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A Song from the Heart - Home & Garden Magazine

Written by: Virginia Myers

Green building is—dare we say it? Trendy. Argon-filled windows and low-VOC paints are becoming de rigeur among progressive builders.  Radiant floor heating and reclaimed wood are no longer radical; south-facing sites are a given.  Ken Wyner’s Charlottesville, Virginia vacation home is all that—but it is so much more.  Because along with the attention to environmentally friendly building materials and systems, Frogsong, as Wyner whimsically named it, is also a manifestation of his own nature-loving, generous spirit.  Standing in the soaring space of the great room, one feels embraced as if in a bird’s nest overlooking the burbling little Rockfish Gap River.  Windows and clerestories seemingly too numerous to count invite ​the outdoors in.  Walls echo the earth tones outside and details like wood lintels with the bark left on and stair railings shaped like the graceful branches from which they were hewn steep the place in nature-based beauty.  It could be called rustic, but its lines are a bit cleaner than that, and the natural materials are punctuated with the occasional Plexiglas or acrylic.

A place for yoga and meditation workshops, and even corporate retreats.  He is already planning to hold his own photography workshops there periodically.  And, as much as people love to escape to the woods, they are often deterred by more rustic accommodations.

The Comforts of Home

At Frogsong, you’ll find a jacuzzi in the master bath, along with a two-headed (low-flow) shower incorporating inlaid mother-of-pearl tile and luxuriously thick, organic towels for drying off. The 2,200 square-foot, two-bedroom, two-bath home with loft includes a surround-sound, 63-inch screen.
 

A professional photographer with a gift for design, Wyner brings a visual aesthetic and an element of the unexpected to the house.  For the last two decades, he has specialized in corporate and architectural photography, so he has been exposed to myriad architectural inspirations.  Although the design of the house is his own, Wyner consulted with several architect friends. Melanie Hennigan of Grimm + Parker Architects and Travis Price of Travis Price Architects weighed in on the design.  In addition, he was influenced by Tom Flanagan of Flanagan Architects, who helped design his Takoma Park home, and he collaborated closely with carpenter David Partington and his crew from Sage Carpentry.​

A place for yoga and meditation workshops, and even corporate retreats.  He is already planning to hold his own photography workshops there periodically.  And, as much as people love to escape to the woods, they are often deterred by more rustic accommodations.

Back to Nature

The project began when Wyner purchased land in Nellysford, just outside Charlottesville, Virginia.  An old friend of the Shenandoah, Wyner hiked the nearby trails as a boy, and as an adult he found refuge there from fast-paced city life.  He visited frequently with his two children, now grown. “I’ve been coming to this area for 30 years,” he says. “It’s kept me sane.”

It was natural that Wyner would build green—the land suggests environmentalism and his own lifestyle is built around it. “I’m definitely green oriented, both in the physical way and in my philosophy,” he says.  He believes not only in sustainable building, but in spending time in nature—hence the network of walking trails he cleared around the 11 acres that surround the house.

Helping the population shift to a more environmentally sensitive approach in building and lifestyle involves more than choosing how to spend one’s money, he says, even when it applies to a building project.  “It doesn’t happen by buying green products.  It comes from how you’re living.  If people spend money but never spend 10 minutes walking among trees, they’re not getting it.”

Wyner has done both, and the house, clearly, is more than a walk through the woods, with loads of green elements built in. But it was important to Wyner to combine a sustainable living approach with comfort, not only for himself but for friends and others he hopes will use the house.  Frogsong may eventually be his retirement home—but Wyner is also offering to share it as a vacation rental home, envisioning it as a television (with a fanciful fabric curtain to give it a theater effect) and a pirate’s chest full of DVDs in the basement playroom, along with a Ping-Pong table and cushy beanbag chairs.

Stereo speakers are wired throughout the house and on the deck, so you can hear music in the bedroom as well as the living room and kitchen—or not.  A gas grill on the wrap-around deck overlooking the river, and an open kitchen make the place perfect for entertaining. “The house was definitely designed to be a party house, a recreation house,” says Wyner. Appliances are top of the line, including a stainless steel Bosch dishwasher, Jenn-Air downdraft gas stove, and even a touchless trash can that opens auto¬matically when you approach.

Building Green

Frogsong is about being with nature in a sustainable way.  The home is snuggled into a berm to help keep temperatures constant.  It is sited facing south, with lots of glass doors and windows that invite the winter sun to warm and brighten the space.  Little glass exists on the cooler, north side of the house, and smaller windows are used on the west side, as well. In the heat of summer, a deep eave and preserved trees provide shade.  Small windows placed near the ceiling allow hot air to escape in summer, and ceiling fans keep air circulating so air conditioning isn’t required.

All windows are half-inch double-insulated, low-emissivity, and filled with argon, a low-con¬ducting gas that acts as an insulator.  Radiant floor heat works through hot-water pipes embedded under the concrete floor and fueled by propane.  Three wood stoves— one of them circular glass—supplement the radiant floor heat.  Soy insulation is sprayed in for maximum saturation; this renewable resource is considered to be a more effective seal against cold in winter and heat in summer than conventional fiberglass batting.

As it happens, the piece of land Wyner purchased is steeped in community.  Located in a development called Horizons Eco Village, it is part of an originally 490-acre parcel purchased in the 1990s as an intentionally sustainable community of residences and businesses.  Although the community never fully gelled, many of the people who wound up settling there were attracted by the idea of living with nature in a community of likeminded people.  It is no coincidence, then, that Wyner counts among his neighbors other sustainable-living advocates with visions of woodstoves and solar panels that will likely surpass even what he was able to build at Frogsong.

Wyner’s life is centered around a need for community, even in his photography business.  Whether it’s offering (and then serving) his small staff tea in his home-based Takoma Park studio or meeting with multimillionaire clients in a collaborative effort to provide a creative product, he wants to work with and be close to other people, sharing ideas and creativity.  He uses a sliding-scale fee structure so that he can be more inclusive in his work, and his business ranges from high-end architects to nonprofit and low-income artists.

Outside of his business, which he hopes to expand to the Charlottesville area, he also builds community.  When his two children were small, he helped found a creative preschool based on Waldorf education theory, and he is known for hosting local political events and social gatherings at his Takoma Park home.

“I’ve been heavily invested in community,” says Wyner. And he hopes to build a community-like following at Frogsong, which he envisions will host many groups of people—and friends—who can benefit from being surrounded by nature.  “I want everybody to feel the way I feel,” he says. “I am really lucky, I have an oasis.”

It’s an oasis he wants to share. “I want people to feel they have landed somewhere really magical.”

Editor’s Note:
For information on going out and about in Charlottesville and the surrounding areas, please visit whgmag.com and go to “In this Issue.”