By Jonna Rae Bartges
Bobby McHugh’s personality is just like the houses he designs and builds – open concept.
From the prayer flags he picked up on a recent volunteer trip to Nepal; to the autographed picture in his music room of him posing with Grateful Dead bass guitarist Phillip Lesh; to his 2011 Green Building Council Project of the Year award for designing and building his home (the first straw house in McDowell County); to the cottage community he’s designing on an acre of land by Asheville’s New Belgium brewery in the River Arts District – Bobby pretty much defies what conventional wisdom decrees a “general contractor” should be.
“I felt I had to get away from D.C. in order to be me,” Bobby recalled. His self-discovery quest landed him on Bainbridge Island in Washington State. For four years, his creative side was nourished by the picturesque location and unconventional artistic community in the area. He was particularly captivated by the stately homes lining Puget Sound, and framed by the Olympic Mountains.
“At the time I was trying to live as an artist and accepted commissions to paint watercolor portraits of people’s houses,” Bobby said. “They were really fun to do and I was naturally good at it, but couldn’t live on a trickle of $400 paintings.”
Ever the visionary, Bobby started wondering if he could design and build his own kind of house. He began connecting with people in the trades, and learned how to create homes using radical materials like straw bales.
Fate led Bobby to Chapel Hill in 1998, and two years later he followed his heart to Asheville. The rugged mountain landscape and great music scene keep him inspired.
A House of Straw
Bobby actually discovered the five-acre site where he ended up building his award-winning straw house while he was working as a carpenter’s apprentice in Black Mountain.
“I would come up here to eat lunch,” Bobby said. “I felt an immediate connection to this land.” He began to sketch ideas for the type of home he wanted to build on the site, and by 2003, had purchased the land and initiated construction.
While you don’t have to be an architect to design a house, Bobby explained, he did need to enlist an engineer to assist with some of the nuts and bolts of building a passive solar straw home with 50% recycled materials. “My plans had to be very exact, and needed the approval of an engineer. Being the first of anything is more difficult, and this was the first time anyone attempted to build a straw house in McDowell County.”
Bobby’s design sprang to life on the sloping wedge of forested land. The two-story, 1,350-square-foot home boasts a radiant-heat floor covered with a free-form granite mosaic created from recycled granite scrap. The water flowing under the granite is heated by solar hot water tubes on the roof. An open, airy main living space is punctuated with a spiral staircase winding to the second story bedroom, office and music room, where Bobby jams with friends on his guitars, mandolins, fiddles and drums. More reclaimed granite and tile mosaic designs embellish the bathroom tub and shower enclosures, and whimsical touches throughout the home are testimony to Bobby’s creative and environmentally responsible vision.
The wooden trim at the top of each door frame incorporates an artistic twist – the uppermost “live edge” of one is carved into a stand of trees; a mountain range decorates another. Stunning stained glass panels bring 50 shades of blue into a room.
Painstakingly crafting the glass is yet another talent Bobby honed through designing, building and selling six homes in six years.
Bobby cut out a trio of niches in the wall above a cobalt-blue armoire – which he also built – with an electric chainsaw. “You wouldn’t want to use a gas powered chainsaw with straw walls,” Bobby laughed. Then he paused in the music room to do a quick “Endless Summer” guitar riff on one of the many instruments lining the walls.
The only giveaway that the solid, stucco-walled cozy home has a heart of straw is a small, eye-level door in a living room wall. “It’s the truth window,” Bobby explained. He opened it, exposing a twine-wrapped bale. Yep – definitely straw.
Like Father, Like Daughter
Five-year-old daughter Zofia’s room is an explosion of colors, toys, and good energy. A telescope, primed for the upcoming solar eclipse, perched in a corner. The room opens onto a screened-in sleeping porch, and the walls feature an ever-changing art gallery.
One of Bobby’s favorite entries in the gallery is a two-part project spanning two millennia. The first image is a child’s tentative crayoning depicting two policemen responding to a forest fire by boat. Bobby created it when he was five, and won an honorable mention for the effort. Right next to it is a bolder, more colorful version of the exact same scene – recreated by Zofia.
While he’s starting to add an outdoor kitchen, solar and wood heated hot tub and water purification fountain to his award-winning showpiece of a home, Bobby’s working on several other new projects. He’s designing an environmentally conscious community on a one-acre parcel of land a quarter mile from the future site of the New Belgium brewery in Asheville’s River District.
“I bought the land last fall, and I’m designing seven cottage-style houses,” Bobby said. Each passive solar single-family home will be between 1200-1300 square feet, with active solar hot water, radiant floor heating, and lots of custom finishes. The basic model will feature three bedrooms and 2.5 bathrooms in a space-efficient 20 x 20 foot footprint. Each 3-story home will have a rooftop deck overlooking the city and the French Broad River, and will be priced under $200,000.
