Sets a High Bar for Sustainable Architecture

The company founder talks to Treehugger about new build passive houses, repurposed mills, and sustainability.

Saxapahaw River Mill
Adaptive reuse renovation project on textile mill building in Saxapahaw, North Carolina to create a pub, restaurant, brewery, private residence and condominiums in collaboration with Clearscapes Architects.

If you drive through the tiny old mill town of Saxapahaw, North Carolina, you’d be forgiven for thinking there’s a gas station, an old cotton mill, and not much else. But take a closer look and there’s a dramatic repurposing of old industrial buildings that have now been turned into homes, a music venue, local food stores, an environmentally-focused school, and a brewery. There is also a “five-star gas station” serving both fresh, local products and still hawking cigarettes and candy bars to folks not interested in fresh fare.

The village made the pages of the New York Times a few years back, and it’s one of my favorite places to hang out in the Triangle region of North Carolina. So I was excited when I stumbled across the website of, the folks responsible for much of the architecture. 

I reached out to Will Alphin, the founder of the company. He explained the Saxapahaw projects demonstrate two key principles of his company’s approach. 

First, while Alphin’s architecture is grounded in the idea of sustainability, he has no interest in building super-green buildings on virgin, clear-cut land in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the company will not take on projects unless it is in existing neighborhoods or a renovation of an existing structure. 

Second, Alphin shared that the goal with has always been to develop a visual language around sustainability — that buildings should look beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, but fundamentally different because they are greener. In other words, the function should inform the form.

“Part of our mission is to make sure that sustainable architecture has meaning and architectural language. People see a red car and they think it looks fast. They see a Rolls Royce and think it looks stately," Alphin tells Treehugger. "And these assumptions are purely based on the physical form and associations they have. Architecture is the same way: The reason so many of our public buildings use the architectural language of the Greco-roman era is because we associate that with democracy and longevity." 

He adds: "I want to create a design language around sustainability. We need to acknowledge that things have changed. We have a new understanding of our own impact on the planet and we need a new normal.”

Alphin says the renovations in Saxapahaw were deliberately designed so it honors the past functions of these buildings. But still, viewers can follow where and how the building has been changed to fit its current purpose. And you can also see exactly where systems have been put in place to improve environmental performance.

“When you walk up to the building, you can see the solar panels on the roof. And you can see the solar pre-heat system on the brewery, which consists of these four big water tanks," says Alphin. "It was really important for us to express those. Let’s see them. They look like giant battery packs, which is exactly what they are!”

Saxapahaw River Mill
Saxapahaw River Mill in North Carolina.

These approaches are equally evident in Alphin’s new build work too — especially with one early project being affectionately nicknamed the “treehugger” house. Even though the building was on an urban infill lot, they wanted to make sure to maintain as much of the existing tree cover as possible. So the house was literally designed to wrap around and showcase an old oak they were working hard to preserve. 

Treehugger house
The plans for the "treehugger" house.

But siting wasn’t everything. The goal, Alphin says, is to design sustainability features in a way so the building actively showcases and celebrates those features. In the case of the treehugger house, for example, the butterfly roof is designed to capture rainwater and channel it into a beautiful cistern that is a centerpiece of the rooftop deck. One half of the roof slopes up higher than the other, for optimizing the angle of the PV panels, again sending signals that this is no ordinary building. 

Of course, visual languages and prominent sustainability features don’t mean much if a building doesn’t perform well. But here too, has a strong focus on getting the basics right — meaning tight envelopes and generous insulation. That’s most obvious in the company’s recent projects to build four homes near Raleigh’s North Carolina State University, which will be a few of the first in the U.S. Southeast to be built to International Passive House standards. 

Given that passive houses are becoming increasingly common up North, I asked Alphin why the concept has yet to take off in the South to the same degree. He pointed to the historic nature of how buildings were constructed. After all, culturally speaking, there is a long tradition of insulation and tight envelopes in the North. That’s not the case in the South where, until the invention of air conditioning, a tight envelope was almost the opposite of what you wanted. 

Nevertheless, Alphin was adamant the concept translates to the Southeast also. And while dehumidification does pose some challenges, these challenges are not insurmountable. 

“The Southeast is a humid climate, and normal dehumidification isn’t adequate in a passive house so we have to add dehumidification. The good news, though, is that humid climates are often sunny climates and with the correct passive solar shading, you may not need to run your heat at all in the winter," says Alphin. "And a high-performance envelope works just as well for keeping cool, dry air in as it does for keeping warm, wet air out. So with a very small amount of solar, you can keep the home cool and comfortable in a net zero or net positive situation. The Tower passive house uses less than 1 ton of cooling, and a mere 7KW of PV solar, plus one Tesla power wall for storage operates the whole house and charges an electric car too.”

While my conversation with Alphin ranged across a lot of fascinating building technologies and approaches, he kept coming back to one thing: Buildings as a part of a larger and more complex ecosystem.

“At scale, achieving density is more important than the energy a single building consumes. There are so many neighborhoods with amazing, existing homes, and many of these neighborhoods are underused or under-invested in," says Alphin. "The embodied energy of a single structure has value, but the embodied energy of a neighborhood has exponential value — all the infrastructure (roads, utilities, transit) and surrounding places to work and shop, etc. So we need to find ways to preserve and enhance the existing communities in which we live, especially those close to the centers of our cities – that is the most sustainable move we can make."

He notes: "Our company has always had a mission to do green work and sustainable work and we love doing new buildings. But we also welcome a client with an expansion or an addition or a remodel because we know we are expanding the lifespan of that house, and the lifespan of that community.” 

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