By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun
1:05 PM EST, February 7, 2013
The architect Cheryl Mohr craves natural light so much that even when the sun is bouncing off the nearby South River and streaming through the 22-foot-tall wall of windows that surrounds her living room, Mohr can't bring herself to lower the blinds.
Instead, she puts on a pair of sunglasses.
"I grew up in the tropics," she said during a recent tour of her waterfront Edgewater home, "and I think it would be very bad for me to live anyplace without a lot of natural light. Light isn't just something we see. We also can feel it on our skin. It's the photosensitive part of ourselves coming out."
Mohr's design for her six-bedroom home with four full and two half bathrooms is notable for the innovative ways in which it revels in not just the sun, but also the wind, rain and plant life, and the steps that she has taken to preserve these natural resources.
Here's just one small example: her outdoor landscaping includes a 210-foot "living shoreline." Once the marsh grasses take root and grow, it will help prevent erosion while also providing a habitat for fish, waterfowl and other aquatic creatures.
The 55-year-old Mohr is one of the two founders of Gardner Mohr Architects, a Silver Spring firm that specializes in sustainable residential design. So the 7,000-square-foot house that she rebuilt on the site of the original 1988 structure is more than just a haven for Mohr and her three daughters, or even a showcase of what she does best.
It's also a statement of the principles on which she and her business partner, Amy Gardner, started their firm in 2003. Every aspect of the home, from the lighting (LED bulbs) to the countertops (made from an engineered quartz composite; no natural stone is used anywhere in the home) to the watering system (collected rainwater) to the roof (which incorporates solar panels) — is designed to minimize the home's environmental impact.
"I've been a tree-hugger since I was a little girl," Mohr said.
"One of the core values that Amy and I both have is to use up as little energy and natural resources as we can. When we started, there weren't many firms who were as interested as we were in sustainable design. Now, it's becoming more common."
The years of hard work since the house was purchased in 2004 have paid off in impressive ways. The home earned a coveted gold LEED rating (for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) from the U.S. Green Building Council. In addition, the house has a home energy rating score of just 39, as determined by the U.S. Department of Energy. That means that it uses 61 percent less energy than an identical structure built to current energy codes.
But what visitors to Mohr's three-story home notice first aren't the energy conservation statistics. What they notice is the beauty.
The showstopper is the view of the South River, with the Chesapeake Bay, Kent Island and the Eastern Shore visible — and it can be seen from not just the living room, dining room and kitchen, but also from each bedroom.
The house itself is elegant and serene, with its butterfly roof, its cypress timbers stained blue-gray, its sharp angles and its multiple pine decks. Instead of interrupting the centuries-old conversation taking place between the river and shore and wildlife, the house enters into that discourse.
The home manages to be both cozy and expansive (it accommodated 75 people during an overnight visit by Mohr's daughter's Frisbee team).
"This home uplifts my spirit," Mohr said, "every single day."
She grew up in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the natural world is rampant, with houseplants that grow as large as trees and bugs the size of a child's fist.
"Our lives were all about the water," Mohr said. "I was a swimmer, and we boated, fished and water-skied."
She moved away from the waterfront to attend school in Texas, earning her bachelor's from Baylor University in Waco in psychology and business in 1979, and a graduate degree in architecture from the University of Texas in Austin in 1985.
After relocating to the East Coast, she and her family spent several years in Chevy Chase.
"But, it's always been a huge instinct of mine to go back to the water," she said. "As soon as we saw this site, we fell in love with it."
At the time, a nondescript, 5,000-square-foot, two-story brown brick home occupied the site. Mohr took it apart.
"We either donated or recycled approximately 95 percent of the materials, fixtures, equipment, etc.," she said. "Only the carpet and roof shingles went to the landfill."
Mohr designed the home herself but hired the Berliner Construction Company of Annapolis to put her ideas into practice.
Adhering to building-covenant restrictions, the team expanded upward, not outward, by adding a story on top of the first floor and walk-out basement.
