Build Like This
A simple approach to building a super efficient house starts with six key elements.
Synopsis: Is it possible to build an affordable, beautiful, energy-efficient house that can cozily withstand the rigors of a Maine winter? Architect Matthew O’Malia would say yes, based on his experience with the house featured in this article. This 1000-sq.-ft. retirement home, designed for comfort and flexibility, costs about $160 per sq. ft. to build and, depending on siting, is capable of meeting the Passive House standard. Six key elements work together to make this house appealing: insulation for an R-50 SIP wall assembly and an R-60 foundation; triple-glazed windows; diligent air-sealing; minimized risk of thermal bridging; attention to indoor-air quality; and a super-insulated slab foundation that picks up heat during the day and releases it slowly at night. This house is finished with simple interiors that highlight the house’s forested surroundings. This article includes a sidebar in the PDF below, about the high-performance German EGE windows used in the house.
In 2008, when my business partner and I decided to form a design/build firm, we agreed to build to the highest standard of sustainability and to do so cost effectively. With all our projects, we hoped to achieve a synergy between designing for human comfort, building in response to the site, and achieving long-term durability. We quickly agreed that the Passive House standard, which was just being introduced to the United States, would be the most comprehensive and clear measure of our success. To demonstrate that we had the ability to reach the standard, we built our first prototype, a house we called the GO Home. To reach the Passive House standard in Maine’s cold climate, we developed a new way to design and build homes collaboratively. The GO Home, completed in 2009, was Passive House certified, achieved LEED platinum, and was named the U.S. Green Building Council’s residential project of the year.
Since building the GO Home, we’ve refined our design-and-build approach in completing several other high-performance projects. This house in Bath, Maine, is based on one of our design-plan packages that delivers (depending on the site) a house that could meet the Passive House standard, that’s comfortable and attractive, and that has a modest base cost—roughly $160 per sq. ft. Here is how we achieve such grand results on such a low budget.
Design it to be compact
Wendy and Bill came to us because they were interested in building the smallest and most sustainable home they could for their retirement. Of the plans we offer, they chose to work with our 1000-sq.-ft plan, which includes one bedroom; two bathrooms; an open kitchen, dining, and living space; and a small study.
The shape of the house was influenced by our desire to create a simple but well proportioned home. The main living space lies beneath the gabled portion of the house, with the supporting functions beneath a shed roof that wraps the side and back of this main space. The entry porch is recessed under the shed roof on the south facade, and the screened-in porch is carved into the northeast corner of the house.
To create interior spaces that have a small footprint but still feel generous, we designed an open floor plan for the kitchen, living, and dining areas. These spaces also provide direct access to the bedroom and the bathrooms to avoid hallways and redundant circulation. We also increased the height of the ceiling to 9 ft. and the size of the windows in the main space. The result is an open interior with a strong exterior connection.
Adapt it to its site
Wendy and Bill’s site was challenging, and in many ways, it tempered the performance potential of the house. The site is surrounded by beautiful, mature hardwood trees, which made it difficult to get the solar gain required for the Passive House standard. We all agreed that the trees were more important than the standard, given that the house would still perform exceptionally well.
For more photos and the six elements of a better home, click the View PDF button below.