“Brutal” is the word architect Chad Everhart uses to describe his first encounter with a home he now calls the Mountain Re-Shack.
“There was a seven-foot-long black snake sitting on the front porch,” says Everhart, a professor at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. “Nobody had lived in it for decades—the windows were blown out, and there were animals in it. But it was solid—you could jump on the floor OK.”
Most would call that a fairly low threshold for a renovation project. In fact, most would simply have called in the sledgehammers and the wrecking ball, and simply taken it down. But not Everhart. “I thought I could patch this thing up,” he says. “I thought it was fixable.”
It was a Depression-era home sited in a 10-acre cow pasture 25 minutes west of Boone in the Blue Ridge Mountains. It was most likely built for a farmhand working on larger fields down the road. There were no studs in the walls, just hemlock boards barely hanging on. A galvanized tin roof struggled vainly to keep the structure dry. Inside, vandals had had their way.
“Everybody I talked to said, ‘Tear it down! Put it in the dump!’ ” he says. “But it would have cost a substantial amount of money to throw it away.”
Besides, he was enamored of its highly unusual fieldstone foundation and chimney. It was a cast-in-place affair, shaped by someone who first created wooden forms, then just tossed in rocks and poured concrete on top. Clearly absent were the craftsmanship and clean grout lines that any self-respecting mason would have insisted upon.
“A bunch of farmers probably got together and made this thing—pretty fast and not too fussy,” he says. “There’s no cut stone at all—it’s more like: ‘Here’s a pile of rocks, now let’s see what we can make of it.’ ”
Everhart’s client had initially hired him to build a new house on the site but then shifted gears: Why not do the little house first, live in it for a while and get used to the property? He wanted to see what it would take to make the derelict, abandoned shack livable for a time.
The architect thought about it and offered two approaches. He could fix it up like a little cottage and make it dark and rustic. Or he could celebrate its abandonment with a ghost-like frame that would give it an ephemeral kind of commentary. His client was intrigued.
“Should we patch it up or go absolutely crazy?” Everhart asked him.
The client answered with his own question: “Can we do both?”
They met in the middle and wound up redesigning the house so that it’s not only eminently habitable but architecturally interesting too. It maintains its old ruinous roots with its stone foundation and chimney, but now it wears a new skin—a hemlock-banded rainscreen, painted bright white.
“The client wanted to contrast the old and the new,” Everhart says. “It was kind of like: What could have been there, what should have been there, and what’s there now?”
The architect found a local contractor who’d been a carpenter for 40 years and got to work on reconfiguring most of the interior. “It was 1,000 square feet when we found it, and then we whittled it down to 850,” he says. “It was real chopped up and didn’t make a lot of sense—you had to walk through one room to get to another.”
They replaced the old roof with a new one and added gutters, then moved on to the interior, replacing a few joists to level the floors. “We didn’t want the client to walk on an undulating floor, so we squared it up to make it safe to occupy,” he says.
They converted two tiny bedrooms on the second floor into one loft that now overlooks the living room below. In that living room, a propane stove, vented through the chimney, heats the entire home; a kitchen/dining area with full bath and laundry area are adjacent. The hemlock rainscreen is repeated inside, painted bright white in contrast to the gray-painted drywall and exposed ceiling joists.
Now it’s a home with its own narrative to tell, rather than a tear-down or a simple restoration. “It’s a story of how the past and the present merge together to show how something abandoned was reclaimed, reworked, reclad and reinhabited,” the architect says.
Everhart looks to both client and site for design inspiration, noting that this is not the house he would have designed for another client—and that for anyone else he probably would have torn it down. But this client is an interior designer who has worked with a number of architects on other projects and was itching to work with one for his own home. Moreover, he represents a new kind of resident for the rural mountains of North Carolina.
“He’s a typical client moving into this region, saying, ‘I want a farm, but a fresh overlay to what that means,’ ” Everhart says.
And then there’s the site itself. “It’s in an old farming community, and we responded to that with local materials and a local guy to build it—and we maintained the original form.”
They did so economically too. Even with its new well and septic system, the Mountain Re-Shack came in just under what new construction might have cost.
“We probably did it for about $150 a square foot,” Everhart says.
And there’s nothing brutal about that.
J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art, and design for national and international publications. He also edits and publishes an online design magazine at www.architectsandartisans.com.