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How One Couple Built a Sustainable, Budget-Friendly Home

How do you build an eco-friendly dream home on a budget? Just ask Ross Smith and Anna Welton, who checked both those boxes (and then some) to create a well-rounded home perfect for their growing family.

couple standing on arched entryway surrounded by plants

The ups and downs that come with building your own home can strain even the strongest relationships. But what does it take to keep the peace when the couple involved are not only the homeowners but also the architect, contractor, and lead designer (him) and the client (her)? Last year, when Ross Smith and his wife, Anna Welton, built their Asheville, North Carolina, dream home from the ground up, the answer was negotiation—and a whole lot of it.

“All the things that seemed like challenges wound up being the most exciting parts of the house.”

—Ross Smith

“When we began, Anna had a few must-haves—like an atrium for plants—that felt a little like obstacles,” admits Ross. As the principal behind Assembly Architecture & Build, a local design and build firm with a focus on green design, he took a more pragmatic approach. “My main goal was making a house that would be efficient and work for us,” he says. “But when Anna and I pushed through to find solutions, all the things that seemed like challenges wound up being the most exciting parts of the house.” And Anna would have to agree. “We have pretty different styles, and we’re both opinionated,” she says. “But working together ended up being fun!”

“We have pretty different styles, and we’re both opinionated. But working together ended up being fun!”

—Anna Welton

Take that atrium, for instance: Rather than relegating it to a corner where it wouldn’t get much traffic, Ross realized that sitting it at the center of the house would be bolder—and solve some practical issues, to boot. “We live on a lot facing a pretty busy street,” Ross says. “Putting the atrium at the core of the house lets light stream into an area that could have been gloomy—but it still gives us plenty of privacy.” Aside from its clever central placement, the atrium had some other design inspirations behind it: Anna, who works as the director of international and intercultural opportunities at local Warren Wilson College, fell in love with the interior courtyards and tile work from her time spent in Spain, so she wanted to incorporate both into the new home. “We also had a growing family of plants, and I wanted a beautiful interior space with a boho vibe and tile floor that we could pack our plants into,” she says.

dog sunbathing in atrium
The couple’s dog, Boone, catches some rays in the atrium.

“We had a pretty tight budget, but it actually made us think more creatively.”

—Ross Smith

Turns out, the design has some big eco-friendly benefits, too. In the summer, the couple opens the skylights at the top of the atrium, which draws cool air into the house from the basement and pushes hot air out and up—essentially creating a passive air-conditioning system. “It was an idea I had read about, but I was skeptical whether it would work,” Ross says. “But it does!”

It all works, from the romantic interior archways and playful porthole windows to the cozy sunken living room with an ultraefficient Danish cast-iron stove. Ross and Anna’s collaborative designs manage to combine both a lighthearted Scandi vibe with lots of functional sustainable cred. Many of their choices weren’t just earth-friendly—they were wallet-friendly, too. “We had a pretty tight budget,” says Ross. “But it made us think more creatively.”

“I love waking up in our bedroom. You almost feel lifted up by the light and the soaring ceiling in the morning.”

—Anna Welton

Case in point: the exterior of the house. While Ross would have loved to clad the entire facade in cedar, that would have broken the bank fast. Instead, he and Anna went with local white pine—a sustainable resource—and treated it with LifeTime, a nontoxic stain that will mimic the weathered effect of cedar as the wood ages.

exterior shot of wooden paneled home with geometric design
A mix of circular windows and rectangular transoms softens the angular lines of the facade.

That’s not the only way they’ve planned for the future: The couple is expecting their first child this summer. “We built two nooks in our bedroom,” Ross explains with a laugh. “One for our dog and one for our baby. So now we have one for each of our miniature loved ones!”

By Sarah Karnasiewicz | Photographs by Sadie Culberson

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