark Kirkpatrick and Kenneth Jones, Mountain Construction, P.O. Box 1177, Boone, 28607.
Smiley Engineering, 12025 Forest Home Drive, Fort Mill, SC 29708.
Dex Studios (concrete countertops), 675 Metropolitan Parkway SW, Atlanta, GA 30310,
Audio Video Systems (Smart House technology), 7881 NC 105 South, Boone, 28607
Bucky Black (artist, woodworker), Resource Wood, Inc., 505 Locust Lane, Boone 28607
Jessica Beil Hindman holds a Master's of Architecture from N.C. State University. Her Charlotte firm, Studio H, designs custom homes, renovations and additions.
Mountain Construction Enterprises are residential custom home builders located between Boone and Blowing Rock, NC. They also service Banner Elk, Linville, and Lake James, NC. They specialize in conventional construction, remodeling and historic restoration as well as porches, decks and additions. They are NAHB Certified Green Professionals that have built over 300 projects in Western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Mountain Construction are also premier North Carolina Log and Timber Frame Builders.