If you need a lesson in looking on the bright side, consider Peter Burnett. The same day his house, a rehabbed bank barn in Loudon County, Va., burned to the ground, Burnett got on the horn to architect Kevin Ruedisueli, asking him to start rebuilding—tomorrow. The way Burnett saw it, the tragedy was actually a golden opportunity: In bringing his home back from the ashes, he'd smooth out the accumulated wrinkles resulting from decades of piecemeal additions with limited resources.

Like any barn, this one was built to house rambunctious farm animals and heavy loads of feed. The structure is oriented on a north-south axis. Ventilation and rain protection were key; human comfort and optimal sunlight were not. The barn's long walls, exposed to the east and west, were sunbaked in summer and wind-beaten in winter, and it was costing Burnett a fortune in utility bills. While the sun's position and the weather are both non-negotiable, the barn's insulation problem was definitely fixable. Part of the solution lay in using an open-cell spray insulation foam. In addition, a geothermal HVAC system that uses both hot air and radiant heat was installed—a smart choice because of the boost it gets from the ground temperature. Even the residual heat from a wood stove is used to heat the floors via a buffer tank in the heating loop.

But insulation wasn’t this barn’s only issue. Situated on a broad lot that opens west to horse pastures and the Blue Ridge Mountains, its pre-fire iteration didn’t take nearly enough advantage of its surroundings. To let the outside in, Ruedisueli devised an open plan for the house. A shallow porch that fronted a living room got knocked out, becoming a simple wall with two sets of double-hung windows facing east to catch the morning light. Ruedisueli added lots of other windows, too, including six dormers and a cupola.

At 8,500 square feet, the barn is immense and includes guest suites, as well as a volleyball court, woodworking shop, and heated lap pool. Incredibly, the electric bill averages only $235 a month, a substantial drop. "It feels great to be in these larger spaces," says Burnett, who has lived in three other barns before this one. "The trick is to build them so you can stand to pay the light bill."

In rebuilding his house, Burnett put locals back to work, too. "We called it the ‘Piggott Bottom Stimulus Program,'" he quips, referring to the road on which the house is located—and to his insistence on the work being as labor-intensive as possible, when it made sense. "If three guys could dig a trench for the same price as renting an excavator, we did it the old-fashioned way," he says.

Amy Albert is a senior editor at Builder.