Sylvan In The City

A Greensboro woman branches out by building an eco-friendly Airbnb, the area’s top wish-listed space

By Maria Johnson     Photographs by Amy Freeman

 

Though it’s billed as a tree house, The Roost doesn’t qualify in the traditional sense.

It’s not tacked onto, leaning against or held aloft by a tree.

But the second-story apartment — Guilford County’s most wish-listed Airbnb lodging — is indisputably a house of the trees.

First, it’s bracketed on three sides by pines and maples, so guests get a squirrel’s-eye-view of the world.

Second, most of the building materials that Amanda Jane Albert and her crew used come from trees — hence the warm, resin-rich smell that greets you when you walk in.

Then there’s the gnarly tree branch that seems to sprout from one corner of the living room. The branch came from a dogwood that Amanda Jane and friends cut down when they started on the two-story building in 2015.

“We gave it a prominent place inside,” she says of the tree.

Last but not least, there’s a potted ficus happily photosynthesizing in the living area.

So the pad is about as tree-ish as a space can get without inviting woodpeckers and errant kites to take up residence.

The Roost does, however, host humans, lots of them, who book the one bed/one bath, $85-a-night property nearly every weekend and often during the week.

Being Airbnb’s top wish-listed property in a county doesn’t necessarily mean the lodging receives the most bookings, a statistic Airbnb won’t release.

But it does mean Airbnb users have tagged the property as the place they’d most like to stay, should they come to the area, another measureof popularity.

The wanna-stay status squares with what guests have told Amanda Jane.

“People just really appreciate its uniqueness. They’re not surrounded by drywall and paint,” she says.

“They love being up in the trees. They feel like they’re in a retreat, this place for solitude and quiet. And that’s what I wanted it to be . . . a place for relaxation.”

In the beginning, Amanda Jane — a native of Louisiana who moved to North Carolina to build homes for Habitat for Humanity — wasn’t sure what the place would look like. Her then-boyfriend, also a builder, had constructed homes in colder climates.

Together, they wanted to experiment with making an Earth-friendly, energy efficient home suited to Greensboro’s weather, and they wanted to pay for it by listing the space via Airbnb, an online marketplace for hosts who have homes or rooms to rent, typically for short-term stays.

After casting around for a site, her boyfriend said, “Why don’t we build in your yard?”

Amanda Jane’s 1952 home — in a modest neighborhood near State Street in north central Greensboro — was within walking distance of a grocery store, coffee shop, restaurants and other amenities. The Revolution Mill complex will be an easy walk or bicycle trip away once a greenway is built from Elm Street to Yanceyville Street and beyond, as city planners propose. So Amanda Jane’s location was prime.

The building site was another matter.

Her backyard held a one-car garage and attached lean-to.

If she and her crew razed those outbuildings, they could build a one-story apartment on the spot, but the slope would require considerable foundation work.

That’s when Amanda Jane hit on the idea of lofting the structure on stilts. That way, leveling it wouldn’t be such a chore, insulating it from underneath would be easier, and space below the apartment could be used a workshop and storage room.

Amanda Jane drew the plans, literally, with a pencil. Tapping her Habitat experience and her interest in nature — she holds a degree in forestry management and ecology from Texas A&M University — she sketched at least 20 iterations before hitting on a compact, functional and aesthetically pleasing design.

Next, she secured a loan from her mom and recruited friends to help with the project. She also spent hours tracking down building materials that were nontoxic, energy-efficient and environmentally-sustainable.

She ended up with a list of suppliers that included local and overseas businesses.

Her crew started construction in October 2015, and they finished in March 2016.

The result was a 426-square-foot apartment done in a style that could be described as “industrial-cottage” — lots of timber, metal and natural fibers woven together to create a warm and efficient space.

Forethought oozes from every feature.

The exterior is sheathed in cork, which is harvested sustainably, without felling the trees that produce it. The material is naturally insulating and insect resistant.

Inside the apartment, more natural material awaits. The floors are tongue-in-groove pine topped with a nontoxic, whey-based sealant.

