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Burnt-out home goes from ashes to awesome

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Posted: Saturday, June 18, 2011 1:00 am

Three years ago, the 1920s row house at 1417 Grove Ave. was an architectural corpse.

Its skeletal remains consisted of a disfigured facade, broken bones and devastating internal damage.

Along came two doctors to revive the sad, crumpled hulk.

On a February evening in 2008, Richmond firefighters were summoned to the Fan to fight a fire in an abandoned house that had spread to two adjacent homes, including 1417 Grove. All three properties had to be condemned.

Dr. Susan Miller, a physician and professor of family medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, and her husband, Dr. Kenneth Kendler, a psychiatrist and professor in VCU's School of Medicine, happened upon the house while visiting in the neighborhood.

In June 2008, they signed on to resuscitate the decrepit home. "We basically bought four walls, some joists and the front of the house," said Miller, laughing.

Over two years, "The Phoenix" was reborn as a green home filled with sustainable features and eco-friendly practices.

Miller and Kendler had built a super-insulated solar home in Brandermill in Chesterfield County in 1984, but moved to West Avenue in the city in 2005 to reduce their commute. Although closer to VCU, that house was small and lacked the earth-friendliness of their Chesterfield residence.

The couple undertook the ultimate recycling project, which provided budget-busting surprises at every turn. "It's a much more challenging endeavor than when you're starting from scratch," said Patrick Farley of Watershed Architects in Richmond, a firm specializing in green design.

But the results are spectacular — from the green roof to the 25-foot-tall plant-covered wall between the dining room and great room.

Inside the home's airlock front entryway, a brilliant stained-glass window by artist Judy Coleman depicts a phoenix rising from the ashes — homage to the home's traumatic past.


* * * * *

The Miller-Kendler house is a showcase of renewable-energy technology.


Thirty photovoltaic roof panels capture sunlight and transform it into electricity for the heat pump. "Dominion keeps track of how much we send out to the grid and how much we take back," Miller said. "We're not a net-zero house."

Gutters channel rain overflow off the roof into barrels, which pipe the water into a backyard rain garden filled with native Virginia plants.

Solar panels preheat water before it flows into the basement water heater.

A solar tube runs through the ceiling of a third-floor bathroom to the roof, providing natural light during the day and stored light after dark.

The floors are rescued oak planks that were destined to become pallets. Countertops are concrete, flecked with reclaimed glass and rocks the couple's now-adult children — Jennifer, Seth and Nathan — collected as youngsters.

Farley suggested the living wall. He removed a second-floor bedroom to allow giant skylights to brighten the center of the house and nurture tropical plants.

"I said, 'Are you nuts? There's going to be dirt, water, bugs!'" Miller recalled. "We did it on a complete leap of faith."

"There was a learning curve on that," Farley said. "None of us had tried one of those before. But it's the real moment within the overall experience of the house."

The ecosystem was designed by Scotty Guinn Dilworth of SG Designs and installed by Capitol Green Roof.

"It was amazing," Dilworth said. "Like a scientific experiment."

The wall is a modular tray system with tropical varieties planted in small dirt-filled cells. A drip-irrigation tube across the top of the trays, operated by a timer and pump in the basement, provides moisture to the roots.

Plants were arranged so that light-lovers are near the top and shade-lovers are closer to the bottom, Dilworth said. Varieties include creeping fig, Fittonia (nerve plant), prayer plant, peperomia, spider plants, philodendron, ferns and African violets.

The roof-top garden, also by Capitol Green Roof, consists of drought-tolerant sedums around a bluestone patio. A pergola is entwined in native honeysuckle vines, and a planter box contains heirloom tomatoes and blueberry bushes.


* * * * *

The collaboration of Miller, Kendler, Farley and builder Cityspace Construction achieved gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for the house. The project also won the first-ever Green Hammer Award from the Alliance to Conserve Old Richmond Neighborhoods.


"We all learned a lot," Miller said, "and some of it we learned the hard way."

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