Client Narratives

"the smallest and least expensive details become tremendous assets"

Kory and Daniel are experts in native flora. Their gardens are a wonder. See more photos of this house and the house plans.

Harnden & Goldsmith“We had always wanted to build a passive solar home. Luckily, when we started planning for a new house, a friend referred us to Jim and Kathleen's work and we knew immediately this was what we wanted.

Like most folks, we came to the building process with a laundry list of priorities. I wanted a space for myself on the second floor and lots of windows in the kitchen. Daniel wanted a garage for his tools and a large aquarium for his fish. We imagined that our builder would figure out technically how to accomplish these goals, sort of like stitching together pieces of fabric for a quilt. What we didn't realize we needed was a way to weave these components into an overall theme, a unified esthetic. That is what the "design" in "design/build" refers to, and that is what Jim and Kathleen excel at. Above all else, beyond the excellent craftsmanship, the attention to detail and the conservation of resources, our home reflects their ability to visualize the whole and execute it beautifully.

Something else that we learned is that sometimes the smallest and least expensive details become tremendous assets. Kathleen had the idea to create a courtyard surrounded by a wattle fence made of cedar. That fence, and the inviting space created within its boundaries, is something visitors comment on over, and over, and over again. Another idea was for a window seat and hearth under the fireplace. Last night, I watched my oldest son gravitate to that spot to read a book even though there were comfortable chairs 5 feet away. These touches integrate seamlessly into the whole, strike a chord that says "home", yet cost very little to execute.

It is hard to express how pleased we are with this home. It is built to last a life time, and that how long we hope to be here.” –Daniel Harnden and Kory Goldsmith

"the home we will be in forever"

Graham & Harrison“We love being in our house in all seasons, alone and with friends. The only problem is that we don't want to leave. We want to stay here in this beautiful space, making and enjoying our home. Jim and Kathleen are patient and kind experts who designed and built for and with us the home we will be in forever. The last house.” –Dr. Thomas Graham & Trina Harrison

See more photos of this house and house plans.

"the perfect merging of utility and beauty "

Harry LeBlanc, Deb Vail, and family“When I remarried a few years ago, my husband already had a site prepared for a new house on his organic farm. He had spent many years thinking about and designing a home. His main priorities were using green building techniques, capitalizing on solar benefits and having low maintenance.

I entered his life with four children and a long history of living in New England in old historical renovated homes. I loved the charm of my village Victorian and I needed space for all the growing children. Plus I wanted a cottage garden along with the rows of flowers in our field.

Deb in the kitchenOur challenge was to merge the techniques that were important to Harry while creating a space that felt like “grandma’s house”.

Jim and Kathleen came to our house site and patiently listened to each of us talk about what was important to us. Meanwhile, my friends warned me about the danger of building a house with a new husband. They worried that merging our families was enough stress let alone negotiating the design and building of new home.

Vail-Lablanc house exteriorI am very happy to report that they couldn't have been more wrong. Designing and building our home brought us even closer together because of the skill of Jim and Kathleen. They worked with us on every single detail of the house and were able to help us to design a home that was both energy efficient and had the endearing qualities that I love in a home. Not only do we have solar panels and heated cement floors we have New England board and batten on our closet walls and classic ceiling molding. I love the heated cement floors that warm my feet in the winter and the feel of the cool cement in the summer, plus I love how easy they are to keep clean. And there is more light in this house than in my upstate NY Victorian house that had 48 windows! When the wind is howling outside I only hear our wind chimes; there are no squeaky wood sounds. In the stagnant heat of the summer I can open the windows and feel the breeze from the ceiling fans from one end of the house to the other. Our garden is started with a rock wall, climbing roses and hollyhocks. And do we have storage! We have a large attic, many closets, and so much room in our kitchen that I have an empty cupboard. I never dreamed that in working together with Jim and Kathleen that we could create two dreams in one!

Our home is the perfect merging of utility and beauty: it is a beautiful representation of my new husband and me. Only receptive and creative people like Jim and Kathleen could have helped us to create not a just a house but rather an expression of our love. I couldn't be happier!” –Deb Vail and Harry LaBlanc

"no real feeing of separation from outside"

"Our home fits us like a glove. It was designed for us, with our input, by Kathleen Jardine, and from the day we moved in, it has felt like our own personal refuge. There is no real feeling of separation from outside; the large windows and French doors on the south facing side of the house provide a feeling of being connected to the woods around us. The children move naturally in and out, enjoying their easy connection with nature.