The walls are shiplap pine, whitewashed with a plant-based pigment.

The ceilings are unfinished poplar.

The windows and doors, ordered from a German company, are highly efficient with triple panes and all-wood frames.

The space is heated and cooled by an electric split unit, and two HRVs, or heat recovery ventilators, that keep fresh air circulating.

“Because we made such an air-tight building, we needed a fresh-air supply,” says Amanda Jane.

Guests who crave more air can enjoy a covered deck that’s almost as wide as the enclosed space.

“That’s a trick when you have small house,” says Amanda Jane. “With a large outside space, you can double the living space.”

The television show He Shed She Shed, a production of the FYI Network, taped The Roost while it was under construction. The show’s staff donated the stainless steel cable railings that corral the deck. They also contributed some building materials and decorating accessories.

The apartment contains little freestanding furniture — the sofa, shelves, bed and nightstand are built in — but the interior is still visually interesting.

Standouts include the kitchen counter, which is made from old slate roof tiles, complete with nail holes.

Kitchen shelves are planks of salvaged barn wood resting on steel pipes that jut from the walls.

The base cabinets are made from formaldehyde-free plywood manufactured with natural glues and stained with a homemade concoction of vinegar, coffee grounds and tufts of steel wool that oxidized to darken the mixture.

In the living room, a hefty slab of live-edge timber rolls on an iron track to conceal a utility closet.

Amanda Jane created an accent wall by troweling lime plaster over laths, the old-fashioned way.

“Plastering is a lost art,” she says, noting that the lime also absorbs moisture in the air.

In the bathroom, three walls are cloaked with galvanized — and therefore rust-proof — corrugated metal salvaged from Peacehaven Farm in Whitsett.

Perhaps the sweetest touch of recycling is found next to the bed. Amanda Jane clipped a lace remnant to a rope that hangs, like a hammock, inside the window.

“The lace is from my great aunt. It was just lying around. I thought, ‘This is pretty.’ The rope was just lying around, too,” she says.

Amanda Jane has a talent for sniffing out reusable materials, whether in stores, on curbs or in construction-site dumpsters, says her friend Tay Halas.

“You’ll be driving down the road, and she’ll go, “Oh! Look at that!’” says Tay, who helped to frame The Roost.

Amanda Jane says her keen eye is fed by an open mind on the subject of what constitutes a building material.

For three years, she spent several weeks in Utah building straw-bale homes for low-income people. She pulls what she has learned in different climates and cultures into every project.

“I like the problem-solving and creativity of it, of saying, ‘I know I need something to function in this space. Now let’s look in different places to see what might work,’ “ she offers.

She launched her own business, Inhabit Living Solutions, about the time she finished The Roost; the apartment has been a good marketing tool for her skills.

So far, she has completed three projects: two garage adaptations for friends who created Airbnb rentals; and another garage upfit for a couple who moved, with their young child, into the smaller space in order to rent out the property’s main home, which they’d been living in.

Amanda Jane gets building permits for all of her projects like any other builder. She’s had no problem dealing with the city, she says, but she believes local government could do more to encourage affordable housing; reduce sprawl; help families accommodate loved ones; and create new income streams for people.

Updating codes on accessory dwelling units, or ADUs, in residential areas would be a good start, she says.

“I know there’s flexibility within Greensboro’s vision, but I don’t think anyone has advocated strongly for it.”

She points to cities like Portland, Oregon, where government encourages denser development to take advantage of existing city services.

“You gotta use what you got,” she says.

The total cost of The Roost was $65,000, slightly more than it would have been with conventional building methods, Amanda Jane says, but the payback has been a steady stream of Airbnb customers who’ve rated the property 4.99 out of five stars. The monthly income covers utilities for both the apartment and Amanda Jane’s home, as well as the loan repayment to her mother — all while stepping lightly on the planet.

“I do see it as a good investment,” Amanda Jane says.  OH

Maria Johnson is a contributing editor of O.Henry. She can be reached at mailto:ohenrymaria@gmail.com”

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