WINDERMERE, Fla.--The past year of Sara Dawson’s life reads like the Book of Job.

First there was the separation from her husband pending divorce. Next came the fire last May that burned down the house that she was preparing to move into, destroying all the sentimental possessions she had already stored there.

That was followed by an arson investigation, which seemed to take forever to resolve. Then her father took ill and died from lung cancer.

Meanwhile, sprinkled in among those travails were her own health problems--a melanoma removed from her back, a mass removed from her nose, and torn ACL and meniscus.

So, it’s really not surprising that the office manager and mother of two just threw up her hands when several builders told her that the proceeds from her insurance claim weren’t enough to rebuild her home.

"I didn't know what to do," recalled Dawson. "Here I was I could barely function at this point. Anything [possessions] that mattered to me was gone," including from her children when they were young and a cherished bowl from a grandmother.

Then there was the "what-if" stress. The fire marshal told her the faulty electrical fire started just 6 feet from where her son would have been sleeping if they had moved into the house.

That's when Nathan Cross, a local Orlando-area small builder came into her life. At a loss about what to do after several builders sent her away, a friend in real estate gave her Cross' name. His company, NWC Construction, made local headlines a year ago for rebuilding another house that had burned down, replacing it with an extremely energy-efficient green house.

“He came up, and he walked the house with me and basically held my hand and said, ‘You know, we can make this work with what we can get,’” Dawson remembered.

And then Cross went home with a copy of Dawson’s insurance policy and started reading the fine print, looking for ways to squeeze more out of the insurance company. With the help of an attorney provided through his membership in the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) and his own experience with insurance policies, Cross managed to find another $50,000 worth of insurance money due to Dawson, boosting the total proceeds to $305,000

"Dealing with the first [burnt home] last year we realized that there were some ins and outs," Cross explained.

The insurance company had originally offered Dawson just the face value for the policy on her home, which was under-insured. But Cross was able to tap into provisions that provided for replacement costs at current value, demolition costs, landscape costs, and a laws and ordinances section that kicks in when laws have changed that add costs to the construction of a home.

Cross did all that work without a contract to rebuild the house.

“Nathan took my policy and fixed it without any commitment from me,” said Dawson. “He’s a very small company. It’s a very David and Goliath thing.”

Cross wasn’t worried about Dawson going to another builder for the rebuild, especially since several other builders in the upscale Windermere community had turned her away earlier. Plus, as a small builder, Cross lives on referrals that are generated when you go out of the way to please a client.

“The only advertising we have ever had that paid off was word of mouth,” he said.

Besides, Cross, 30, who grew up working for his builder father and started his career working for a large public home builder, went into business for himself because he likes customer contact. Making clients happy makes him happy. And Dawson could use some happiness.

“We do a lot of hand-holding for a lot of our customers,” he said. “We are used to that. It’s our business.”

In Dawson’s case he did more than hand-holding and building the house, he also re-designed it according to what Dawson said she wanted. He even picked out the interior finishes with little more than approval feedback from Dawson. With all her other personal problems, Dawson was happy to leave it all to Cross.

“I really felt that I could be in no more capable hands,” said Dawson. “I didn’t have time to be bothered with the details. We were both on the same page--traditional design with a modern twist. I couldn’t have come up with half the stuff he has done.”

With a $350,000 budget, he demolished the burned-out shell and rebuilt on the same footprint. Like the original, the house has three bedrooms, 2 1/2 baths, and the 2,380 square feet the original house had, but some walls were moved to make the home, which was originally built in the 1980s more functional.

On the outside, it still resembles the original house; it’s a traditional two-story vernacular farmhouse with a wrap-around porch. But the similarities end with the style. The new house was built with modern materials and systems that make it so energy stingy and environmentally conscious that it became the first house in Florida to receive the Emerald certification under the NAHB’s National Green Building Standard, as well as a Platinum level under the Florida Green Building Coalition’s standards, he said. The home’s HERS score is 59.

“We don’t do what I call the sexy green build,” Cross said. “There’s no solar or that sort of thing.” Instead, he concentrated on building a tight envelope on the house, insulating well, installing low-E windows, and other basic good construction techniques.

“The house is stunning,” Dawson said. But the way she sees it, Cross gave her more than a beautiful new home.

“He put himself on the line for me, and I’m a nobody,” she said. “He was heaven sent … . He restored my faith in humans at a point when I figured everybody was scum. It honestly renewed my faith that there are people who care for one another and are compassionate.”

 Teresa Burney is a senior editor for BUILDER and BIG BUILDER magazines.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Orlando, FL.