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Houzz Feature: A Contemporary Aerie in the Appalachians

June 12th, 2017  |  Published in Press

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By Houzz Contributor: Becky Harris

Photos by: Kevin Meechan

A couple’s vacation nest has energy-efficient features and expansive mountain views

Perched on the edge of a mountain ridge, this new contemporary home looks out over North Carolina’s Lake Fontana and the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky mountain ranges. The carefully crafted home creates as much energy as it takes in thanks to its tight envelope, thermal windows, small footprint, water collecting system, photovoltaic panels and other energy-efficient features. It’s a special place where Ken and Cindy LaRoe escape life’s overscheduling to unwind, watch the seasons change and breathe in the fresh Appalachian air.


Houzz at a Glance

Who lives here: Ken and Cindy LaRoe use this as a vacation home

Location: Robbinsville, North Carolina
Architect: Phil Kean

The LaRoes had rented vacation homes here in Robbinsville, North Carolina, for years and loved the area enough to commit. Now they try to go there about once a month.

The original home on this lot had burned down in the 1980s. That home’s footprint was on a tight, flat spot at the edge of the crest of the ridge. Ken estimates the hill below the site is about a 60-degree slope. Working with architect Phil Kean, the couple designed a home that would fit into the original house’s footprint. They also worked with arborists to ensure that the surrounding woods, which include oak, sycamore, basswood and poplar trees, would be protected during construction.

The trees below the house were concealing quite a surprise: After the fire in the original house, someone apparently had pushed the remains down the hill. Thirty-plus years of tree growth had concealed the view of the charred appliances, furniture, building materials, sinks and whatever else had remained from above. Hauling it out required precarious work but left the habitat below clean.

The new home sits on a 600-square-foot footprint. The garage is tucked below on the lower level, at right. While the couple opted not to install an elevator at this time, Kean left room for one by stacking closets inside.


“The house has really great decks; [the LaRoes] live outside,” Kean says. On the opposite side of the house, a long deck extends over the steep hillside and around the corner to provide the best views.

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Cindy is an artist, and she determined the exterior color palette. The red passed muster with the homeowners association, which pushed for conservative, historic paint colors. It has proved to be a wonderful complement or contrast to the surroundings depending on the changing seasons — complementing the bright greens of spring and summer, disappearing into the deep crimsons and oranges of fall and providing stark contrast to the crisp, white snow in winter. The panels are powder-coated steel, more commonly used in commercial architecture.



The form of the home was inspired by the verticality of the trees and mountains, “It’s a very vertical house, and of course, the higher up you go, the better the views are,” Kean says. “The LaRoes wanted to keep it simple and small, and we did not want to carve into the hillside.”

In addition to the garage, the lowest level has a bedroom, bathroom and storage space. The main level is completely open and includes spaces for living and dining, the kitchen and a powder room. The top floor is a master suite and has a flexible studio space.

When he signed up to work on the house with the LaRoes, Kean knew he’d be working with clients who were serious about conservation and energy-efficiency. “When we met to plan this house, Ken had recently returned from Germany and was mesmerized by all of the new energy-efficient technologies being used over there,” he says. The goal for this house was to produce at least as much energy as it consumed, and LEED and zero-net energy certifications are pending.

Overhangs protect the interior from direct southern sunlight. Kean knew he had a client who was well-versed in sustainable design. “Ken is an owner of First Green Bank — all of its branches are LEED-certified,” Kean says. In fact, the bank has many policies that promote a sustainable agenda, including foundations, loan programs and policies that encourage green building and practices.

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“Ken had already sourced these great doors and windows, which are super energy-efficient,” the architect says. They help to passively cool and heat the house, along with the super insulation. “All of the finishes are renewable, we used LED lights [and] low flow-dual flush toilets, and we sourced things locally as much as possible,” Kean says. There is a cistern for collecting all the water caught on site and photovoltaic panels on the roof. The home’s footprint is even smaller than that of the original house on the site.

Thermo-clad windows and doors: Zola Windows