Avrim and Vicki Topel's green and sustainable home in Kennett Square, Pa., is an example of how hi-tech devices and traditional designs can be combined to create an environmentally-friendly house.
Cornfields rise on either side of a winding road, tracing a path through the rolling, rural hills outside Kennett Square, Pa. The smell of hay and horses hangs heavy in the air, hearkening back to a time when people lived off of and in harmony with the land, before homebuilding became a battle of developer versus nature.
Long gone are the days of the low-impact log cabin, but Avrim and Vicki Topel are keeping that spirit of natural stewardship alive by designing and inhabiting a green, sustainable home.
The Topels moved into their green home in May after a yearlong design and construction process Avrim Topel calls an unbelievable journey, ending with a house that “has changed our lives.”
It all began when the couple decided they wanted a smaller, low maintenance, energy efficient home. They had no idea they would end up building green and sustainable. In early discussions with home builder Hugh Lofting, with whom they shared their desires, they learned that building green was actually the best way to build a maintenance-free home, Topel said.
“That started an education we never would have predicted,” said Topel, 57, a retired commercial developer.
Topel and his wife were green building greenhorns when the project started and the learning curve was very steep, he said, but the architect and engineer knew what they were doing.
To many people, building green means slapping a few solar panels on the roof and calling it a day, and while solar panels are a great way to generate clean energy, there is much more involved to building a truly green and sustainable home, he said. Every single item used to build Topel’s 4,500-square-foot home, from the brick path outside to the wooden trim inside, is recycled, reclaimed or made with recycled components.
The dull, red bricks used in the path were reclaimed from a demolished mint in Baltimore and the wooden trim was carved from poplar trees cut down when the house was built, Topel said.
Where the materials come from is as important as the materials themselves in green building, he said. They could have ordered reclaimed bricks from the state of Washington, he said, but shipping those bricks would have created tons of carbon dioxide.
The home’s carbon footprint resembles a stiletto rather than a Doc Marten thanks to numerous building techniques:Oppressive summer sunshine heats typical tar roofs to about 220 degrees, but the Topel’s vegetation-covered roof will only reach 88 degrees, reducing the need for excess air conditioning. The super-efficient air conditioner and furnace are state of the art. The floor, which uses an innovative, energy-efficient radiant heat system, is made from reclaimed boards that stood under horses and hay bales for a century in barns throughout Chester County. The house itself is made from a nail-less timber frame, a building technique perfected by the pioneers that has much more in common with a simple, log cabin than a gargantuan McMansion. There are no solar panels on the house’s recycled aluminum roof, but the building uses a tried and true passive solar design: the south face has seven massive windows to take advantage of as much sunlight as possible.
“We feel like we’re living outside,” he said. “The house seems to float on the grasses.”
With its unobtrusive design, the house, a sophisticated mix of hi-tech gadgets and historic materials, is almost a natural extension of the wildflower meadow it sits upon, he said, under the shade of a thousand poplar trees that surround the house like sentinels.
Living so close to nature has instilled in Topel a great respect for the environment.
A green house is better for the Earth, he said, but it also has benefits that a consumer can feel every day: in their checkbook, time and health: energy bills are less than half as much as they were in his previous home, landscaping maintenance is minimized with natural grasses and wildflowers that will never need to be mowed, and it is comforting to know the house is free of harmful chemicals used to create homes today.
“But the intangible benefit here is how we feel better about ourselves for doing the right thing and how we’re more connected to the Earth,” he said. “It isn’t hard to be responsible.”
Topel and his wife have used their newfound green building knowledge to write a book, “Green Beginnings: The Story of Building Our Green and Sustainable Dream House,” which will be available through Amazon.com this fall. They also offer 90-minute educational tours of their home to people interested in green building. Visit their Web site for more information.