Real Estate

Lessons learned

Hank Wall recommends Sarah Susanka’s books that explore openness in the 
primary living spaces and building smaller, with a greater attention to detail.
Hank Wall recommends Sarah Susanka’s books that explore openness in the 
primary living spaces and building smaller, with a greater attention to detail.

More than two decades ago in Vermont, Hank Wall was working with solar technology on homes at a time when most people thought it was silly. In 1990, Wall moved to Raleigh and joined the Remodelers Council of the Home Builders Association of Raleigh-Wake County.

After a few years, he launched Wood Wise, a design-build remodeling company, averaging 20 projects a year and winning numerous awards along the way. His interest in green construction has only grown as it’s become more widely accepted. Recently, Wall built his first green home from the ground up. Here, he tells The N&O what he learned and what he might do differently next time.

Q: How did this opportunity come about?

A: A supportive neighbor knew of my interest in green building and helped me secure an outparcel building lot in Raleigh’s Old Stone Crossing off Ebenezer Church Road in 2006. Many aspects of new home construction were new to me; I was fortunate to have Ben Toney, a capable project manager, overseeing the entire project.

Q: Tell me about the house.  

A: It’s a 3,000-square-foot home on two floors. Later, I made changes to create a walk-up attic, adding 700 square feet. I began researching all aspects of green building and chose Icynene, open-cell foam, to best seal and insulate the shell. Foam insulation with 2-by-6 wall framing creates an extremely high-performance, low energy-use home that exceeded my target of reducing utility bills by 50 percent compared to similarly sized homes. The advanced HVAC system filters the air, introduces fresh air, and will provide significant savings each month. Two 550-gallon storage tanks collect rainwater. The LEDs on dimmers were made locally. South facing windows let in sunlight, particularly in the winter when the sun is low.

Q: What surprised you most about building this house?

A: Building a house is complicated. I have renewed respect for experienced home builders.

Q: What would you do differently if you build again?

A: I would design a smaller house with one-and-a-half stories — instead of two stories with a walk-up attic — to reduce initial costs and to reduce heating and cooling costs with less heated square footage. I would have postponed the rainwater collection expense on a spec house since it’s easy to add later. The eco caulk was $10 per tube but did not perform well through winter, while standard caulk costs $2 per tube. The no-VOC paints and stains were a good investment, improving the air quality in the house. The biggest goof on this house was splurging on 2-by-6 wall framing for more insulation, then later choosing open cell foam which performs very well in 2-by-4 wall thickness. Expanding foam is definitely the way to insulate. I will not insulate with fiberglass batts on future green homes. My idea of living naturally included an outdoor shower off the master bathroom which received very mixed reviews, so I might temper the eccentric features next time.

Q: What did you learn from building this house?

A: That tankless water heaters perform well and will save on energy consumption for the life of the house but that the travel time for getting hot water to the upstairs bathroom was greater than 45 seconds so I do not use the term “instantaneous water heating” now. At the master bathroom the water flowed hot in 15 seconds plus it was endless since there is no tank to deplete.

Q: What turned out better than you expected or was easier than expected?

A: The large terrace at the front of the house creates a pleasant place to sit and to look out on from the interior. “More inviting than a bed and breakfast” was one visitor’s comment.

Q: Is this house for sale or has it sold?

A: I hosted more than 20 tours and open houses over 15 months using the home as a model home for green building. I sold the house in August for $755,000 to a couple from California.

Q: What advice would you give to someone else undertaking a whole-house project?

A: Read Sarah Susanka’s Not So Big House books. Build smaller with attention to details. Skip the green lawn and splurge on the green features. Sarah Susanka also promotes openness throughout the primary living spaces, which I adopted. But for some private, quiet activities I included what she calls an Away Room. It is removed from the busy public spaces, apart from the TV, perfect for writing, music or yoga. Also, her concept of being drawn toward the light prompted me to design a wall for well-lit artwork at the end of the long sightline leading to the master bedroom. I hung a colorful Bob Rankin painting at this location for showing the house.

Q: How do you feel about green building today?

A: Building green has never been easier. Understanding the green building guidelines before designing the house takes a bit of study but saves during construction. Southern Energy Management in Raleigh provided the inspections and Silver Level Green Certification.