Adults have the same reaction when we have parties. Our home has a natural flow that makes it very social, and guests always comment on how relaxed they feel when they visit. The rooms are designed in such a way that there is both a feeling of separation and openness, making it easy for friends to move between rooms at social gatherings, without losing a feeling of connection with people in other spaces. Even in wintertime our home feels airy and light, and our woodstove provides a cozy heat that is very comforting when the weather right outside the window is gloomy and gray. This is a home built to last – and we plan for it to be our home for life." – Kent and Martha Pearson

A warm sculpted house

“When I first heard about AAC houses, I liked the idea of a masonry house that could be sculpted to have soft edges and arches, as well as plaster walls, a stucco finish, and other features common to houses in my parents' native Greece.

What I didn't expect was how toasty my passive solar masonry house would be in winter, how cool in the summer, how solid it would feel, and how quiet. All of these qualities contribute to the wonderful feel of a house whose climate and atmosphere are determined by the interplay of its material and orientation to the sun. It's an organic-feeling house because of masonry [rather than wood] which I believe has created both its coziness and its airiness.

I love my house, and loved working with Kathleen and Jim to build it. It's been a blast to decorate!” – Lou Simopoulos

Texas Style home

Betsy and Michael built a Texas Style home from our custom plans, acting as their own contractors and doing most of the work themselves while both maintaining their businesses.

"Designing a house is certainly a talent. But designing a home for a specific family is something quite different. My husband Michael and I were fortunate to find Sungardenhouses through our search for alternate building materials. Jim and Kathleen proved to be very attentive listeners and intuitive designers; this gave them the ability to capture the essence of the environment of our dreams. We connected on a conceptual level and our home is incredibly perfect for us. Restlessness and a need to be constantly "on the go" have been replaced with the desire to stay in the nurturing comfort of our house and property.

Technically, Jim and Kathleen also had the expertise to incorporate the passive solar and the unique properties of the AAC block into our design to provide us with the low maintenance and energy efficiency we were hoping for.

Jim and Kathleen assisted us in realizing a lifestyle and existence which reflects our very souls." – Gratefully, Betsy Nichols

A house by the sea

"My construction company, Sustainable Living Inc., has plenty of renovation experience. But when it comes to new construction, we enlist the help of a designer. In designing our first new home, a vacation rental in Beaufort, NC, we wanted someone with experience in passive solar design and efficient floor plans who could produce simple plans that would promote a comfortable low maintenance respite for family reunions and renters. Equally important, we want to work with someone that has built their own houses and are conscious of the cost implications of various design decisions.

The Jardine-Cameron design team listened to us and came up with a low cost structure with some great features:

  • The original rectangular block house was saved and incorporated into the house plans as a garage.
  • An open kitchen, dining, living area maximized daylighting, traffic flow and larger gathering potential while still permitting a handicap access ground floor bathroom and bedroom.
  • Five bedrooms with a bonus bedroom/office, three full baths, and two large integrated porches were designed into a mere 2400 square feet of space. This bedroom heavy configuration gave the house a competitive marketing advantage with larger groups without sacrificing common areas.
  • The Italianate derivate exterior looked great with stucco – a maintenance free coating in an otherwise siding challenged salt air environment.
  • The low angle hip roofs were resistant to high winds – occurring with increasing frequency at the beach.
  • High ceilings on the second floor offset the slightly diminished bedroom square footage.
  • Porches that were integrated under the roof structure (in the corners) reduced costs and sheltered users from wind borne rain.
  • A ground floor slab was easy to heat (radiantly), looked great with a low cost blue colored etching and was easy-to-clean and to maintain.

We were successful building the house at very low cost. We have enjoyed repeat rentals by larger groups that could not find what they were looking for elsewhere. We return to a home that looks just the way it did when we left it – clean and without maintenance issues. And throughout our vacation days, the house is swept by light streaming through well-placed windows. We consider our first new build a great success!" –Trip Overholt

comparing a timber frame house with a SunGarden House

Virginia has twice acted as her own contractor in building houses. In this account she compares her first experience of building a conventional timber frame house with building one of our passive solar/AAC Sungarden Houses.

