Waking to a greener lifestyle is typically an incremental process. You might switch to CFLs, organic lattes, and even a hybrid car, but few of us end up with any larger evidence of our newfound eco-consciousness. As I drive up to Avrim “Ave” and Vicki Topel’s new green home in the countryside outside Philadelphia, though, I sense immediately that it represents exactly that — an impressive testament to their green awakening.
The house certainly looks like the photos in their new book Green Beginnings: The Story of How We Built Our Green & Sustainable Home, but there’s something more — a Zen-like harmony of design and setting — that’s only apparent in person.
Indeed, the Topel’s house looks and feels like the right house, in the right place, at the right time. Nestled amid a stand of poplars with fields beyond and constructed largely of local and recycled materials, its architecture is reminiscent of the region’s historic barns and farmhouses. But there’s a 21st century green twist that makes it relevant for the times: the house is one of the first to earn the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Silver rating and is EnergyStar qualified.
“We definitely had a spiritual transformation,” says Ave, leaning forward at the barn wood table in the couple’s spacious, light-filled country kitchen, clearly passionate.
I glimpse some of the assurance that made him a successful hotel and real estate developer for 30 years before he retired in 2006 for health reasons. But I sense that it’s softened now by a deeper certainty that he and Vicki are pursuing a more meaningful calling.
“As we learned this stuff we just couldn’t keep quiet,” he adds, referring to the book, the new Green Beginnings website, a just-released Green Beginnings video and the house tours the couple now offers. “I don’t know why, but I think this is what we’re supposed to be doing.”
They share a bemused look. Though happily resigned to their new direction, I know they originally envisioned a quiet retirement, not an awakening. When Ave decided to downsize his career and focus on his other passions, songwriting and art, the couple also decided to downsize from their 8,000-square-foot home outside Kennett Square, Pa. They wanted something easier and cheaper to maintain, but it was Amy Cornelius, their project manager at Hugh Lofting Timber Framing who first proposed the idea of a sustainable home.
The couple didn’t know much about going green but were intrigued. Through a series of serendipitous connections, they quickly assembled a dream green-building team and began construction on a five-acre site near their other home. “It really fell into place, almost like it was meant to be,” says Vicki, a trim, energetic former teacher who recently began substitute teaching again after taking time off to raise the couple’s two (now grown) children.
The resulting home features a green roof over the foyer/entranceway; a 35-foot-high fireplace constructed of Pennsylvania bluestone from nearby Avondale Quarry; sustainably-harvested FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) timber framing; low-flush toilets; an energy recovery ventilation system (ERV) that allows conditioned indoor exhaust air to raise or lower the temperature of incoming fresh air; and native plant landscaping, including a wildflower meadow.
Inside, the rooms sport a “green aesthetic” to encourage continual eco-awareness, including spectacular nature views and nature-themed decorative objects, such as bird sculptures.
The book materialized from notes and photos the Topels took during construction. Part folksy memoir, part how-to, Green Beginnings, is something they wish they’d had to guide them. “We bought all these technical books that were great if you know what you’re doing, but nothing tied it all together,” says Ave. “There’s no question if you read our story, you get a feel for what a green house is.”
Apparently, others agree. In April, the book won a gold medal in the Living Now Book Awards’ homebuilding category.
“If people like the book, we’ll write another one about our first year here,” says Ave.
Vicki shakes her head and laughs. “He’s supposed to be painting now and doing music, relaxing.”
“Yeah,” Ave chuckles and pauses. “You know, we really didn’t set out to write a book and didn’t dream of a business with this home. But if you can help yourself and also the greater good, it makes sense.”
In other words, stay tuned for the sequel.
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