Green luxury? What used to be an oxymoron is now a way of life for one Palmetto Bluff family. K. W. Oxnard explores a LEED home in the making. Photography Richard Leo Johnson.
Every time I make the short drive to Bluffton, S.C., I’m astounded by its natural surroundings. Water oaks dance with shimmery red and gold leaves. Possums and armadillos cross the highway at their peril. Bald eagles, osprey and the Bluffton town bird—the turkey vulture—circle overhead. And spent shells from the world-famous Bluffton Oyster Factory line most driveways. Peach and tomato stands act as a testament to the slower pace of life on this side of the Savannah River. It’s no wonder many older Savannahians, including my mother and stepfather, have chosen to retire here.
Today, though, I arrive not to relish the old, but to celebrate the new: the first LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) home in the community of Palmetto Bluff.
As I pass through Palmetto Bluff’s gate, a fawn scampers past my car and into one of many copses of woods left untouched when the community was developed in the mid 1990s. Those woods are the products of a hard-won fight to keep Palmetto Bluff natural while still allowing growth. So are protective building codes that dictate a 100-foot setback from the May River, no private docks and a limited number of home sites (7,000) planned in this former Union Camp fishing and hunting preserve. I know this because my stepdad was one of several committed Blufftonians who negotiated the development guidelines with Union Camp, inking the deal just hours before the company was sold to International Paper.
Palmetto Bluff has a history of carefully preserving wildlife, and the Doerr home, nestled in yet another stand of oaks, is its next chapter.
Built to Sustain
Wearing a fleece jacket to protect against a light chill, owner Dick Doerr warmly welcomes me onto Bluffton oyster shell-flecked pavers: a nod to Bluffton’s past updated with recycled fly-ash content. The home’s architects, Andrew and Rebecca Lynch of Lynch Associates Architects, PC, are well-known in Savannah for several recent green building projects. They’ve already briefed me on the home’s long list of sustainable features, and Dick’s excitement is palpable as he shows me the evidence.
“All materials are locally sourced, sustainably manufactured or contain recycled or recyclable content—or all three,” he says, pointing out renewable cement siding; a recycled-content, reflective metal roof; highly reflective, insulated windows; and sliding shutters to keep out harsh summer rays. Passive cooling features such as cross ventilation, operable skylights, fans, enlarged eaves, trellises and thick local vegetation also reduce the need for air conditioning in warm weather.
The Comforts of Home
From the curb, the home appears innovative while honoring Lowcountry traditions, with window mullions, a soft beige-and-brown color scheme, roof gables and dormers a few of the most traditional elements. Andrew Lynch has told me that many eco-conscious clients “want a more progressive looking home, and Palmetto Bluff embraces sustainable design—as long as it’s aesthetically pleasing.”
For the Doerrs, sustainability is a way of life. Dick’s wife, Marilyn, holds a PhD in curriculum studies with emphasis on environmental science. Dick owns an eco-friendly printing company. At their first home near Cleveland, Ohio, the Doerrs raise chickens, grow vegetables, drive a Prius and relish time outside. So after buying a lot at Palmetto Bluff in 2008, they considered it only natural to design a home committed to environmental stewardship.
“Marilyn had firm ideas about the house she wanted,” Dick says with a smile. “And Andy and Becky had equally good ones, so it was a good fit.”
Degrees of Difference
One of those ideas greets me in the entry, filled with light even on a gray fall day.
“See how this creates an interesting view?” Dick asks, pointing to an interior wall set at an acute angle from the facade. “We didn’t want traditional halls, so Andy encouraged us to set some walls at an angle.”
That subtle shift off 90 degrees creates a space more like an art gallery than a traditional foyer. True to form, the Doerrs have liberally sprinkled the open spaces with arresting modern art they’ve collected over the years.
The sharp angle of the wall also invites us into the living room, a soaring space with bamboo floors and a creamy limestone chimney, whose offset masonry continues up to the 20-foot ceiling. A gas hearth lined with river stones “throws off a lot of heat,” Dick reports, while leaving a smaller carbon footprint than traditional wood-burning fireplaces. Although floor-to-ceiling windows and an enormous LED chandelier in the shape of a geodesic dome create an atrium-like atmosphere, the hearth makes this heart of the home surprisingly intimate.
Reduce, Re-imagine, Recycle
To reach the kitchen, we walk through a breezeway which also gives access to a cozy screened porch overlooking the backyard. The airy kitchen holds more eco-surprises, including three walls of windows for natural light, energy-savvy appliances, a recycled-content cement floor and particle board cabinets. The restaurant-grade gas stove includes an infrared oven that heats up to 800 degrees, “so you can sear meat beautifully in it,” Dick explains. Recycled stainless steel counters gleam, harmonizing with cream and eggplant walls coated with low-VOC paint. It’s a kitchen begging for a party—as is the 25-foot tall exterior oven and chimney just outside the kitchen door, which “makes great pizza!” Dick declares.
