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A Sustainable North Carolina Timber Frame

A North Carolina homeowner designs a home around old-growth hemlock trees and rhododendrons.

Written by Stacy Durr Albert
Photography by James Ray Spahn


Long before “going green” became a hot catchphrase, Gina Cogswell was hooked on sustainability. Her motto has always been “respect the land,” so when it came time to build her dream home in 2001, making it eco-friendly was a no-brainer for the Georgia native.

“Preserving the natural landscape was very important to me,” says Gina. “I’m an outdoors person at heart—if it’s outside, I like it.”

The scenic mountain setting Gina selected for her home is a perfect fit for an outdoors enthusiast. Offering spectacular views of a mountain ridge, woodland and a trout-filled pond, the Highlands, North Carolina, site appealed to Gina right away. “I fell in love with the setting,” she says. “Plus, my parents had a house in the area when I was growing up.”

Choosing a home style for the site was simple. “With its old-growth trees and mountain views, the site just lent itself to a wood home,” Gina says. “A home with timber-frame elements was a natural choice. I just wanted to make sure whoever built my home had a great respect for the land and the property.”


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After renting a few vacation homes in the area, Gina found the perfect man for the job. “The homes had a few key elements in common,” she explains. “They all boasted a creative use of space with many creative touches, and they all happened to be designed by Red Fifer.”

Based in Highlands, Red Fifer’s company, Blue Sky Builders, specializes in designs that artfully incorporate the natural features of a landscape while providing a functional home layout. When Gina first approached Red, she expressed her wishes for her dream home.

“One of the coolest things about Gina’s property was a stand of old-growth trees,” explains Red, describing a grouping of 150-year-old hemlocks that defined the setting. “To preserve these trees as well as old rhododendrons, the owner went out with a rake to follow the root systems so that they wouldn’t be disturbed during construction. She also opted for a pier foundation so that less of the natural land would be disturbed.”

To create the perfect floor plan, Gina and Red sat in lawn chairs on the site and envisioned how the house would sit on the property and how it would best capture the views. Gina talked while Red sketched design ideas on his laptop: The result is a plan that preserves the environment as much as possible while still offering plenty of practical living space.

“Red did everything he could to preserve the land’s natural features and to make the inside of the home look like we are still outside,” gushes Gina.

Large, screened-in porches blur the lines between indoors and out, and an abundance of skylights—24 in all—usher in plenty of natural light. This was important because the house is set in the trees, and Gina wanted to avoid a dark, damp feeling. In addition, Highlands can get upward of 80 inches of rain a year, so it was essential that the home capture as much light as possible and offer protected outdoor spaces. All but one of the porches are screened-in, so Gina can still enjoy outdoor serenity while the raindrops are falling.

The construction process was somewhat arduous because of wintry weather conditions, but the end result was worth the effort. Red’s small carpentry crew worked tirelessly on the project, hewing the large pine beams by hand and artfully framing the soaring great room. Most of the timberwork is decorative, but two of the beams are structural. “We’d hoped we wouldn’t need support beams,” recalls Gina. “But after the inspector asked us to put them in, we realized that they added great character to the house.”

To keep the timbers as natural as possible, Gina opted to finish them with a clear wash. “I love the light, open feeling in the home,” she says. “I didn’t want the wood to look too dark or yellow.”

Gina was very involved during the construction process and visited the site weekly to check on the progress. During one visit, Red asked her to look up at the ceiling. “They had put in eight little window lights, and at first, it had sort of a Swiss cheese effect, but then I could see that it was, of course, intentional and that they framed the wonderful tree we’d built the house around.”

In addition to framing great views, the home’s many windows maximize energy efficiency by capturing natural sunlight, warming up the home in the winter. And because Highlands is set at 4,200 feet elevation, it enjoys a delightfully cool climate during the summer months. “We never need air conditioning,” says Gina.


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The home, which offers a nostalgic treehouse flavor, is carefully situated on the property so that natural runoff can occur, adding to its overall efficiency. Yet even though every inch of the home was planned to a tee, sometimes even the best-laid plans go awry: A few years after Gina moved in, a powerful wind storm knocked down many of the old hemlock trees that the home was specifically designed around.

“It was devastating,” says Gina. “But luckily, the home is still semi-secluded and very much part of the natural landscape. Whether I am outside gardening or simply gazing at the streams outside my bedroom, it’s incredibly peaceful.”


Home Details

Square footage: 3,600

Designer/Builder: Blue Sky Builders

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