"In my 45-year career, I've never met anyone more interested in doing sustainable design or more knowledgeable about how to go about it," said the company's founder, Charlie Berliner.
"Cherie certainly is a perfectionist, and she's extremely hard-working. She doesn't have a lazy bone in her body. She would pursue every issue until she thoroughly understood it. She's pretty extraordinary in that way."
Indeed, Mohr's attention to detail is such that she was concerned that her home wasn't photo-ready because she didn't have time to power-wash the soffits and gutters.
During the building process, she made sure that nearly all the woods in the house (which includes cypress siding, engineered oak floors and pine decks) was not only grown locally, but also milled within 500 miles of Edgewater. She made sure that glues were all formaldehyde-free. Even the drywall and the foundation include recycled materials.
Mohr didn't stop once the home was built, according to Janice Romanosky, a principal with Pando Alliance, which evaluated Mohr's home to achieve its LEED rating.
"Cherie's home is truly extraordinary," she wrote in an email. "She clearly went an extra mile with regard to her design. But she went a giant step further, subjecting her home to a series of rigorous inspections and performance tests. This provided her with the assurance that all systems were actually working as designed. Many builders would be uncomfortable with this level of outside scrutiny, but her builder welcomed it as an opportunity to raise his game."
The importance that Mohr places on the natural world is apparent the moment that visitors step through the front door. To the left is a bamboo garden that runs the length of the entire wall. Eventually, it will grow ceiling-high and receive sufficient sun from the skylights alone.
The architect also designed the interior to harmonize with the natural surroundings.
Walls are painted gray with just a touch of green, matching the color of the architect's eyes. Hardwood floors gleam throughout the home, broken up occasionally by a sisal rug. Railings are steel, and furniture is built close to the ground so as not to impede the view. A cream leather sectional in the living room is flanked by two chaise longues in a woven charcoal fabric.
Occasional pops of color enliven the neutrals. Part of the master bedroom headboard is upholstered in orange, and in the kitchen, stainless steel appliances and the gray-black countertops are set off by a wall plaque in apple green.
But, as soothing as the interior can be, everything about the home is designed to entice Mohr and her daughters outside, perhaps to take a dip in the pool, to venture into the river on one of their three boats (including a sailboat), or simply to gather dinner. Mohr can gather as many crabs as she can eat from the end of her dock.
"Every time I walk through the front door I feel honored to be the steward of this uniquely beautiful place on earth," Mohr said. "It's my version of a sacred power spot. My goal was to design a home worthy of the site."
Cheryl Mohr's commitment to sustainability is unusual; the measures that she adopted added to the total the seven-figure home. But both she and LEED rater Janice Romanosky emphasized that meaningful environmental changes can be made on a much smaller budget.
"Sometimes people think that going green is too hard and expensive and only for rich people," Romanosky writes in an email. "While this home is obviously very high-end, there are plenty of green building projects going on in both market rate and affordable housing."
Below are some of the main techniques used in Mohr's home, as described by Romanosky and the architect:
To protect the river and shoreline: Mohr removed the original shrubs and replaced them with native species that are drought tolerant. The roof was designed to resemble a butterfly's wings and slants downward at the center. It collects 80 percent of the rain that ordinarily would run off and funnels it into a cistern. This water will go to water Mohr's garden, which will use no fertilizers or pesticides.
To conserve water: The home also uses ultra-high-efficiency toilets and faucets. Mohr also sought out only paints, varnishes and other finishes (in addition to the formaldehyde-free glues) that won't emit harmful gases into the air. Pipes are made not from copper, but an eco-friendly plastic.
To consume less energy: Mohr added three times as much insulation as was required into the 10-inch-thick walls and 20-inch-thick roofs. She also installed a geothermal heat pump that uses the earth's constant temperature of 55 degrees below the frost line to pull up air that helps cool and heat the home. Solar panels in the roof generate about a third of the energy used by the home.
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