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Best Green Houses:

Georgia on Her Mind

Bork Architectural Design
Athens, Georgia

In designing her family's house, a young practitioner and mother combines local wisdom and jet-set forms.

By David Sokol
May 2012
Photo © Elizabeth Maves

Usually, young designers amass their portfolios with residences and work their way up to commercial and institutional buildings. Not Lori Bork Newcomer, whom Cesar Pelli named an associate at 25 and whose vastly sized projects at the New Haven–based firm included the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Orange County, California. So when her husband was appointed director of the University of Georgia’s Costa Rica campus, Bork Newcomer viewed the move to college town Athens, Georgia, as an opportunity to relive a small-scale youth.  

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Her first project, the Pulaski Street Residence, was located directly around the corner from her converted-factory studio. The neighborhood is sandwiched between central Athens and several active rail lines to the north; in addition to industrial buildings, modest foursquares were constructed in the early 20th century to house the labor force of a now-defunct American Cottonseed Oil factory. “I think it started a reinvestment trend,” Bork Newcomer says of the Pulaski Street commission. “It showed that there was good value in the neighborhood and that interesting design was possible without worrying about the cookie-cutter subdivision covenants of other places in Athens.” Currently five nearby sites are under development, two of them according to the transplanted designer’s schemes.

In the midst of this positive transformation, one of Bork Newcomer’s fellow factory tenants mentioned that she was interested in selling a quarter-acre not far from the old American Cottonseed warehouses. Bork Newcomer and her husband had been a renting a newly built 900-square-foot cabin located 45 minutes from town. With a teenage stepdaughter needing a private bedroom for visits and plans for a baby of their own, the couple agreed to purchase property. “Our decision to build new versus looking for existing housing stock mostly stemmed from the desire to feel safe about the environment in which we would be raising our children. Here it is affordable to guarantee energy efficiency and healthy indoor air by building new.” The project also would allow a customized solution for combining professional life and parenthood much nearer the lively downtown.

The infill site did include a 28-by-28-foot storage barn that once housed a Model T Ford collection, and husband, wife, and two carpenters dismantled the structure in a weekend. What wood framing and cladding that was not recycled immediately was saved for interior accent paneling and barn-style sliding doors.

In addition to paying homage to the former garage, Bork Newcomer’s design borrows the wisdom of the surrounding bungalows. The new three-bedroom house is just slightly wider than a traditional shotgun to take advantage of natural ventilation, and the stairwell’s open risers and operable skylight enhance airflow.

Most of the older homes in the neighborhood have large porches. Bork Newcomer’s faces south and spans the full building width: “I also installed large triangular glass in the gable above the porch, and the 24-inch roof overhang works perfectly to keep the sun out in the summer and allow it deep into the interior in wintertime.” The second-floor master bedroom opens to a screened sleeping porch, which also provides shade and improves natural ventilation.

The 2,600-square-foot design paid particular attention to the historic mill house to its east, which belongs to one of the first families to reinvest in the neighborhood. “We didn’t want to be the new monster structure that dwarfs the existing homes,” Bork Newcomer says. Decisions motivated by respect for context further worked in concert with sustainability. For instance, the glazed gable was placed above the porch to maintain the same one-story-high street frontage as the house next door, though it also permitted Bork Newcomer to vault the living-room ceiling and enhance daylight penetration.

The roofline behind it cants toward the rear, creating north and east clerestory windows in the master bedroom, south-facing roofline for a solar hot water installation, and a channel for rainwater collection. “It does make for a taller second-story wall, so to soften its presence relative to the neighbors, I stepped the wall away from the neighboring house to the east, and I carved out a covered patio beneath the second story wall to break up its mass and scale a bit. This also happened to provide opportunity for large north-facing glazing and patio doors into the dining room and east-facing doors into my office,” Bork Newcomer points out.  

A high-albedo roof as well as batt, blown-in cellulose, and spray-foam insulation ensure that breezes are cooling the interior as effectively as possible. A wall system that is breathable to vapor—the result of mineral-based interior paints, stucco exterior, and housewrap working in tandem with the cellulose-filled wall cavity—should enhance the house’s ability to regulate its interior climate passively. And should the residence ever come to the end of its usefulness, its reclaimed paneling and doors can be used again; newly sourced materials were chosen for their recyclability or safety to downstream outcomes.

In the meantime, Bork Newcomer says that she and her growing family will be enjoying this house indefinitely. It can even adapt to them. There is plenty of roof surface for photovoltaics, and conduit is in place already (the solar hot water is meeting 90 percent of demand currently). With roughed-in plumbing located in a storage closet, the 400-square-foot home office can be converted into a first-floor suite, too.


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