Designing amenity-rich living in a green, affordable home is the framework of Bobby’s business, McHugh Design. “I don’t want to just build a $750,000 house,” he said. “I want to build great green homes my friends can buy.”
Bobby’s plans for the cozy community include a playing field, a storage building with secure space for the residents, a yoga patio, hot tub, croquet lawn, permaculture plantings and an organic garden. “New Belgium is expected to create 130 new jobs,” Bobby said, “and people will be able to walk or bike to work from the community I’m designing.”
Another recent project was very much to Bobby’s taste – quite literally. He designed and built the commercial space for Looking Glass Creamery in Fairview to sell their artisan handmade goat cheese. Bobby also refurbished their barn.
“Along with planning the cottage development and client design work, I have volunteered time at the Dr. John Wilson Community Garden in Black Mountain,” Bobby said. “I designed and constructed an arbor and bench with views of the Seven Sisters Range, and the gardens. I love small projects where I can be free to be artistic at every turn.” The structure includes concrete and tile work, recycled and local lumber, and a compass for those who need their bearings. The arbor should be completed this month.
Building The Future
With an eye to the future, Bobby wants to connect with the design community to create the next generation of farm buildings.
“Since there are so many small farmers around here who need small buildings,” Bobby said, “I’d like to help determine specific needs, have the design community work on it, and come together as a community to build the modern next generation of rural buildings. We’d use energy efficient design and sustainable resources to create farm stands, livestock buildings, maybe systems for capturing rainwater.
He challenges young women and men considering a career in design and construction to jump in, exercise their creativity, and take responsibility.
“Learn as much as you can so one day you can do it your way for yourself,” Bobby advised. “There’s a lot to learn about how a house gets built and what makes it work, but keep on the edge of pushing your own good ideas.
“Innovation is going to change the building industry more and more. I really don’t like the way we build houses in this country, but saddled with the economics of affordability we create houses that use too much wood and tend to be too large to be efficient or sustainable. Take on the challenge of coming up with the next solution. It will keep you excited, and we need your new way of tackling existing challenges.”
“Also, find a mentor. I see my mentor maybe twice a year, but always get a charge out of our conversations and am comforted by his experience and wisdom.”
Building Global Goodwill
Last September, Bobby embarked on another worthy project that needed his unique talents. Feeling the itch to travel to an exotic new place, he decided on Nepal. “I learned about a foundation In Katmandu dedicated to natural building, sustainable agriculture, and social responsibility,” Bobby said. “I spent the most inspiring two weeks volunteering to build an orphanage at the foundation. I have kept in contact with them and have been made a member of the family. I am helping design the new village center that will house underprivileged families as well as visiting eco-tourists.”
Bobby was particularly moved by the buoyant spirit and genuine compassion of the people of Katmandu. “You almost feel spiritually washed when you’re there,” Bobby said. “People are very tuned in and aware. There is so much mutual respect and appreciation, and the whole country is built on the idea of brother helping brother. I definitely want to go back and charge myself up. It’s Namaste all day! Too frequently I feel we just don’t have the spiritual common ground in this country to help us bounce off each other and get along.”
While Nepal has a special pull for him, Bobby has other international projects in mind, too.
“My next focus may be going to Haiti to help build houses with my mom for an organization she sponsors.”
While his globetrotting goodwill is personally enriching for Bobby, he also sees it as an opportunity to plug Zofia into worldwide opportunities to learn and grow. “Being a single dad, it’s hard to be away from my daughter for a month, or to take her with me. When she’s older we’ll definitely travel together. I’m working to give her a world view, and let her know there are no limits to what she can be.”
The “no limits” message appears to be getting through. “When I recently asked Zofia what she wanted to be when she grew up,” Bobby said, “she immediately responded with, ‘I want to be a doctor, a farmer, a homebuilder and a teacher.’ I told her, ‘Great! We’ll just send you to med school, and you can cover the rest!’”
With her visionary dad’s enthusiastic support, there’s little doubt she will.
You can learn more about Bobby McHugh of McHugh Designs by visiting his website, or by calling 828-712-8451.
Author, psychic and Emmy-winner Jonna Rae Bartges is a frequent contributor to WNC Woman. She’s offering two workshops at Mission Hospital’s Integrated Health and Wellness Center next month — “Pursuing Happiness: Finding Your Life Purpose” July 12, and “Practical Spirituality 101” July 27 and 28. Find out more at JonnaRae.com.