Woman designs, builds eco-friendly home on Red River

Leah Sorby says she made quite a sight during the flood of 2009. While her south Moorhead neighbors scrambled to build sandbag moats or evacuate their homes, Sorby's house at 18 River Oaks Point stood high and dry. She could be spotted trudging f...

Leah Sorby's south Moorhead home
Leah Sorby's south Moorhead home is just 100 yards from the Red River but was built high and without a basement in case of flooding. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor

Leah Sorby says she made quite a sight during the flood of 2009.

While her south Moorhead neighbors scrambled to build sandbag moats or evacuate their homes, Sorby's house at 18 River Oaks Point stood high and dry. She could be spotted trudging from house to street in waders, sometimes lugging boards and building materials with her.

The young woman who was building a red house by the temperamental Red River while many of her neighbors took flood buyouts aroused lots of curiosity. But Sorby didn't mind.

Her house is built on a concrete slab, so there's no basement to bail out. FEMA reviewed and approved her building plan. And her house should remain dry unless the river pushes past 41 feet.

"If I flood, all of Fargo-Moorhead will flood," says the mother of two.


Even so, her tree-flanked home has become even more rural as of late, as most of her closest neighbors have moved.

That's OK, as the Moorhead native doesn't mind doing her own thing.

Likewise, the home flipper/antique dealer who would rather hang kitchen cabinets than bake cupcakes has a house that reflects her individuality. Instead of a McMansion, she planned and designed a 2,200-square-foot home with a light and airy feel, thoughtfully efficient footprint and eco-conscious materials.

And then there's the barn-red siding, which gives the home a warm, agrarian feel.

"People talk about this house because it's red. I've been to Norway, where people have these colored houses. You don't have to live in a beige, vinyl-sided house," she says. "I want people to look at things differently."

Take some SIPs

It wasn't such a stretch for Sorby to design and build her own home. She already has flipped five homes, moving every few years to take on a new project.

"I love real estate, I love houses, and I love the creative process," she says. "And I needed something to do while the kids are at school."


A new, three-bedroom home for her family, which includes sons Leif and Hans, was just the ticket.

Sorby drew inspiration from several houses featured in home magazines, as well as from the principles of architect Sarah Susanka. Susanka's "not-so-big house" movement advocates such a smart, efficient use of space that a dwelling with less square footage will actually feel bigger.

"This house is tall, but it's not huge," says Sorby, indicating the many windows and two-story-tall ceiling in her great room. "I think of it in terms of quality, not just quantity."

A thrifty person who jokes that her friends call her "The Dakota Boys Ranch," Sorby also knew she wanted to use green materials and techniques.

Likewise, her entire home is built with Structural Insulated Panels, or SIPs. SIPs are ready-made walls that consist of a thick core of insulation - like Styrofoam - sandwiched between a rigid shell of plywood, sheet metal or some other durable material.

Studies show SIP panels create more energy-efficient, tightly built homes. On average, SIP homes use about 15 percent less energy to heat than a frame house, according to Home Energy Magazine Online ( ).

They also require less labor to install. A lot less. Sorby says it took one worker manning a Genie Lift to hook the whole structure together.

SIP systems "cost more on the onset, but you save more in labor," she says.


The home is heated with radiant heat, which runs through a concrete slab. The ground-level floors are a slightly burnished and polished concrete, which Sorby says are almost zero maintenance. She stained and finished them herself.

The home's main great room/kitchen is open and airy, with a bank of windows flanking one wall, a door that leads out to a screened porch and a 20-foot-high ceiling. The ceiling is covered with wide pine planks finished in a light, pickled-oak stain - also applied by Sorby's two busy hands.

Eye on the bottom line

Throughout the home, Sorby opted for details that set her house apart from the status quo.

For instance, she installed exterior lights - inexpensive silver light fixtures with caged glass - as interior lighting. They add a Cape Cod touch to the pewter collections, hook-rug wall hangings and artfully battered antiques here and there.

An antique dealer at the Moorhead Antique Mall, Sorby has filled her home with favorite finds as well as old family furnishings. Many, like the dry-sink-turned-changing-table-turned-entry-hall-table, are weathered and worn.

Sorby likes it that way. She finds these pieces wear the charming patina of age, and they can't be ruined by two active, growing sons.

The ground-level floor plan also includes an open kitchen with quartz-topped island, hickory cabinets and stainless steel appliances.

Also on the first floor are a hall bath, utility room/entryway and Sorby's master suite. In keeping with her love of antiques, it features an antique hook-rug over a reproduction antique bed, plus an artful arrangement of antique mirrors over the bathroom vanity. The bath leads right into a roomy-but-not-palatial walk-in closet.

Upstairs, the lofted TV room leads into a second-floor bath and the boys' rooms. Each "man cave" comes complete with its own recliner, work desk and flat-screen TV.

The second level is heated by mini splits, which are ductless, energy-efficient heating/air conditioning systems. Compact electric heaters, designed to look like old-fashioned wood stoves, add auxiliary warmth.

The wide pine planking in the ceiling is used extensively throughout the house. That includes the boys' closets, built and painted to look like exterior buildings, and the floor in the TV room.

Sorby proudly points out the thrifty finds she has used to furnish her house. They include large, high-end Pella windows that she got through a builder's auction for $100 and a trendy vessel sink she found at Lowe's for $20.

In the kitchen, she points out a walk-in pantry, which provides a lot of storage yet was less expensive to build than extra cabinetry.

"I always look at money and value," Sorby says. "I don't like overkill."

Sorby's cozy, charming house seems like the ideal place to call home. Still, her initial plans to stay there a while already are shifting.

"I'm getting itchy again," she says, with a wry smile. "I've been looking at flood houses. They're such a good deal."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tammy Swift at (701) 241-5525

Related Topics: MOORHEAD
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