Camden's Green House
There's no shortage of impressive seaside showplaces in the midcoast. But when the New York Times Sunday magazine chose to feature a Camden dwelling last year, they looked past the antique mansions and focused instead on an eco-friendly house that was taking shape in the woods alongside Penobscot Bay. The 3,446-square-foot home features so many green features within its unassuming, cedar-shingle walls that it has become a poster child for green building - and that's exactly what the owners, Tony and Sally Grassi, wanted their retirement home to be.
"They really wanted to show people, in particular people like themselves who are moving to the coast of Maine, that you can have what you want, but you can do it in a way that is environmentally sensitive," remarks architect Matt Elliott, of Elliott Elliott Norelius in Blue Hill. "It was important for them that this was a house that basically anybody can walk in off the street and love it, regardless of whether it was environmentally sensitive or not."
Spend a few minutes at this property and you'll find that you don't need the Times to tell you that what the Grassis built is special. The cluster of buildings that comprise their small complex is situated at the end of a winding gravel driveway, set some five hundred feet from the ocean's edge. This refreshingly tasteful distance allows the salt air to waft over and through the house and affords a framed water view through the tall pines, but without toeing the minimum shoreland setback. Plantings consist of native ferns, some annuals, and a small amount of grass that the Grassis can easily mow.
The owners say finding the right site was as important as the design. "By definition, building a house is not a particularly green thing to do, and we toyed with living in town," explains Tony Grassi, his bare feet and T-shirt showing how far he's come since his days as an investment banker. "But I just love working in the woods - building stone walls, cutting trees, splitting firewood." Sally adds that her review of other properties reinforced her belief that to be absolutely eco-friendly, they would need to start fresh. "Some of our decisions came after looking at houses that had really given no thought to the land, where they'd clear-cut the property and just put the house in the middle," she says. The property they found satisfied both concerns: landscape architect Stephen Mohr, of Mohr & Seredin in Portland, could place the new two-bedroom home, as well as a three-bedroom guest cottage and a detached workshop, on the site of what had once been a hunting camp with minimal new disruption of the eighteen-acre lot.
After buying the property in 2002, the Grassis set about finding an architect with the ambition to employ green thinking. "We decided that rather than hiring a green architect from away, we'd rather do something with a local builder and architect who had never done it before," explains Tony Grassi, who after retiring in 1990 volunteered with a variety of environmental organizations, including three years as chairman of the Nature Conservancy's board of governors. "That way we could spread the gospel, as it were, and they could learn on our nickel." The three factors that the Grassis insisted be considered were energy efficiency, indoor air quality, and a product's life cycle. That meant, for instance, that no PVC piping could be used, as this commonly used household conduit uses chlorine in its production, releases dioxin both as a byproduct and when burned, and causes plumbers to inhale toxic sealants. Copper would be shunned wherever possible, as copper mines are known to leach arsenic. To ensure proper indoor air quality, anything containing formaldehyde was black-listed, a unique challenge for builders and architects accustomed to using plywood (the layers of which are adhered with a glue containing formaldehyde), and glue-laminated beams to support long spans.
The Grassis' strict guidelines and formidable environmental resume meant everyone involved in the project faced a steep learning curve. "At times it was intimidating, quite honestly, because of who the Grassis are," says architect Matt Elliott. "But we didn't come in with a big ego that we had to prove we were these green architects, and we saw them as a great resource." The innovations Elliott, architect Dwayne Flynn, and the Grassis came up with were on the one hand common sense and yet on the other ingenious. Since the Grassis wanted a small enough house for them to maintain and clean themselves, but also wanted to be able to host their children and grandchildren, Elliott and Flynn designed a separate three-bedroom guest cottage that could essentially be powered up only when visitors arrived and otherwise be kept chilly and dark.