"The positive aspects of timber framed houses are vaulted ceilings with lots of high windows making the great room flooded with light and open space. Unfortunately the very elements that create this beautiful environment are a drawback to comfortable living. Open space is noisy and not private. Bright, open space is very useful for large public gatherings in churches and theatres but for people living together there is no place to go to be alone or quiet. Further the outside focus from the windows is to look up to the heavens but it is not easy to view the ground or see the garden. With a ground level south-facing nearly-fully-glass front wall a few feet from the garden you step into an outside room that is visible from all rooms on the south side of the house. You can have all the light of a timber frame and all the glass but the focus is out and then up, not just primarily a view of the sky. This view of, and easy access to the garden, pond, trees and outdoors can be accessed from rooms with doors and walls and be either private or communal depending on the needs of the homeowner. You can create light and upward sky views with transoms over doors without forfeiting privacy and noise barriers." – Virginia Hill

opening up our world to nature

Norma and Stephen Hawthorne built their house in the co-housing community, Blue Heron.

"Our passive/active solar cottage is a perfect solution to our personal needs and environmental commitment. It is spacious yet compact, warm in winter and cool in summer, yet saves energy. Plus, it is aesthetically beautiful. We have expansive views out of all our rooms – opening up our world to nature. It is a joy for me and Stephen to share our life in this space." –Norma Hawthorne

a sunlight filled cottage

Linda was our first AAC client and did much of the work on her house herself. She is retired, and an inspiration to take on new things for all of the years of our lives.

"What I liked best about the house was the material it was made from. I used a cheese grater to round the edges of the window and door openings and enjoyed the softness of the effect. Since the house was passive solar, the south-facing side was mostly windows. I loved how the sunlight filled that part of the house." –Linda Campany

from wish list to functional layout

Salay house"When my wife and I moved up from Florida to build a new home in North Carolina, we knew what we didn’t want… anything like what we had grown up living in. We wanted a quality built, energy efficient home that was sunny and pleasant throughout the year. After an arduous search of non-conventional building materials and styles, AAC block and a passive solar design surfaced as the logical choice. Fortunately, we discovered Jim and Kathleen through Fine Homebuilding magazine, and it was a blessing that they operated out of the same area where we had just found our ideal building site with generous southern exposure.

Although we had a vision of what we wanted, when it was time to integrate our wish list into a functional layout, Jim and Kathleen’s design talent shined. They listened attentively and were able to package everything into a spacious, practical arrangement that had the exact style and proportions we were hoping for. Their sound advice during the design and building process was comforting for first time homebuilders, like ourselves, helping us to avoid some of the common pitfalls and keeping the budget in perspective.

Our vision of a charming, contemporary-craftsman cottage with the classic lines of a traditional bungalow has progressively become a reality. The solidity of the AAC masonry construction coupled with the subtle and elegant textured surfaces and warmth of the pine trim soothes the eye and soul. A distinct feeling of airiness is captured in the spacious main living area by the abundant windows and lofty ceilings, bringing the outdoors in. During the winter, the roaring fireplace and warm terra cotta colored radiant floors drive off the winter chill. The openness of the living room is offset, as it should be, in the bedrooms – where minimal sizes, wood accents, and soft colors create a sense of coziness and security. Outside, we are eager to finish the porches and patios and populate our southern garden. This should introduce the wonderful scents of nature into our home and complete its outdoor connection, just as it was designed.

Our home charms us and fits our lifestyle perfectly. We take solace in knowing that its genuine integrity and low maintenance will remain intact to charm generations to come." –Jack and Milota Salay

Our custom houseplan for Habitat

“This cutting edge, compact, could be off-grid little piece of heaven is everything and more that I dreamed about.”

Construction of Habitat HouseWe designed this house and our crews helped build it for Habitat in Pittsboro, NC. Tracy Lynn, its owner, writes about her experience in helping to build the house below.

“The very first time I stepped foot in a SunGardenHouses home, I was forever changed. The light that flooded my feet and hands in the height of midday sent a clear message to my inner designer person: you must build a house like this and no other.