Heading back through the living room’s angles, we skirt the mud area near the front door to reach the master bedroom, painted a calm green with an aqua ceiling and featuring some of the home’s most advanced features. Under the closet floor, a gray water system uses run-off from both showers and laundry room to flush the home’s three toilets.
“Many Europeans use this system, but it’s rare in the States,” Dick says, shaking his head. “Which is strange because it’s just common sense!”
As are the dual-flush toilets, which, he admits, take some getting used to but work well. Low-flow showerheads and faucets, as well as skylights, reduce water and energy usage. I instantly fall in love with recycled-content counters that look as if they’re made with indigenous oyster shells, and Dick nods. “Aren’t those cool? Marilyn found them!”
The New Normal?
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this eco-home is that everyone associated with it—homeowners, architects, builders and landscapers—considers it unremarkable. Robert Welsh, the home’s project manager for J. T. Turner Construction, says sourcing sustainable materials in the Savannah area “isn’t hard anymore. Now the challenges lie largely in LEED documentation.”
Although features such as geothermal HVACs and on-demand water heaters are more expensive (and novel to the Lowcountry), architect Andrew Lynch sees a silver lining.
“Often, hefty tax rebates help homeowners recoup some of the cost,” he tells me. “And most sustainable features add little to no cost to the price of a new home.”
As an added bonus, the Doerrs’ highest summer electric bill was only $140—noteworthy, indeed, for a window-bedecked home of over 2,600 square feet.
Dick and I wind back through the living room and kitchen, climbing a second staircase to the upstairs dining room. Complete with serpentine LED sconces and an electric dumb waiter, this room is a uniquely beautiful space. I ask Dick if the process of getting this home built was more difficult than the one they encountered with their former vacation home in Arizona. But he seems unfazed by breaking new ecological ground in Palmetto Bluff.
“We had to jump through a few small hoops with the cistern,” he says about a stainless steel structure shaped like a beer vat that stores rainwater for landscaping. “Other than reassuring neighbors it would be covered by vegetation, it’s been pretty smooth sailing.”
We end our tour in the rear garden, where Lee White and his landscape crew from the Nelson Group are planting a few last native shrubs before the weather turns bitter. While Dick praises our long Lowcountry growing season, I marvel at the rows of raised beds in a community not known for growing its own sustenance. We walk alongside the home, pausing to admire the cistern as well as two rain barrels. Then I shake his hand goodbye and step across those lovely, oyster shell-studded pavers, an echo of Bluffton’s storied past in a very contemporary home.
Owners: Richard and Marilyn Doerr
Year built: 2011
Lot purchased: 2008
Square footage: 2,689 heated and cooled
Accommodations: 3 bedrooms, 2.5 baths
Time to complete: 14 months (LEED certification pending)
Architects/Interior Designers: Lynch Associates Architects, P.C.
Contractor/Builder: J. T. Turner Construction
Bamboo floors: Antique Heart Pine, Bluffton, S.C.
Cement floors: Mapei Ultra-Top Plus from Decorative Concrete & Design, Inc.
Tile: Recycled tile from Prestige Stone
Paint: Benjamin Moore Aura low-VOC paints from Paint Pros of the Low Country
Windows/Doors: Weathershield windows and doors with Lifeguard high-performance, impact rated, highly reflective and insulated ZO-E glass from Coastal Sash and Door
Kitchen design: Lynch Associates Architects, P.C.
Kitchen and bath cabinets: Webb Construction
Kitchen and bath counters and tile: Prestige Stone
Dumbwaiter: Tidal Elevator
Bath design: Lynch Associates Architects, P.C.
Lighting design: Lynch Associates Architects, P.C., Ferguson Lighting and Y Lighting
Landscape design: Dan Keefer, Witmer Jones Keefer Ltd., Bluffton
Hardscape design: Lynch Associates Architects, P.C.
Siding: Hardiplank’s artisan line from Guerry Lumber
Roof: Bison FSC roof paver system from Guerry Lumber
Interior Fireplace: Spark Modern Fires direct vent gas fireplace, installed by Building Specialties of Carolina
Exterior fireplace and bake oven: Superior Clay from Jenkins Brick, installed by Earth & Stone Masonry
Masonry contractor: Earth & Stone Masonry
Landscaper: The Nelson Group
Electrician: Mark Phillips Electrical
Framing carpenter: Pat McConnon Construction
Plumber: Full Circle Mechanical
Plumbing fixtures: Ferguson Enterprises
HVAC: Dean Custom Air, Bluffton
Appliances: Ferguson Enterprises; Liebherr 36” French Door refrigerator from Signature Designs, Charleston
Accessories: Ferguson Enterprises and Bird Decorative Hardware
Interior trim: Wood doors and trim materials from Home South Architectural Supply provided; carpentry by Webb Construction
Exterior trim: Guerry Lumber Company
Stairs and railings: Shaw Manufacturing
Door hardware: McCarthy, Inc.
Bath accessories/cabinet hardware: Bird Decorative Hardware, Bluffton
Roofing: ABC Maintenance
Insulation: Spray foam by Coastal Insulation
Cable, phone and data wiring: Custom Audio/Video