Experimental: Taking a chance on solar

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ADDRESS: Mt. Alto Road

NEIGHBORHOOD: Howardsville

ASKING: $329,500

YEAR BUILT: 2005

SIZE: 2,000 fin. sq. ft.

LAND: 5.0 acres

CURB APPEAL: no curb

LISTED BY: Aaron Manis, Roy Wheeler Realty Co., 951-5172

This house is an experiment. And as we know, because an experiment depends on a number of variables, it's not clear how it will turn out. That's certainly the case here.

This is a no-nonsense, what-you-see-is-what-you-get passive solar house of "saltbox" design. The builder has built several like this in New England, but this is his first one in Albemarle County. The idea is to marry energy efficiency with aesthetics, and pray that someone wants to adopt the offspring.

Who's likely to sign the papers to make this baby their own? Well, with its post and beam construction– creating R-22 values in the walls and R-38 in the ceilings– its stamped concrete floor to hold the heat from sunlight pouring in huge south-facing windows, and its 35,000 BTU gas-log fireplace in the great room, it probably will appeal to folks who are environmentally– or at least energy-bill– conscious.

The agent emphasizes the secluded five acres as a lure for people who want to stable a horse or two, or kennel some dogs, or just have a sort of mini "gentleman's farm" with flower gardens or maybe a few rows of tomatoes and Silver Queen corn in the summer.

Other interested buyers might be outdoor folk– say, skiers who want the amenities offered by Wintergreen, just 30-35 minutes away, without having to live at the resort. There's a stream nearby for fishing and the James River not far for boating, tubing, etc.

Not so likely to be interested might be a family with young children– or with teenagers. While final development plans for this subdivision carved from what was the 300-acre Ramsey Creek Farm call for 13 houses in all, right now this house seems quite isolated on a gravel road off the undeniably beautiful– but almost completely unpopulated and equally isolated– Langhorne Road, Route 626. Parents of teenagers would no doubt worry about them driving on the winding roads, and parents of toddlers would worry about having to do all that driving themselves just to see other faces.

Let's propose as ideal buyers a retired couple who love the country, are comfortable with their own company, and want to escape the aggravation of maintenance and energy costs. Here, they'll find cypress board and batten construction, a metal roof, and those high energy values to satisfy both requirements.

Inside also will appeal to them. Here, a great room– the largest space in the house and the solar collection point– with cathedral ceiling, second-floor loft, and master suite with whirlpool tub make one-level living easy. (No stairs to climb if they don't want to.)

The kitchen– while dark, because it's on the north side of the house– is large enough to accommodate a breakfast-room-type table, and has a pair of double doors creating a mudroom that– with both sets of doors flung wide– could be pressed into service as a sort of breezeway/patio in the summer. There's a half-bath here, too.

The kitchen is practical, with hickory cabinets, tile backsplash, and stainless steel appliances, including a big gas stove fired by an underground propane tank. (The house has a heat pump for backup when the sun don't shine– and for AC when it shines too much.)

Up the flight of stairs at the end of the big room, the loft passageway leads to two more bedrooms that share a bathroom. Pull-down stairs permit access to the attic (site of the furnace), but no storage. (There's a storage area beneath the stairs.) Because the house is brand new, all these spaces now feel sterile and chilly, but beautiful pine floors upstairs and the light from the full dormer over the great room promise a more cozy vibe when the house is inhabited.

So the builder's experiment pits the energy efficiency; sleek, no-nonsense design; and five tranquil cedar-ringed acres against the isolation, distance from town (25 minutes to Charlottesville up Route 20), and effort that will be required to transform the place's current construction-site aura.

Has he created a Frankenstein or a Sleeping Beauty? Soaring energy costs incline us to put our money on the success of the venture. If people step up to embrace this house, the builder is set to replicate the concept at other sites, meaning there could someday be solar saltboxes here, there, and everywhere.

 PHOTOS BY ROSALIND WARFIELD-BROWN

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Holiday 36