Tracy Lynn at homeI look back on that day and bask in the joy of good decision-making. I had been studying the company for some time before I actually joined forces with them. While my house is considerably smaller and more compact than the typical SunGarden home, master artisan, Kathleen Jardine, did not feel impeded by the task of creating the perfect space that my son Tristan and I now happily reside in. I needed something manageable as a solo Mom, student and hard worker. Easy to clean. One story. An intentionally limiting space that forbade unnecessary clutter and meaningless stuff because the goal was, after all, sheer modesty and simple living. I was recovering from losing a business that put me in a financial crunch zone, seriously limiting my choices for a comfortable home. To top it off, my son suffered from a respiratory condition so I wanted to make conscious decisions about contributing to indoor air quality and to choose materials that wouldn’t make things any worse for his growing body.

I approached Habitat for Humanity about my situation and decided to apply for a mortgage through them. They selected me with lightening speed. My credit was excellent and I had the ability to work off some sweat equity. I had always been a supporter of Habitat but I wasn’t entirely sold on their house designs and construction materials. I was studying green building and reached out to the builder community to see who would consult with me to improve the designs that I had to choose from.

I was secretly praying that SunGardenHouses would be in touch. To my astonishment, they were not only the first to respond but quickly drew up a set of plans and donated them to Habitat to use internationally! After months of negotiation, Jim Cameron, Kathleen Jardine, Habitat and I broke ground on a little lot in downtown Pittsboro, NC. Working with hundreds of volunteers to build your house is a rewarding and exhausting experience. Not only do these people have hearts of gold and a lot of energy, working just because they want to help, many also don’t know what they’re doing. This is why they show up to volunteer in the first place: to learn!

Each partner family (like me) is assigned an AmeriCorps crew leader. Typically young and freshly out of college with degrees in Physics and Engineering, they also do not know how to build a house and delegate 20 different chores to a group of strangers. In my case, this was Paul Drake, a fair-skinned, tall, vegan from Indiana. You know that someone with a Physics degree can figure out how to lay out your roof trusses and build a pocket door. What I didn’t know was that Paul possessed the ability to manage projects of any size, communicate with people on a deep level, take diligent notes and follow instructions to the T, learn anything in record time, laugh off mistakes with such grace and sincere apology and build an excellent product on his very first try. Paul probably put in 60 or more hours a week scratching his head and planning out our work days. Under the skilled direction of his superior, Jack Heuer, who was once an AmeriCorps kid himself (and an amazing person in his own right), and a team of committed Habitat staff (mostly powerhouse women who are now my idols) this one-off home of AAC block on a slab with a solar package was born.

I’ll never forget putting in the cedar window sills and recalling the initial reaction to the design that Jim, Kathleen and I proposed to the Habitat board. “We do not build custom homes” they said in unison. I still snicker at that one. It may have gone slightly over budget but it proved the point that affordable housing could be sexy if people would just think outside the box and let passionate people follow their dreams! Plenty of people did. In particular, the retiring segment of Habitat financial partners wanted to see this project take off. They hosted house parties with cocktails and appetizers that I went to, schmoozed, thanked profusely and hugged goodbye. On to the next in support of my cause. I had and still have such enthusiasm for this concept of sustainable, SMART, affordable living that I can barely contain my energy. I made for a good sales tool and I hope that they are happy with their investment. The ROI is pretty much ME, and as I organize the next round of great looking affordable communities I hope they’ll remember how appreciative I am of them for leading me in this direction; putting me in a position that I can manage so that I can pursue my next life’s work in the sustainable energy and building field.

The layout of this house is such that I enter through a magnificent covered porch with a stunning wooden door and can see clear to the other end. The wall separates the Entertainment area from the sitting room and dining area and was an affordable alternative to the classic arches that SunGarden usually designs to transition from room to room. This is my little villa in Tuscany that I visit in summers; the high ceilings, plastered walls and floors made of concrete bring some connection to European lifestyles. My kid plays in the woods and ditches and I can hardly tell that his clay sodden shoes made their way to his bedroom in the middle of the house. It’s plenty private enough for us and entirely spacious at just 1103 square feet. My bedroom is a retreat and takes a little turn at the end of house, making the visitor wonder what’s back there. My mandarin-orange walls and lime green bath are mine, all mine and I wake up to taste those colors every day. You can only get so creative with a rectangle, or so I’ve been told and proved wrong. The massive kitchen faces toward my company and an antique mirror on that wall reminds me that I finally made it here after all this time of waiting.

