Dreaming of Building a Green Retreat?

Draw inspiration from three sets of homeowners who took different paths to achieving dwellings that are energy efficient, have modest carbon footprints, and suit them to a T — home brewery or cat climbing wall anyone?

energy efficient homes
By Sarah Stebbins
From the Fall 2021 issue of Maine Homes by Down East

Slick Split-Level

Photos by Josh Gerritsen
Stacy Emack and Ed Fels’s Cape Elizabeth home incorporates eastern-white-cedar shingles, a standing- seam metal shed roof, and a PVC flat roof.
Stacy Emack and Ed Fels’s Cape Elizabeth home incorporates eastern-white-cedar shingles, a standing-seam metal shed roof, and a PVC flat roof.

On winter evenings in her 1950s Falmouth ranch, Stacy Emack would watch TV in a sweatshirt and wool hat and shiver from the drafts. On sunny days, she and her husband, Ed Fels, had to keep the lights on because the place was so dark. They wanted a change, but, at first blush, the ’50s split-level they found in Cape Elizabeth in 2016 didn’t appear to be much of a step up. Gable-roofed, with turquoise trim and a wraparound porch atop listing metal posts, the structure suffered from rot in the basement bedrooms, where the bed legs wore “rubber booties” to protect them from standing water. But the property has exquisite Casco Bay views, and architect Matt O’Malia, of Belfast’s OPAL, assured the couple his firm could reinvent the home.

A sofa and rug from Portland’s Youngs Furniture and Angela Adams define the living area.
A sofa and rug from Portland’s Youngs Furniture and Angela Adams define the living area.

O’Malia’s team and contractor Alan Gibson’s crew, of Belfast’s GO Logic, planned to work with the existing floor plan, foundation, and framing, but the latter could not ultimately be salvaged. So they recreated a similar arrangement of rooms, including a side entry with the home’s original spruced-up spiral staircase, within a 12-inch-thick shell studded with triple-glazed windows. A new shed-roofed third floor, topped with solar panels that power the house and the couple’s electric cars, contains an airy owners’ suite that gives way to a rooftop deck. In the (dry!) basement, a pair of bedrooms became a one-car garage. “We came up with a unique thing we never would have designed if we’d had a blank slate,” O’Malia says.

To trim costs, Emack and Fels went with IKEA cabinets in the open-concept kitchen and finished a wall of them with walnut doors by Semihandmade. Large windows on the room’s other walls “make you feel like you’re outside,” Emack says. When seated on the turquoise living room sectional — a nod to the home’s prior trim and range — “I’m close to clouds, to birds flying by.” (The couple’s cat, Django, has the same experience atop his lofty climbing wall in the entry.) And yet: “I can walk around barefoot all winter and not be the least bit cold!”

Architect: OPAL
General Contractor: GO Logic
Square Feet: 3,000
Bedrooms: 4
Baths: 3
Heat/Electricity: Air-source heat pumps, supplemental electric baseboards and woodstove, 10 kW solar array
Annual Cost for Heat/Electricity: $1,808

Prefab Plan

Photos courtesy of BrightBuilt Home
Pine siding that appears seamless, square windows, and shallow roof overhangs give Joel Antolini and Meeghan McLain’s Yarmouth home a modern look.
Pine siding that appears seamless, square windows, and shallow roof overhangs give Joel Antolini and Meeghan McLain’s Yarmouth home a modern look.

When planning their new Yarmouth home in 2017, Joel Antolini and Meeghan McLain started down a prefab path. They liked the clean lines on Portland-based BrightBuilt Home’s gabled Vinalhaven model, which they felt they could further streamline to meet their modern aesthetic, and its generous size. Though they were about to become empty nesters, “we wanted to put deeper roots into Maine,” McLain says, and have plenty of space for friends. “And we didn’t have a huge design vision that necessitated starting from scratch,” Antolini says. What they did have was a sufficiently wet lot that prevented them from putting in the basement a BrightBuilt prefab requires. So they worked with the company’s director, Parlin Meyer, and project coordinator, Jessica Benner, as well as Brunswick contractor Matt Senecal, to customize the Vinalhaven and build it on-site.

Brunswick builder Matt Senecal worked with Pownal’s Bradbury Mountain Metalworks to customize the maple living room staircase.
Brunswick builder Matt Senecal worked with Pownal’s Bradbury Mountain Metalworks to customize the maple living room staircase.

