Smith Mountain Lake vacation home makes room for energy savings and relatives

“We’re not smart enough to have planned this, but we sure have lucked out.”

That’s Joan Peppers talking about the 5,200-square-foot house she and her husband, Wayne, finished building a year and a half ago at the southern end of Smith Mountain Lake, about four hours south of their weekday home in Tysons Corner. 

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The luck involved timing. The Pepperses had owned the lakefront lot since 2004 and vacationed nearby in a condominium with the thought of eventually building “our last house,” said Joan, who, like Wayne, is retired from the federal government; both are working as contract employees.

Then the lake-area economy, which draws on consumers from Lynchburg, Roanoke, Richmond and Greensboro, N.C., collapsed. “We hadn’t intended to build so soon,” she said. But in 2007, the cost of building materials dropped 30 percent in that area, Wayne Peppers said, adding that “lumber yards were bidding against one another for jobs.” 

He estimates that building costs at the time were $225 to $250 per square foot in Northern Virginia. “Here it was $50 to $75 per square foot less,” Wayne said.

They were lucky, yes. But the rest of the road to Smith Mountain Lake was built on planning and knowing what they wanted. For years, the Pepperses had vacationed on the water. But they rejected the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic coast for a home — “no saltwater damage or hurricanes,” Joan said. A lake was the obvious answer.

They took a map and drew a circle around the District, extending out to about Deep Creek Lake in Western Maryland. Then, Joan said, they “looked for blue blobs” on the map, signifying lakes. Like Goldilocks, they tried them out. From vacation stays, they thought Deep Creek Lake was too crowded on and off the water. Lake Anna was too small. They didn’t want to be in North Carolina or Tennessee.

About 40 miles long, with some 500 miles of shoreline, Smith Mountain Lake was just right. The lake was created in the 1960s in the Blue Ridge Mountains to generate electricity and manage nearby rivers. It must have been the biggest blob within their circle, with all the water they sought — without the salinity, crowds or distance they found to be drawbacks elsewhere.

 That explains the location. But what explains the enormous house, built by a pair of empty nesters?

It turns out that the extended family of Pepperses, many of them based in Wisconsin, “travel in big globs,” as Joan puts it. And Joan and Wayne both have children and grandchildren from earlier marriages. The idea of the lake house was to accommodate all of them. “It’s wonderful not just to have dinner but to spend the whole weekend together,” Joan said.  “Last year, we had nine different groups of people.”

The house has three bedrooms, but with the creative use of the den and other spaces, can sleep as many as 20 people comfortably. On the walkout-basement level, there are an additional 2,400 square feet and lots of sofas (not to mention a pool table, a Ping-Pong table and a theater-style popcorn popper).

Contemplating that much space as they dreamed and planned their house, the couple was concerned about energy costs, and they wanted geothermal heating. Beyond that, “we weren’t thinking ‘green’ at all,” Joan said. But they talked with Scott Stalker of Stonefield Homes, a Greensboro design-build firm, whose nearby lake house they admired. He led them to LEED-accredited Greensboro interior designer Melinda “Mel” Dickey from SSI Group. LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, a designation sanctioned by the U.S. Green Building Council, an industry group that promotes sustainable building design and construction. With Stalker and Dickey’s guidance, the Pepperses’ house became the first LEED-certified house on Smith Mountain Lake and only the 17th in Virginia.

LEED certification measures energy efficiency, to be sure, but also limits waste in building to 10 percent of materials. (“If you cut a piece of lumber for one thing,” Wayne said, “you have to find a place to use the leftover piece.”) LEED also covers storm-water management and indoor air quality (important to Joan, who has asthma and once suffered from “sick building syndrome”), among many other criteria.

Joan and Wayne went into the project wanting lots of insulation and zoned heating but soon understood that they could do a lot more to conserve water (low-flow fixtures, high-efficiency toilets and three rain gardens), recycle (repurposed granite as a patio, recycled-tile backsplashes in the kitchen) and use renewable materials (stranded bamboo floors). Heating and cooling are furnished by three geothermal wells; the lower-level floor has hot-water radiant heat.

What they didn’t want was a house that “looked green,” by which Joan means a supersonic-looking space. The couple wanted a farmhouse look, and that’s what they got. Out front, low, broad arches define a ground-level porch, or “piazza,” often seen in 19th-century farmhouses. The vertical planking on the exterior walls is HardiePlank, made from recycled cement and wood products. The sections of the gambrel-roofed house jut this way and that, managing to camouflage its size, and look like a farmhouse that was expanded over time.

The Pepperses credit Dickey with keeping the home cozy and casual inside — even with 10-foot ceilings — while keeping energy and materials in mind. The double-height entry is kept from looking too grand with tall wall panels painted white, giving a cottage feel to the space. Seating in the large living room is broad and comfortable-looking; colors are muted earth tones. They made room for aging in the place by installing three-foot-wide doors for potential wheelchair access, door levers instead of round handles, an elevator to all three levels and a ramp in the garage.

There are no window treatments, Dickey said, just plantation shutters everywhere. All the upholstered furniture is slipcovered. “It keeps dust down,” she says, “and they’re washable.” Alabama marble countertops in the bathrooms come from within 500 miles of the lake, another LEED criterion.

They got lucky with the lighting, Dickey said. Only recently has the lighting industry begun to offer traditional-style ES (energy saving) fixtures manufactured to work well with compact fluorescent bulbs. So the rooms have chandeliers and table lamps that keep the casual, farmy style without sacrificing efficiency. In all, Wayne said, the same house built to the 2006 International Energy Code would consume 51 percent more energy than this house does.

Of course, there is extravagance in all that square footage, “trophy” elements. The large, open kitchen, with steam ovens (for Wayne’s crusty bread), broad counters and a huge island, boasts what Joan calls “the wondrous wall of food,” which includes a giant built-in refrigerator and freezer and pantry. There’s room enough for separate areas for food-prep (Wayne’s domain) and cleanup (Joan’s).

Adjacent to the kitchen-side eating area is Wayne’s “bar and grill room,” essentially a second kitchen fitted with a beer tap, a freezer drawer (for frosty beer mugs, of course) and an enormous grill. Big windows slide open, so Wayne can communicate with guests on the terrace outside; with windows closed, the room can be used year-round. Downstairs is Wayne’s wine cellar (he’s the former director of the Central Maryland chapter of the Tasters Guild International). Upstairs is the train room, where he is building an elaborate layout of wood tables and counters that will eventually be locomotive central.

 If it seems that Wayne has gotten all the toys, Joan has her imprint on the house as well. For one thing, she designed a lot of the house (“designing a house was a ‘bucket list’ sort of thing for me”) and produced a Web site (peppersgreenhome.com) celebrating it. And in every room of the house, on virtually every wall, hangs art — oils, watercolors, etchings, pen-and-ink drawings — all produced by Joan’s mother. 

There’s also a piece of art on Joan’s desk at work: It’s a photo of the Smith Mountain Lake house, now visited mostly on weekends and vacations, but waiting for Wayne and Joan Peppers when they decide to “retire retire.” 

 
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