Lodging Inspiration: Arbor House, an Environmental Inn

Lodging Inspiration: Arbor House, an Environmental Inn

Therese Maring
Jun 2, 2010

Name: Arbor House
Owners: John and Cathie Imes
Location: Madison, Wisconsin
Years lived in: 16

The overwhelming feeling when you walk into the great room in the Arbor House is one of peacefulness. Light streams in the two-story windows. Breakfast tables overlook a lush arboretum. Comfy seats gather around a stone fireplace, and graceful timber-frame construction provides a cathedral-like architecture. You wouldn't know the fireplace is made of recycled stone, the timbers are made of reclaimed lumber, and the open staircase is built of wood sustainably harvested by the Menominee Indian Tribe.

That's part of the philosophy at the inn, located in Madison, Wisconsin. "We don't preach," says Cathie Imes, who has owned Arbor House with her husband John since 1994. "Guests don't always know what's green and what's not. They may not know we also use fair-trade and organic coffee and that their juice is served in green glassware made in Wisconsin. It's just the way we do things."

The Arbor House is a model for sustainable tourism. The two-part structure consists of a restored 1800s tavern and stagecoach stop connected by an arbor to a modern, sustainably designed annex. The historic structure has its original wood floors and stone fireplace. While preserving the beauty of the original building, "every time we need to replace something, we do it in a green way," says Cathie.

The annex holds a national award for infill development. When the addition was built, John and Cathie managed to save all the existing trees and bushes in their small urban space. They added gardens, fruit trees, and a walking path.

Even if it's through osmosis, guests can't help but learn about green living during their stay. A Resource Center provides bikes for rides in the arboretum—plus information on green building and environmental concerns. (It helps that John is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Environmental Initiative.) But the transfer of information goes both ways, says Cathie.

One day Cathie was using lint from a clothes dryer as kindling in one of the fireplaces. An interested guest loved the idea and suggested a way Cathie could make the process easier: stuff the lint into cardboard paper towel tubes before placing them in the fireplace. Says Cathie, "We both learned something!"

Re-Nest Survey:

My/Our style: Simple, clean lines

Inspiration: We were inspired in part by home-building trends that were happening in California and by a travel property in Saratoga Springs, New York, that had a main historic house and an annex.

Favorite Element: The staircase in the great room. It makes the room a "wow" space; metal and sustainably harvested wood dance together to make a great design.

Biggest Challenge: Putting on a shingle shake roof in the winter during a recession

What Friends Say: "When is the next party?"

Proudest DIY: The gardens. Where there used to be just weeds, we have butterfly, prairie, and herb gardens; a pond; fruit trees; walking paths, and a tree sculpture. And we did it ourselves. We even had a tree-planting party.

Biggest Indulgence: The sauna and sunroom, but it's a must-have with Wisconsin winters

Best Advice: If you're thinking about making green changes to your home, spend some time sitting in your backyard just thinking about the space.

Green Elements/Initiatives:

  • Annex is made of Faswall construction. Faswall wall forms are made from recycled wood fiber, usually from used pallets.
  • Energy-efficient appliances and lighting
  • FSC and recycled woods
  • High-efficiency hot-water heaters and radiant in-floor heating systems that are 95 percent energy efficient
  • Tile made from recycled glass
  • Salvaged stained-glass windows
  • Formaldehyde-free insulation
  • Low-toxic caulk and finishes and AFM Safecoat paints
  • Triple-glazed, high efficiency, low-E windows
  • Use of natural, non-toxic and biodegradable cleaners
  • Organic or natural unbleached cotton linens and fabrics
  • EMF circuit design that reduces exposure to electromagnetic fields

Favorite Green Element: The timber frame in the annex, which is made of 100-year-old recycled Douglas fir.


Inn website: Arbor House

Landscaping: University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum's native plant sale, Jung Garden Center, Johannsen's Greenhouse

Appliances: Sears and Brothers Main. Sears has a great selection of Energy Star products.

Glassware: The Green Glass Company makes glassware from recycled bottles.

Hardware: Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware

Furniture: We have a lot of pieces passed down from within the family. Indocara, Satara, and Century House also have eco furnishings.

Tiles and Stone: Butler Tile; Terra Classic by Terra Green Ceramics; the pear tree tile in the guest kitchen is by artist Birgit Bach

Beds: We use Vivetique organic cotton and wool mattresses in the inn; we also sell them.

Paint: Our inn was painted by Eco Painting in Madison, a company that uses only earth friendly paints and stains.

Flooring: Eco-Friendly Flooring and Glenville Timberwrights

(Thanks, Cathie and John!)

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(Images: Therese Maring)

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