In the coal-heavy state of West Virginia, solar shines at Rita Hennessy and Sean Palmer’s new custom-built home in Shepherdstown.
After nearly two decades living in a drafty, 1940s Cape Cod-style home on the outskirts of Charles Town, West Virginia, Rita Hennessy and Sean Palmer were ready for an upgrade from the post-war cinder block and brick construction. “Even though we had made improvements through the years, it was still leaky and incredibly inefficient—cold in the winter and hot in the summer,” Palmer says.
Planning for retirement, the couple—Hennessy, a National Park Service park ranger with the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, and Palmer, an engineer for a biotech company—paid off their mortgage ahead of schedule. In the years that followed, they focused on saving to realize their dream of buying land and building a home that better suited their lifestyle and values. After relying on West Virginia’s coal-powered grid electricity for nearly two decades, the couple made energy conservation a top priority, vowing to reduce their carbon footprint with passive solar design and a rooftop solar-electric system. “We are very concerned about climate change, and we want to do our part,” Palmer says.
“Our mission was to find a property with good southern exposure that was close to the Appalachian Trail (AT) and near protected lands,” Hennessy says. The couple focused their search along the AT corridor—looking first in Maryland, hoping to move closer to Palmer’s parents. “In Maryland, all the available land near the AT had steep slopes that were either east- or west-facing, which wouldn’t work for our solar plans,” Hennessy says. “We started looking in Virginia along the AT, but we didn’t find anything suitable there either.”
About two years into the search, the couple returned their attention to West Virginia, and in the fall of 2010, found a site just outside of Shepherdstown—14 wooded acres with southern exposure on a three-acre clearing. Hennessy and Palmer took more than a year to consider their building options. Finding a local architect with passive solar expertise proved more difficult than they expected. When their local search came up empty, they researched Web-based design firms and found Alabama-based architect Debbie Rucker Coleman, who specializes in passive solar and sun-tempered homes (see “Media” in this issue). “She had good reviews, and we were impressed with her credentials,” Palmer says. “The only real downside to working with a remote architect is that it takes a little more time to exchange ideas through emails and phone calls.”
The process began with Coleman’s 20-page questionnaire in which the couple described their lifestyle, and outlined their budget priorities and energy-efficiency goals. Initially, Hennessy and Palmer envisioned a smaller, single-story home—roughly 1,500 square feet—but answering the questionnaire made them realize that they wanted about 600 more square feet to accommodate a larger kitchen, a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, and a more spacious common area for entertaining. “We host a lot of parties. We’ll have 35 or more people in the house on any given occasion,” Hennessy says. “It became clear that we wanted a little more space.”