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In addition to efficiency, adaptability was high on Wilson's priority list when he conceived the project. He specified that the homes' interiors should be modern but generic enough to allow for personalization.

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Green Pioneer

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Page Wilson had worked as a soybean and rice farmer in Arkansas for 28 years when he decided it was time for a career change. Inspired by the shapes and functionality of the buildings on his farm - and seeing a need for environmentally conscious housing in the area - Wilson migrated 30 miles west of his farm in Lonoke, Ark., to Little Rock, and began to make plans.

Arkansas builders have flirted with green building in the past: there are some solar homes here, a few with geothermal loops there. Recent construction of the LEED-certified Clinton Presidential Library and Heifer International Headquarters caught national media attention, but the innovative buildings failed to inspire local home design. Wilson, who had been building energy-efficient dogtrots on his land for years, saw how his unusual experience could influence local building, and got to work.

Four years later, Wilson has started his own company, Paul Page Dwellings, and the Rock 3 Project is under way. Situated on several empty lots in Little Rock's downtown Soma district, the Rock 3 Project, when completed, will be an enclave of modern homes and townhomes in close proximity to the city's historic MacArthur Park and Arkansas Arts Center, as well as restaurants and shopping. The idea is to bring urban infill - an idea that's new to the city but catching on - to an area long neglected by developers and officials.

Homes for Pioneers

The three different spec homes and row of townhomes that comprise Rock 3 often attract stares and questions from confused neighbors: "Is this a store?" several people have asked Wilson while passing the construction site. The square homes, a contemporary take on the two-bedroom, two-bath bungalow, were designed with cutting-edge and low-tech green materials, and have their own personality, thanks to Wilson's past career.

Based on country dogtrot designs, the homes are, according to Wilson, "Modern designs with a southeastern Arkansas agrarian vernacular. I farmed for 28 years, and all the influences of the buildings I have built are based on my observations of living in eastern Arkansas," he says. "So a lot of what I like and what the architects and Paul Page Dwellings are doing is interpreting in a contemporary sense those things that come from eastern Arkansas."

His vision was brought to life by architect Rick Redden, who, with the help of associates such as Maury Mitchell and Morgan Manning, designed the dwellings for a new type of resident. "We asked ourselves, "What type of people are we trying to attract?'" Redden says. "The answer was "pioneers.' We want to pioneer a new type of neighborhood downtown. If you're trying to attract pioneers, the architecture needs to be bold."

So, with the inspiration of "raw urbanism," Redden and Wilson designed the homes using "architecture based on what goes on inside the house."

Sustainable Housing

It was important to Wilson that these homes fill a permanent need for sustainable, practical housing in the area, but it was also important that he build the houses in the Rock 3 Project as spec homes.

"Until now, environmentally efficient or forward-thinking homes have been available only to the wealthy people who are able to build them," Wilson says, noting that his homes were designed and built for average homeowners.

The three homes share a vision but vary in design. One-storied 1520 Rock Street features two bedrooms on one side of the home and a living room and office on the other, with the kitchen and a common area in the middle. The common area opens onto a large enclosed patio for outdoor living.

In the second house, also a one-story structure, the bedrooms are located on opposite sides of the house with the common space in between. "This style would work well for two roommates sharing a house," Redden explains. Instead of an outdoor patio area, the home has a screened-in porch.

All three of the spec homes are 1,200 to 1,400 square feet in size, and are therefore environmentally efficient from the base up. A smaller house - and yes, these houses are considered meager in Little Rock, where the McMansion means status - equates into less space to heat, cool and maintain. "Plus, they're green just in the fact that I'm not using up all these square feet of lumber," Wilson says. "I wanted these houses to be green but low-tech green - user-friendly green."

He and Redden made simple changes to the normal homebuilding routine to keep the homes' energy requirements - and therefore, the future owners' energy bills - low. They started with each house's site orientation. For instance, at 1520 Rock, instead of placing the house in the middle of the lot and turning it toward the street, as is typical in modern home construction, they oriented the home so it aligns with the sun. In the summer, strategically placed trees will shade the large outdoor living space, keeping it cool and comfortable. In the winter, after the leaves have fallen off the trees, the sun's rays will help warm the home during the day.

Efficient Building Techniques

Some of the building techniques Wilson and Redden utilized to make their homes efficient can be copied by any homeowner trying to lower energy bills - as long as the homeowner has access to a good home improvement store, Wilson says.

