At a stage of life when many of their friends are downsizing or choosing assisted living communities, Philip and Velma Helfaer eagerly built a new home on the fringe of one of the Triangle’s most prestigious addresses.
News & Observer photos by Juli Leonard
The career psychologists, educators and writers, now 82 and 79, respectively, had spent most of their married lives in chilly Boston and Norway and amid the rugged beauty of sunny Tel Aviv. Two years ago, they chose a 5-acre parcel adjoining Fearrington Village in Pittsboro to build their dream home. It was wooded and quiet, disturbed only by the welcome sounds of wildlife.
The couple had never lived in or even visited North Carolina before but were attracted to the area by its natural beauty, moderate climate and proximity to academia and a major airport. While temporarily renting a house in Fearrington, they connected with an architect and builder who shared their passion for green design. The result is the Happy Meadows Courtyard House, a highly efficient, ultra-modern home with spare, midcentury appeal.
“This project is so special to me because of the way the house interacts with the wildlife,” says Arielle Condoret Schechter of Chapel Hill, who designed the nearly 2,300-square-foot residence to suit her clients’ modest, understated style and keen ecological interests. A key factor was their desire to live in a net-zero home, which, through photovoltaic arrays on the roof, ideally would generate as much – or maybe more – energy than its owners needed to purchase over the course of a year.
“We didn’t quite achieve that this year,” says Philip Helfaer, who checks a program on his computer to review detailed logs of electric energy used and solar energy sold to Duke Energy. He laughs heartily to see a 10-day stretch with no energy usage. “Our energy expenses from December 15, 2014, to December 15, 2015, were $216,” adds Velma Helfaer. “We generated 80 percent of our electricity.”
According to Duke Energy, an average monthly electric bill for a similar size home in the Fearrington area is about $110. Despite an extended cold snap last winter, high heat and humidity this summer and unseasonable warmth this fall, most of their energy expenses came from cooking and cleaning.
AN AVERAGE MONTHLY ELECTRIC BILL FOR A SIMILAR SIZE HOME IN THE FEARRINGTON AREA IS ABOUT $110.
“I’m so disappointed that we didn’t achieve net-zero this year,” says Schechter, who teamed with Kevin Murphy of Chapel Hill’s NewPhire Building to maximize energy efficiency, ensure clean airflow and capture rainwater from the roof to a 1,200-gallon cistern for irrigation. “With a few tweaks, I think we can do it in the future.”
Schechter’s innovative design amplifies the peacefulness of the property by showcasing some of its most serene aspects. The home is centered by a courtyard garden that can be glimpsed from several rooms. Windows capture outdoor scenes as if they were seasonal, wood-framed paintings. Their ample patio contains a burbling, lily-filled water feature echoed by a second pond in the garden. They’ve seen everything from blue heron to red fox enjoying the grounds.
“In the spring, we were wondering if we made a mistake putting the patio pond near our bedroom,” Velma Helfaer says with a laugh. “The bullfrogs are very loud,” adds Philip Helfaer, imitating their robust bleats as a salamander clung to their screened porch, “but it’s wonderful to hear all the sounds of nature.”
The Helfaers spend a good deal of time outdoors, especially in the evening, when they can enjoy twinkling starlight undisturbed by the glare of commercial lighting. When they retire indoors, they leave the heat off at night, allowing ambient conditions to keep the temperature at or above 69 degrees. Fifteen-inch walls and custom-made insulated windows are part of the science behind this seeming magic.
The Helfaers personally selected many of the home’s finishes, including granite countertops and rich accent wall colors. Elsewhere, they pushed Schechter and Murphy to use the most green options available.
Most of the home has poured concrete floors except for the kitchen and exercise room, which feature cork tile with a leathery amber glow. Warm wood details, including cabinets, shelving and convenient window benches, are fashioned mostly from reclaimed river wood or sustainable species. A full wall of cypress boards create a dynamic pattern of undulating grain in their bedroom.
The open pantry off the kitchen contains groceries and their pared-down household goods, including a beloved 40-year-old Champion juicer and her grandmother’s cut-glass water pitcher. A glass bowl is filled with beautiful rocks collected on hikes around the world.
Velma Helfaer has held off on hanging any of the couple’s art collection to date. There is just a scattering of collectibles evident in the home, which is dominated by well-thumbed books and an audiophile’s dream system to enjoy classical music.
Schechter and Murphy ensured that the house could accommodate potential future needs, allowing a guest bedroom to be easily converted into a caregiver’s suite. The overall design balances safety and comfort with green smarts and calming beauty.
“We previously had a place that was passive solar, but it felt like we were living in a greenhouse,” Velma Helfaer says. “It never felt like a place we’d want to spend the rest of our lives in. This does.”