Jim Cameron is a force to be reckoned with. I wanted to tug on that curly Q mustache of his but I never had the nerve. Jim is a talented craftsman who takes great pride in the quality of his projects but he’s not so serious as to pass up the opportunity to talk about great music or a place he once visited. You will find every detail meticulously thought out, studied and executed with the skill of a fine painter, such as Kathleen is in her other life.

Jim and Kathleen take no chances or accept any less than the best. The subcontractors are SunGarden clones. They are given the mission to go out and perfect the plans for the careful homeowners, who nervously bite at their bank statements and big ideas. They must learn to trust, as I did, and let the workers do their work. In the beginning of the building process there is such anticipation that no good shot of liquor can cure it. It seems the days are twice as long and you are half your age. At mid-point, you stand inside the shell of your walls and look up through the sky for the last time before the roof shelters you from the storms ahead. You imagine the pitter patter of rain on the metal roof but because of the deep insulation, you never really hear it like you thought it sounded in your head. As the rooms take shape and you wonder whether you should have gone for the clay pigment floor instead of copper, you see yourself cooking up a fine dish of pasta and summer vegetables with a glass of wine from the local vineyard. Nearing the end, you wonder where all that energy went. You feel twice your age and it feels like this house project has gone on for years. When you approach Jim and Kathleen about the volunteer no-shows and an overly ambitious completion date, they just smile and assure you that everything is on schedule and the house plans you agreed on are turning out better than expected. Okay, I need some sleep or I need to quit that 3rd part time job I took on to pay for that Bosch dishwasher I just ordered. When people give you their time, and often a lot of unplanned cash expenses out of their pockets, it’s hardly your place to complain. It seemed that every time I reached that outer edge of impatience and frustration, some miracle happened and the skies cleared. Single prop planes were writing “Everything is OK” as I collapsed in the sun on my only day off. We were getting so close to finishing this project I pretended to already be living there, but I actually had to move into this little shack outside of town until we were done. It’s finally time to move in. I am completely fried from working every Saturday for 12 months straight, holding down all of my jobs and trying to be a good Mom, feeling like I failed Tristan this past year. But the trim is bright white and the floor, now sealed, looks like a copper-colored ice skating rink. When I brought in the first box, I parked it in the corner and took in the beauty of the light and length of this house; it seems so much bigger than when it had no walls. I can’t understand how that is so but I do a twirl and my son executes a perfect slide into the kitchen with a good bit of runway. Talk about tears of joy. We embrace and move our stuff carload-by-carload into our new house. The antique furniture seemed so big for this house but it screamed to be here and bring out its Tuscan roots. I looked at the table contrasting with the Adobe-colored walls and it reminded me of the painstaking days of plastering and being cast back into the 16th century as a tradesman. That was a strange day. When I told Jim and Kathleen about it, they smiled like it was some natural occurrence that is typical for these types of homes. I can’t say enough about that element; the house just has that lived-in feel. It’s such an inviting space. Every visitor marvels at how comfortable they are when they come in. Must be those friendly spirits and hovering angels that once possessed my trowel at the end of day eight when I had plaster in my hair and a warm beer outside waiting for me to take a break.

This cutting edge, compact, could be off-grid little piece of heaven is everything and more that I dreamed about. I can study with natural sunlight during the day and enjoy my cool, darker bedroom at night. My son doesn’t need a playroom with a big TV and a pool table. We walk to school, the tennis courts, come in and go out just as if the doors weren’t there. I work mostly from home now and get to enjoy the space in its entirety. The outdoors, so visible from our indoor living space, invites us to join it; it’s only a glass sliding door that separates us from the natural world beyond. Few people have the luxury of fine living as I do. To know that this house will be standing for hundreds of years, outliving the current trends of most building practices, that it was built with local craftsman, retired teachers and people with passion and concern for their community, people that believed in me, that the air we breathe in here was created by our own breath and not as some byproduct of unnatural substances used to build and finish it all of these are to experience a quality of life that every person truly deserves.

Jim and Kathleen are my angels and forever friends as are the people at Habitat that did give in and provided great support to us. We are all in the sustainable building industry together. This journey has confirmed that feeling I first had: that I must build a house just like this. Only this time around, I’ll be building it for someone else to enjoy who has the same vision as I did.” –Tracy Lynn and Tristan

Tracy Lynn and Tristan McInturff live at 57 Thelma Sugg Lane in Pittsboro, NC and invite you for a cup of tea on any sunny day in June.