In the Martin-Korp house, Push Design has raised the bar for environmentally responsible building practices. The steel frame structure is built with a hemp and lime compound that provides extraordinary insulation.
Photography by David Dietrich
Anthony Brenner is a man with a mission: he’s out to change the way we build houses. In particular, what we use to build them. The founder and design director of Push Design in Asheville is part of a vanguard that champions the use of materials that go beyond “green building” to raise the bar on livability and sustainability…and do it with style.
“You just have to have an open mind to something that isn’t typical — that isn’t off the shelf,” says Brenner. “I research and find products that are non-toxic, chemical-free and [that] help to improve air quality. As long as the client is willing, we can achieve the same — or better — function and aesthetics as with conventional materials.”
Brenner found that willingness and open-mindedness in Russ Martin and Karon Korp. Martin, mayor of Asheville from 1993-1997, and Korp, an author and publisher, share an abiding love of nature and concern for the environment (Martin serves on the Advisory Committee of the Blue Ridge Sustainability Institute).
“Their previous homes were more vernacular to North Carolina — post-and-beam, Arts & Crafts — real mountain style with dark wood,” says Brenner. “They wanted to make a change, so they approached me to help them develop something that was more modern.”
Working in concert, the designer and homeowners developed a floor plan that would accommodate an active lifestyle: flexible for entertaining, sheltering in the private areas and with plenty of light and room for the ethnic art that the couple has gathered in their travels. “We wanted it to have openness and flow, but to also be warm and inviting,” says Karon. “We think of it as ‘eclectic contemporary.’”
The resulting 3,200-square-foot home has the clean lines, industrial overtones and geometric sensibilities of the modern aesthetic, gesturing forward from the mountainside. But the construction blends the latest in technology with reclaimed and repurposed architectural features — a bright balance of old and new.
The carved antique front doors were salvaged from a storefront in India, the ash flooring in the great room was harvested on the property and locally milled, the re-paned windows and door frames came from the Grove Park Inn, and the massive, exposed steel beams that support the cantilevered deck were reclaimed from a demolition site in Knoxville.
Above ground, the steel-framed exterior walls are insulated with Hemcrete, a hemp-and-lime compound from the United Kingdom (hemp, even for industrial purposes, cannot legally be grown in the United States). The material is durable, fireproof and highly thermal. “It gets a steady-state R-value of 30 in a 12-inch wall,” says Brenner (the “R” represents the time it takes one BTU to travel through one inch of thickness). The material is also breathable and, because it is vapor-permeable, regulates humidity and is impervious to mold. Perhaps most significantly in the long term, it absorbs carbon, literally filtering the air.
Below grade, an ICF (insulated concrete form) is coated with a mineral-based, non-toxic coating that is mold- and mildew-resistant, impenetrable to insects and effectively seals the envelope from out-gassing. Throughout the main floor, interior walls and doors utilize magnesium-based structural panels that are insulated with a core of corrugated, 100 percent-post-consumer recycled paper. All walls are finished with no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints from Build It Naturally.
The long-term health benefits of these measures cannot yet be estimated. But the difference in cost is clear — although relative. “Yes, the materials are initially more expensive,” admits Brenner. “But they are very easy to work with, so installation cost and time go way down. At the end of the job, when you look at the bottom line, there’s cost parity. Not to mention the ongoing energy savings, which are significant.”
And then, of course, there’s the simple pleasure of being able to breathe free in a home that is beautiful, livable and environmentally responsible. “It feels like you have no limits, no barriers, no boundaries,” says Karon. “The space supports our comfort, our creativity and our feeling of being connected with nature.” That’s real sustainability.