Yiqing Huang and Tom Wolf soak up all lakeside living has to offer in a uniquely designed, sustainable home
By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photography by John Michael Simpson
There are many ways to get to Hillsborough – whether by road, trail or even the Eno River – and Orange County’s seat has drawn people from all over. Yiqing Huang and Tom Wolf were attracted to its small-town feel and warmer weather more than 15 years ago, and their dream of building a home there immediately began to take shape.
Originally from China, Yiqing studied industrial management at Dalian University of Technology. In the late ’90s, she decided to continue her education, moving to the United States to attend the New Jersey Institute of Technology for a master’s in computer science.
Raised in Germany, Tom was 16 when his family moved to Fayetteville, North Carolina. “It was a culture shock,” he says. He later attended North Carolina State University for his undergraduate degree in computer science and earned a master’s at Columbia University in New York City before moving to New Jersey for work. It was there Yiqing and Tom’s paths finally crossed, and they bonded quickly over a shared love of coffee, culture and computing.
The couple were married in 2005, and the following year they visited one of Yiqing’s close friends who lived on Lake Orange. “We fell in love with the lake and looked at a lot of homes in Arrowhead Trail,” Tom says. Then, the couple met a neighbor whose large lot had already been permitted for a septic system for a second home.
“I had such fond memories of North Carolina, and my parents still lived in Fayetteville, so it seemed like a great next step for us,” Tom explains. “We purchased the land and sold our home in New Jersey, thinking we would build right away.” But Tom and Yiqing did not want to disrupt school for their daughter, Jessica Wolf, now 23, and decided to stick around New Jersey a little longer.
In 2015, Tom moved to North Carolina. “I was sort of the scout and came down first to get a feel for things,” he says. Yiqing joined him in 2017 once Jessica was off to college, and the couple bought a new house in Cary while they searched for an architect to design their ideal home. “The only customization we could do to the Cary house was add some windows and pick the finishes,” Yiqing says.
“It was nice, but it was just like every other traditional home we’ve ever had,” Tom adds. “We wanted the next one to be special.”
THE RIGHT FIT
“We had two phases of design – the first time was many years ago, when we began drawing our plan in our minds,” Yiqing says. Though the Lake Orange site had been permitted for a septic system, the lot was a very restrictive triangular shape. “We needed someone to maximize every square inch of buildable space,” Tom says. He also wanted to recreate the concrete walls of his German childhood. “It was all we had there, these sturdy stone houses. To me, a house is not really a house unless it is made of concrete and stone.”
The couple favored clean aesthetics, natural light and minimal design. “Finding someone who could achieve the modern style was the most important thing to me,” Yiqing says. They reached out to Chapel Hill architect Arielle Condoret Schechter to execute their vision on the unique lot. “Like most of our clients, Tom and Yiqing value light, livability, energy conservation and spaces tailor-made for their lifestyle over ostentation and grandiose square footage,” Arielle says.
Though it was easy to fall in love with Arielle’s design style and portfolio, Tom and Yiqing still needed to find a builder. One day, while driving around Durham looking at houses for Tom’s parents, they stumbled upon a striking modern home and decided to knock on the door to ask who built it. “No one was home, but as we walked back to our car, who should pull up behind us but George Smart,” Tom says. George, the executive director of NCModernist, pointed them toward Durham-based BuildSense.
“BuildSense did a great job quality wise,” Tom says. “Every time we visited the site, everything was so clean and tidy, and their communication was excellent, too,” Yiqing adds.
And while she admits the site constraints were extremely challenging, Arielle is proud to have helped introduce modern, environmentally sustainable living to the Lake Orange community. “In this case, the water was fundamental to the conception of the house as we designed it to have spectacular views of the lake and sunsets and to welcome the breezes that glide across the water.”
The structure itself has a ‘houseboat’ shape, both a nod to Tom’s affinity for Amsterdam’s iconic canal dwellings and to the lakefront property itself. The sloped roof also enabled the installation of solar panels, which, in combination with thoughtful window choices and two Tesla Powerwalls to act as battery backups, brought in the element of sustainability that was so important to the couple. “Arielle always asked for our opinion,” Tom says. “It meant everything to us.”
The home was completed in February 2020. “It was a little crazy moving to Hillsborough right before the pandemic hit,” Tom says. “We are just now starting to get to know our new town.” There was plenty to do once they moved in, though, and Yiqing and Tom wasted no time making the space their own, adding lighting, furniture and artwork that make bold statements against the home’s crisp white walls and natural light, including a colorful piece by daughter Jessica in the primary bedroom.
Two additional bedrooms double as office and yoga spaces for the couple, so the home’s footprint remains minimal yet functional. The soaring ceilings and large windows in the open living and dining area blend seamlessly into the lake view out back; in the evenings, LED sconces mounted high on the walls draw the eye upward and add a subtle dose of grandeur. “We weren’t even thinking about lighting there, but Arielle suggested it, and we think it makes a huge difference,” Tom says.
As pandemic restrictions continue to evolve, Tom and Yiqing are making the most of the outdoors, frequenting the Eno River Farmers Market, Eno River and in the summer, Maple View Farm. “We also enjoy the patios at Cup-A-Joe and The Wooden Nickel,” Tom says.
“This is such a nice, friendly town, and we had such a great experience building this house,” Yiqing adds. “We feel really lucky.”