Tight Spot, Clever Space: Architect Tina Govan's disciplined response to an urban infill lot in downtown Raleigh yields a thoughtful living space for a sustainability-minded family.
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From sidewalk’s edge to backyard fence, from basement storage to rooftop deck, architect Tina Govan has exploited each inch of every livable plane in a lot for an infill home in downtown Raleigh, N.C. With an agreed upon green directive, she designed this 2,970-square-foot hardiplank-clad residence for a couple with a school-aged child. The three-bedroom, two-story home is located in a community of bungalows dating from the 1920s in one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.
Govan, with owners Steve and Sujittra Martin, decided to dismantle the original ranch home on site, donating it to Habitat for Humanity. The new home now hugs the property lines. “I remember trying to squeeze it into the site,” says Tom Brown, general contractor with The Splinter Group. “We had to have it resurveyed to make sure it met setback requirements. We had two inches to spare on each side.”
The design is a tutorial in maximizing the total space in an urban site. “I was looking at all of its scales,” Govan says. “I wanted to use the lot, inside and out, as living space.”
The architect specified energy-saving features such as structured insulated panels (SIPs); a geothermal heat pump; solar domestic hot water; high-performance low-e glass; water-saving faucets and showerheads; solar hot water panels; and polished concrete floors with radiant heat.
Because of its proximity to downtown, the home is nearly an auto-free affair. The owners’ daughter will be able to walk to school. Her father can bike or walk 20 minutes to his office, while her mother works from home on her picture-framing business. The 40-foot approach to the home from curb to front door, landscaped for drought tolerance, ascends a 30-degree slope, up four massive creekstone steps to a front porch.
The roofline above curves sinuously to accommodate an “entry tree”—a new sycamore planted to replace its predecessor, the victim of root disease. The new tree is connected visually, inside and out, to a second sycamore in the back. Above the front porch, a second-floor roof deck overlooks a distant park’s forest and life on the street below.
Inside the home, the architect arranged a series of functional niches along the length of the first floor. “Instead of a hallway, there’s a laundry and storage space,” Govan says. She points up a stairway crafted of heart pine recycled from an antebellum textile mill, and says: “That’s not a railing—that’s a place to sit.” Other niches are sculptural studies in pine set against walls of sage-painted sheetrock and concrete textured like elephant skin.
Every space opens to the outdoors, doubling room size. The kitchen, dining, and living areas open onto a flagstone patio, where exterior steps lead to the rooftop terrace. One bedroom on the main floor also opens to the patio. The second opens to the front porch, through a door and two casement windows abutting in a corner.
The home’s living space totals 1,900 square feet, but it feels much larger because of insightful solutions inside and out. “What I really like is that the space is compact, so you feel like you’re part of any activity,” says Martin. “But if you need to get away from the hubbub, there are always great spots for that too.”
The master bedroom with loft on the second floor connects to the roof deck and guest suite, and to a bath with corner windows identical to those directly below. They not only open to vistas outside, but aid in moving summer air inside.
The house is tight in terms of air leakage too, according to Dan McFarland, director of building services at Southern Energy Management. He conducted a blower door test on the residence and dis-covered that under 50 Pascals of pressure, it only leaked the equivalent of two air-changes per hour—“awesome in terms of building tightness,” he says. “It exceeded Energy-Star specifications and qualified for a $2,000 builder tax credit.”
The home’s energy bill for a recent 12-month period was $1,665, 46 percent higher than predicted by its Home Energy Rating Standard (HERS) index of 48, which is based on its construction. If its energy use is underperforming slightly, most of that can be attributed to lifestyle issues, according to Monte Jefferson at Geo Design Group, responsible for the home’s SIPs, geothermal heat pump, solar-radiant floor, and solar domestic hot water. “Lifestyle can make a considerable difference,” he says. “A commercial ventilation hood in the kitchen (as this house has) can mean a change of air every nine minutes. Every degree on a thermostat can make a big difference.” Still, the owners say it outperforms their neighbors’ and their previous homes. “Absolutely it does,” says Steve Martin. “I wouldn’t put us in the fanatical camp when it comes to sustain-ability, but we did put our money where our mouths were. The energy solutions we chose worked within our design and budget restraints, one step at a time.”