Harsh riverfront site inspires spectacular net zero home
Greywater collection, renewable energy, and a propane generator keep this Haw River dwelling resilient and self-sustaining.
Sign Up for News Updates
When architect Arielle Condoret Schechter’s clients purchased the dazzling 21-acre strip of land that would become their home on the Haw River in North Carolina, the seller had a simple condition: He wanted them to build a home that was environmentally responsible.
The buyers granted his wish by hiring Schechter, a residential architect known for building net zero or passive houses with an ultramodern aesthetic. And his directive became the first of many ways the land would dictate Schechter’s design for the Haw River House.
“It is just spectacular out there,” Schechter says. “It’s like nothing I’ve ever had a chance to work on as far as primal beauty goes.” But the dramatic site is also “unbelievably harsh,” she says, lying mostly in protected riparian buffers and floodplain but with a small knoll where the house is perched above the river. North Carolina’s brutal summer sun beats down on the west-facing site, necessitating triple-glazed windows and solar reflective shades.
Water, power, and communications are also major challenges on the remote site. The well produces only about a half-gallon per minute, the internet is hit or miss, and the power is in and out constantly, especially during storms or heavy usage periods.
So Schechter designed the home to be self-sufficient for both water and power. It includes what will be Chatham County’s first-ever potable water collection system (after the monitoring and approval process), with two 5,000-gallon above-ground cisterns that can provide water for 230 days without a rainfall. A 22.5-kW solar photovoltaic array with battery storage should meet most of the home’s power needs. Knowing the home needed as much backup as she could provide, however, Schechter also specified a standby propane generator for backup.
“Propane is great for these kinds of harsh sites, as far as giving us a lot of peace of mind for my clients,” Schechter says. “They really wanted a generator. And a lot of my clients lately seem to be having these harsh sites where they’re going to need a little backup power. And even with solar and backup battery, that’s not always 100 percent reliable. So we just gave them everything we could as far as backup.”
Schechter is a natural-born environmentalist, helping stranded turtles and rescuing stray animals as a kid before growing into an architect interested in protecting the planet through thoughtful design. “I believe in net zero and sustainable design with all my heart,” she says.
In addition to the solar array, the home’s sustainable features include triple-glazed, Passive House–rated windows; geothermal heating and cooling; and a super-tight envelope with air sealing, an energy recovery ventilator, and R-75 roof insulation. She predicts the home will earn a HERS Index score similar to another of her recent projects, which earned a -16, the best score the raters had ever seen (a score of 0 indicates a net zero home).
The home’s innovative greywater collection system also incorporates one of the house’s most distinctive design features. A graceful butterfly roof, inspired by a massive boulder on the site that was cleft in two to create a water channel, forms a massive central gutter to collect water that is then triple-filtered and UV-treated. The house is a pilot project, collecting data on the system’s water quality to earn approval as a potable water source — and hopefully pave the way for water collection on future North Carolina projects.
Luxury kitchen and bath features
Schechter says her clients truly committed to the modern and sustainable design features of the home, but they also reap the rewards of the house’s luxurious amenities, including a floating private deck off the master suite. The homeowners opted for propane cooking in a kitchen featuring custom-designed gray cabinets and custom backsplash windows that offer a view to the river. “Being home cooks, no other type of cooking was going to offer them the control that gas would, so they wanted the propane,” she says.
In the master bath, Passive House–rated corner windows and a soaking tub are accompanied by a small propane fireplace to create a luxury touch that’s easy to switch on and off for the duration of a bath.
Schechter once had an architecture teacher who liked to say, “The site is your building if you listen to it.” From the home’s cantilevered elements, inspired by old trees bent over along the river bank, to its butterfly roof and the way the home perches on a hill overlooking the river, Schechter made full use of this site’s inspiration. “It ended up just being an organic entity, and I give the site full credit for that,” she says. “It kind of told me what to do.”
Photos © by Tzu Chen Photography.