For instance, he bought such products as compact fluorescent light bulbs and low-VOC (volatile organic compounds) paints, primers and stains at local hardware stores. In addition, says Wilson, "Using low-e glass throughout the home is a big component. It lets in the light but not the heat, and protects the carpeting and your furniture from getting faded."

In one of the homes, Wilson installed a Marathon electric hot water heater, one of the most durable and efficient tank water heaters available today. Similarly, all the appliances he chose for the kitchen are Energy Star rated.

European showerheads and dual- or low-flush toilets keep water consumption low, while one inch of foam between the roof and the ceiling - and 14 inches of insulation - ensure that no air leaks in or out, and that the rain against the Galvalume roof isn't deafening.

Galvalume is a metal roofing material with an aluminum and zinc coating, which provides better reflection of the sun's rays to keep a home cooler. Wilson actually oriented one of the homes so that its Galvalume roof reflects the sun's rays to another home to provide extra light and heat.

All those features add up, money-wise, but Wilson was still able to price the homes in the mid-$200,000s - a range, he hopes, that proves attractive and affordable for young professionals and other open-minded homebuyers. At the very least, the urban building project will make efficient, environmentally conscious homes available to a wider range of buyers.

Adaptable Homes

In addition to efficiency, adaptability was high on Wilson's priority list when he conceived the project. He specified that the homes' interiors should be modern but generic enough to allow for personalization.

Concrete floors throughout the homes, for example, will help cool them during the scorching Arkansas summer, but also can be hidden beneath bamboo hardwood flooring or interface carpeting if the homeowner so desires. In one home, a generic IKEA kitchen keeps the look contemporary while allowing for future individualization. Wilson refrained from installing geothermal loops or solar power to keep the homes' prices from skyrocketing, but he could install them at a buyer's request.

Outside, basic landscaping will make the homes look nice but allow for the owners to create the landscape design. "I think [the homeowners should be able to] develop the lot to what they like," Wilson says of the homes' future residents. "And that's what we're giving them the option to do. They will be the owners, the stakeholders in the community - they should help create the neighborhood for these houses."

Those who love nature will surely respond to Wilson's celebration of the outdoors. In the house at 1520 Rock Street, floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room bring in natural light, while a sizable patio encourages outdoor living. The scored concrete inside flows seamlessly into the patio, accentuating the idea that the living room and patio can be one in the same.

In addition, the patio area is enclosed by a wall so the homeowners can truly use the space like a room. "In an urban environment, you have to have a little bit of privacy," Wilson explains. "You want to keep some distance but still be connected to the neighborhood." To give the patio some added character, Wilson says its polycarbonate awning will glow at night.

Sustainable Urbanism

It's for this idea of connection and community that the Rock 3 Project really deserves praise. By linking the homes with the park, shopping, a nearby arts center and restaurants, Wilson has introduced sustainable urbanism to Little Rock. He will build sidewalks and lampposts to encourage walking and a sense of community, and has equipped the homes with bike hatches to encourage low-emissions forms of transportation.

Despite the radical look of his homes, Wilson has embraced traditional neighborhood values. "This project is anti-sprawl," he says.

The Rock 3 Project also strives to help the Soma district, one perennially overlooked by city planners, form an identity. Sandwiched between the historic Victorian mansions of Little Rock's Quapaw Quarter and the high-rise buildings of downtown, Soma, short for "South Main," seems at times to be a confusing mix of the neighboring influences. Wilson hopes Rock 3 will help bring unity - and attract a diverse, young, professional crowd of residents - to the area.

"The architecture has a certain attitude that I think we're trying to establish here," Redden says. "We're trying to get some momentum to help this become a real, legitimate neighborhood."

It hasn't been all roses, though. "There was some resistance from the neighborhood organization because they felt the homes should look exactly like what is already there," Redden explains. "Luckily, we were able to convince them that it's important for the architecture to have a real different flavor to it." After months of compromise and a few building material changes, Wilson was given permission to build the homes.

Also giving Wilson a headache were his construction workers: None were familiar with the green materials Wilson had chosen to build the homes. Those problems made his road to completion a lengthy one.

But Wilson is proud of the result. "These homes are a throwback to when simplicity and practicality were the main components of a home design," he says happily. The idea may be old, but the application in this place and time is wonderfully innovative.

Danielle Del Sol is a business and real estate writer based in Little Rock, Ark.

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