Inside the main house, a network of steel I-beams supports the floors, with inlaid FSC-certified Brazilian cherry softening the beams' industrial appearance. Plaster, instead of Sheetrock, covers the blown-in fiberglass insulation (conventional pink batts contain formaldehyde). The Grassis didn't even want Sheetrock in their garage - the walls surrounding their Toyota Prius are covered instead in pine boards. The sills and other support timbers came from a stand of black locust hardwoods that the Grassis paid to remove from a field in their former hometown of Wilton, Connecticut, where they were an invasive species, and trucked to Maine.
On the exterior, contractor Jay Fischer, of Cold Mountain Builders in Belfast, nailed pine boards diagonally across the studs, instead of using plywood, and then covered them with No. 15 felt paper to allow moisture to pass into and out of the walls (ironically, this is virtually the same system used in most turn-of-the-century Maine homes.) Cedar roof shingles sit on a rain screen that naturally drains whatever moisture a November nor'easter may drive through the shingles themselves. Double-insulated, Argon-filled windows and sliding-glass doors on each side of the house maximize natural light.
Some of the most noteworthy innovations, of course, are those that most visitors never see. Cast iron replaced the PVC sewer drains found in most homes, and cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) pipes were used in place of copper for supply lines. An air-filtration system had to be retro-fitted to remove the formaldehyde-laced insulation and replace it with an eco-friendly product. Finally, a geothermal pump (powered indirectly by solar panels installed on a barn nearby) draws naturally warmed water from a well, heats it further, and distributes it to the home's radiant floor system. The system of pumps, tanks, and electronics in the house's basement "engine room" looks like an engineering marvel, though Tony Grassi insists "it's not that complicated, once you break it down into sections."
Elliott and Flynn admit that a few subcontractors' eyes glassed over when they started explaining how serious the Grassis were about making their home environmentally friendly. "Some people I could tell just didn't get it and were probably going to take nothing away from the job, but there was another group that really sort of got into it, like the electricians who were looking for wiring that didn't have lead coating on it," Elliott says. "But that's the reality of it, and if we could affect half the subcontractors, then I think that we and Tony and Sally would feel great about that."
Indeed, features of the Grassis' house have already started turning up on Maine job sites with far more modest budgets and ambitions, whether it's the blown-in fiberglass insulation system, copper-alternative PEX piping, or the use of steel instead of glue-laminated beams. "We now use HDPE (high-density polyethylene) pipe in all of our foundation drains, instead of PVC," remarks Matt Elliott. "It doesn't cost any more, so we just spec it on every house. The client doesn't care." He estimates that about 30 percent of the innovations in the Grassis' house are now filtering through his firm's other projects, and he hopes to increase that to about 50 percent. While a geothermal heating system would not be appropriate for most homeowners, using PEX piping and cutting back on PVC is. "It's just a mindset of the contractors that you have to battle them on a little bit. When they show up with a whole truckload of PVC and start throwing it into your site, you have to say 'No, you can't do that,' " Matt Elliott explains.
Throughout the project, Tony Grassi says, balancing comfort with environmental considerations was a delicate act. "What I thought was the standard, easy answer was not always the right answer," Grassi remarks. "There were always trade-offs. You would not want to have a fireplace in a truly green house, for instance - you lose too much heat up the chimney - but that's one of the things we told Matt we wanted." Likewise Sally admits that the house is narrower and longer than she would have preferred, but says the abundant sunlight that shines through the width of the house, eliminating the need to turn on even the low-voltage halogen lights during the day, more than compensates for this shortcoming. Finally, the Grassis had to be willing to pay the premium that their specifications dictated - Tony Grassi estimates that his construction costs were about 12 percent higher in total than they would have been otherwise.
But the Grassis, who have owned vacation homes near Rangeley in the past, say that if even a few homeowners, architects, and builders learn something from their house, they will consider it worth every penny. "We have been very taken by the community of Maine. There's a great diversity of people from all walks of life here, all coming together without value judgments," remarks Tony Grassi, walking past a clothesline where a load of his and Sally's laundry dries in the fresh air. "You never judge a book by its cover in Maine." Certainly the same could be said of the remarkable home, and the life, the Grassis have created here.