A Healthy Timber Frame Farmhouse

An eco-responsible Virginia timber frame home that’s good for the mind, body and soul.

An eco-responsible Virginia timber frame home that’s good for the mind, body and soul.

Story by Nancy E. Berry Photos by Tony Giammarino


Morgan Bartolini loves Virginia’s old farmhouses — their bucolic setting and vernacular style — but when she started looking to purchase one just outside of Richmond, she quickly became discouraged. Although the settings were divine, many of the homes were far from it. Filled with asbestos, lead paint, mold and urea formaldehyde, these places didn’t fit the other criterion on her checklist — to find a healthy house. “After college I really became interested in holistic living — not just what we eat but how we live and where we live,” says Morgan. “I really wanted a home that offered healthy materials and good indoor air quality.”


Instead of buying an old house, she decided to build new. She purchased 18 acres of land and hired Patrick Farley of Watershed Architects — a company that’s dedicated to healthy, sustainable design. “Morgan was the perfect client,” says Farley. “We’re always pushing the green agenda, but Morgan came to us requesting an eco-conscious, healthy house.”

A practicing architect for 16 years, Farley’s design philosophy is to build socially conscious, green homes. “It comes down to the ecological footprint of a home — this often translates into the literal footprint,” says Farley. Smaller homes can have less impact on the environment and, if designed well, can function even better than a larger house. In other words, to Farley, smaller is beautiful.


“There has been a real surge in awareness when it comes to houses and their impact on our environment, but people are still learning what to ask of their architects and builders when it comes to creating healthier spaces,” he says. 

Although the goal was to build a house that looked as though it had been on the land for a century, Morgan wanted the living spaces to be open and contemporary. Once the style and room flow were discussed, the designers became intimately acquainted with the site. “The lot sits on a lake, so we wanted to orient the house to those views, as well as take advantage of the sun and breezes — we were looking for the ‘sweet spot,’” Farley says. “There are wonderful old American cherry trees on the site that really dictated the footprint of the house.”


Farley created a 3,500-square-foot, one-room-deep design that creates wonderful cross breezes throughout the first floor. Slight skews in the design capture southeast views. “The geometry introduced takes advantage of passive solar energy,” says Farley. “This is not the typical two-over-two farmhouse. The home is of a vernacular farmhouse form, but is not restricted by it.”

The site-specific design appears as though it has evolved over time. A timber-framed structure with a higher roof form serves as the body or center of the house, where the living, dining and study areas sit. Single-story wings anchor either side — the kitchen to the east and the master bedroom and bath to the west. An open loft on the second floor functions as the perfect study room for Morgan’s son, who is home-schooled. The loft is open to the living spaces below, which helps Morgan stay connected with her family while she is cooking.


To blur the division between outdoors and indoors, Farley incorporated several open porches. “Creating these outdoor spaces was key to the overall design,” says Farley. “The goal was to create balance and harmony within the pastoral landscape.”

A deep overhang above the expansive open porch is a classic and pragmatic approach to keep interiors cool during summer months. “We live outside when the weather is good,” says Morgan.

On the west side of the house, a small, open porch off the master bedroom offers a tranquil reading spot during spring and summer months, while an open porch off the study creates another private spot to relax. A screened porch is located just off the kitchen to the east, offering wonderful morning light.   

Whenever possible, the team incorporated salvaged and local materials into the design. The exposed timber frame is constructed from Douglas fir beams reclaimed from the bottom of the St. Lawrence River. Heart pine flooring was salvaged from a Shenandoah Valley tobacco barn. All wall studs and roof rafters are FSC-certified from Louisiana. The design team also introduced Virginia-quarried soapstone to both the library and kitchen countertops. A bank of energy-efficient windows in the kitchen and dining area facilitates cross ventilation while capturing stunning views.


Morgan worked with designer Carol Lynn Forman to find the interior finishes and furnishings. Playing off a neutral palette, Morgan chose low-VOC paints from Sherwin Williams for the walls, while the kitchen cabinets are finished in zero-VOC milk paint.

Upholstered furnishings are stuffed with nontoxic foam, and slipcovers are made of cotton and linen. Carpets are made from chemical-free wool. The builders used formaldehyde-free plywood, strawboard and insulation, as well as solvent-free adhesives in the construction of the house. A geothermal system uses direct contact with the earth (instead of air) to heat and cool the house. On the first floor Morgan requested radiant heat as well. “I just love to walk on the warm floorboards,” she says.

The energy-efficient Tulikivi fireplaces — one located in the living room and the other in the kitchen — offer yet another radiant heat source. (During the winter months Morgan bakes bread in the fireplace’s bake oven.) To conserve water, Farley added low-flow toilets and plumbing fixtures. Rain barrels collect water runoff, which nourishes three rain gardens located around the house. Because of the level of detail and care, the house received an Energy Star rating. Morgan is happy with the outcome. “The house really has exceeded my expectations — I simply love it,” she says.