The approach turned out to be the right one for the couple. Whereas Meyer says most clients like establishing a fixed cost up front, when the majority of decisions pertaining to a prefab home — from flooring to faucets — must be made, that notion stressed Antolini and McLain out. “As much as we plan, we don’t plan like that,” says Antolini, who liked being able to make changes during the building process. Going with a modified prefab plan, as opposed to drafting a new one, also saved tens of thousands of dollars in design fees.

Six- and eight-foot-tall triple-glazed windows punctuate the home’s white-painted vertical pine clapboards on the south-facing living room side, beaming in light and heating up the concrete-slab floor. The efficient glazing, from Hallowell’s Logic Windows & Doors, combined with 10-inch-thick walls packed with cellulose insulation and ceiling-mounted heat pumps kept the couple’s electricity bill around $450 last January. “And that’s with an eight-by-eight-foot hot tub we’re heating,” Antolini says. In their previous 1800s farmhouse in town, they paid nearly twice that for oil and electricity, and only the front section with a woodstove was ever really warm. McLain, who loved the old house’s charms, wasn’t so sure about a new build. Now? “I’m a complete convert.”

Architect: BrightBuilt Home
General Contractor: Senecal Construction Services
Square Feet: 4,000
Bedrooms: 4
Baths: 3
Heat/Electricity: Air-source heat pumps, supplemental gas stove, wired for future solar panels
Annual Cost for Heat/Electricity: $3,884

Modern Barnhouse

Photos by Richard Mitchell
Styled by Jeanne Handy
These Brunswick homeowners fell for Cambia by NFP siding after seeing it on Bowdoin’s Roux Center for the Environment.
These Brunswick homeowners fell for Cambia by NFP siding after seeing it on Bowdoin’s Roux Center for the Environment.

The owners of this wooded Brunswick place loved their previous 1952 Cape in town, “but it was never going to be our house,” the husband says. It wasn’t going to assume a modern identity or become especially efficient. “The basement was never going to grow two feet so I could stand up down there and do things.” So when the couple, who asked that their names be withheld, learned that the owners of land they’d been eyeing for 15 years were ready to sell, they snapped it up. Covenants mandated that they stick to a traditional-style structure, so they worked with Bath architect David Matero to conceive a soaring barn-like volume, “which seemed like the best form to put modern touches onto,” the wife says.

The wide-open interior facilitated design elements the couple sought, such as a seating area next to the kitchen, furnished with bouclé swivel chairs by Portland interior designer Jeanne Handy (“Everyone shows up in the kitchen, so why don’t we all be comfortable?” asks the husband.). Between the kitchen/dining and living spaces is a lofty birch wall inspired by one they’d seen in photos of The Nature Conservancy in Maine office in Brunswick. Woolwich builder Corey Rattleff affixed a cantilevered staircase to the wall with maple treads that appear to float atop tapered steel supports. Opposite the stairs, a 16-foot-tall column of triple-glazed windows from Logic Windows & Doors floods the living room with southerly light.

A RAIS woodstove pipe scales the living room, which has a carpet from Bradford’s Rug Gallery in Portland.
RAIS woodstove pipe scales the living room, which has a carpet from Bradford’s Rug Gallery in Portland.

Eleven-inch-thick walls assembled with insulated sheathing panels, along with heat pumps and a RAIS woodstove “that burns so efficiently it’s no different than rotting wood releasing carbon in the woods,” Matero says, work with the windows to keep the place, completed last year, toasty. Cambia by NFP thermally treated poplar siding, which resists rot and pests, and weathers nicely without finishing, jibes with the couple’s wish for a low-maintenance home, and a basement with an exercise room and brewery (and nearly eight-foot-tall ceilings!) fuses their passions — they can enjoy pints with their guests in the cozy chairs by the kitchen.

Architect: David Matero Architecture
General Contractor: Corey Rattleff
Interior Designer: Jeanne Handy Designs
Square Feet: 2,000
Bedrooms: 3
Baths: 3
Heat/Electricity: Air-source heat pumps, radiant flooring, supplemental woodstove, wired for future solar panels
Annual Cost for Heat/Electricity: $1,950

May 2024, Down East Magazine

Get all of our latest stories delivered straight to your mailbox every month. Subscribe to Down East magazine.