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Everything old is new again

Sustainable design mixes past and present

by Debby Gomulka



As the area’s downtowns and historic districts come alive, there is a renewed interest in restoring historical sites, once beautiful places that had become neglected over time. As people become more aware of their environment and surroundings, sustainable design has played an increasingly important role in how they live.


Homeowners desire a well-lived life, a place to escape daily pressures. They want a home that defines their space and reflects who they are, and the materials in it provide the vehicle that defines each home’s character. Many times, these materials convey a sense of alluring luxury that has endured and been refined over time.


Similarly, sustainable materials provide a canvas for the well-lived life. They speak to elegance and savvy, and all the wonderful activities that take place within a homeowner’s retreat.


Whether restoring a historic home in the city or bringing a plantation home back to life near the coast, the same green principles apply. Researching and discovering sustainable products and materials truly can define a space and give a home its character, while providing an aesthetic focal point of the design.


Reclaimed wood

There are many sustainable products available throughout the region that can be used to create a charming and stunning interior. For example, Cape Fear riverwood — a heart pine culled from the bottom of the Cape Fear River — is ideal for homeowners looking for high-quality flooring with a history.


Along with cypress trees, heart pine logs sank to the bottom of the river as a result of forest harvesting during the 1700s and 1800s. Logs that had too much resin or became waterlogged sank when they fell off barges or as they were being floated downriver to mills. These sunken and sediment-covered logs — typically between 300 and 700 years old — feature a unique greenish cast, a result of the dark tannins in the river. Their hue — as well as the incredibly tight grain of the wood and the age and rarity of the logs — are what make heart pine so popular.


While riverwood typically is used for flooring, homeowners have had mantels, outdoor benches and kitchen countertops crafted out of it as well. Having it fabricated to meet each homeowner’s specifications is a special process that includes the designer and contractor, who can customize the desired look and finish.


Lancaster, S.C., is home to another ideal spot for renewable wood. There, heart pine wood is being reclaimed from what once was the world’s oldest cotton mill. The “million-dollar mill,” as it’s known, is coming down the same way it went up in 1892 — piece by piece — and the mill’s remnants will live on in homes throughout the world.


Its 25-foot-long, antique longleaf heart pine timbers make wonderful architectural posts in a modern or historic home. Found in their raw state, the posts are cleaned up and cut down to fit to the specified size for their application. Once completed, these reclaimed materials allow a creative space to come to life and become the heart of the home.


Create with copper

Copper is another sustainable product that can be used to create a dynamic interior design. Found in nature, the beautiful luster and striking hue of copper can be used to highlight kitchens, living rooms, and bathrooms.


For the homeowner who wants something different, a copper backsplash in the kitchen creates a gorgeous contrast to granite countertops. Copper also adds a wonderful organic element to a home’s interior.


Working with copper involves many steps that a designer can help homeowners navigate. After the design concept is finalized, the homeowner, designer and copper artisan work together to achieve the finished product. The copper artisan then applies a solution to the cooper that causes it to age, giving it a wonderful patina that can be made lighter or darker, depending upon a homeowner’s needs.


Above all, these and other sustainable products allow savvy homeowners and designers to work together to create a highly customized space that is both unique and functional. 


Debby Gomulka is president of Debby Gomulka Designs, a full-service interior design and decorating firm serving the Triangle and Wilmington areas. To learn more, call (919) 394-4997 or visit