Sometimes the most important thing about green building is the same thing that is the first consideration in all real estate — location, location, location. This may not sound radical, and it isn’t as exciting as building a house that feeds power back into an electric grid, but it is probably more important in the greater scheme of things.
Look southeast to the far reaches of Burlington County. Gape at an unending line of residential construction sites south of Washington, D.C., north of Atlanta, or almost anywhere in Florida.
Conservation Development is working at reversing the bulldoze-and-build trend. Lise Thompson and Robert Brander, her life partner and business partner, are principals in the two-year-old company. Its first building project is the extensive restoration of an 1860s Victorian farmhouse and its four barns, well house, and corn crib on 2.4 acres in the hamlet of Rosemont, population 49, situated just north of Stockton.
Thompson is a fifth generation Princetonian whose father, Bryce Thompson, has been investing in land in and around Mercer County since he returned from the service in 1959. A Cornell graduate (Class of 1983), she became interested in restoring houses pretty much by accident. Setting out to become an actress, she was living in Manhattan when, along with a group of friends, she bought a week-end house in Hillsborough. The house was a fixer-upper, and she found herself spending a lot more time working on the house than working on her acting career.
She was soon hooked on construction, which she had had ample opportunity to observe up close during her childhood as her parents moved into, fixed up, and sold some 12 houses, beginning with 195 Nassau Street, a house her great grandfather had built.
Through the years Thompson has renovated about six houses, and studied cabinetry in Frenchtown, where she met her husband, who was a furniture maker and an instructor at Parsons School of Design at the time. He is now leading the Rosemont restoration project.
As Thompson leafs through a thick book of photographs it quickly becomes obvious that the Rosemont house was rescued just in time. “Someone had bought it and gutted it completely,” she says. There was very little left when she first saw it. She was captivated by its setting, its history, and its bones, but she had just completed a restoration project and was not ready for another. She passed on the house, but then its owner invited her to bid on it along with several other contractors. She won the bid in January, 2005, and took on the project after all.
Thompson talks about “regenerative” building. To her it is more than just bringing a building back to life. “I hate to use the word ‘healing,’” she says. But that is what she is doing. Rather than plowing up a few acres to build a grand vacation home or commuter’s getaway, she is filling in a hole in a tiny, historic community, and bringing life to what would otherwise have been a crumbling eyesore until it finally collapsed or was engulfed by poison ivy.
Rather than providing a sanctuary for bats, the Rosemont farmhouse, at an asking price of $2.45 million, is nearly ready for a new owner. “I hope it’s someone who works at home,” says Thompson. “I picture him walking to the tiny post office, and having lunch at the Rosemont Cafe.”
The house contains 5,646-square-feet of space, plus 1,200-square-feet over the largest barn, a 30 by 40-foot space with a radiant heated floor. Green features include “historically-compatible” storm windows that fit snugly over the house’s original windows. Thompson couldn’t bring herself to replace the antique glass in any of the original windows, and sought out matching glass to repair broken windows. But inconspicious, snug-fitting storm windows will give the house a good energy seal.
There is also a new, high-efficiency heating and cooling system. The oil-fired boiler can be converted to burn biodiesel. Zero-VOC paint was used throughout. “It’s amazing,” says Thompson. “We had five painters working at the same time, and you couldn’t smell anything.” Huge windows bring in abundant natural light and provide passive solar heating. Outside there is a rain garden full of native plants ready to catch the rain and keep it on the property.
Thompson, who lives in a restored 1740 house in Hillsborough with Brander and their 11-year-old-daughter, Nina, a student at Chapin, is already moving on to her next projects. She is consulting on an eco-resort in the Bahamas, and is close to getting approvals for a “mixed use eco-village” at a location in New Jersey that she is not ready to disclose.
“Green is not a trend,” she says. “It’s the future.”
Conservation Development LLC, 626 Montgomery Road, Hillsborough 08844. Lise Thompson, principal. 908-369-1224; fax, 908-369-4981. E-mail: Lise@conservationdevelopment.org. www.conservationdevelopment.org.