Sunday, October 23, 2011

Q+A with Matthew O'Malia, architect at GO Logic

The GO Home is a 1,500 square-foot, single-family, zero-energy house built at costs comparable to standard residential construction ($225,000). The super-insulated building is heated and powered by a 2.8 KW solar photovoltaic array for electricity, a 60-tube solar thermal system for domestic hot water, an electric resistance baseboard heater, and passive solar gain. The GO Home is the twelfth Passive House in the U.S. and has received a LEED Platinum rating; for the past year it has been used as an office by O’Malia and GO Logic. (See Maine Home + Design article about the GO Home by Rebecca Falzano.)

Photo by Trent Bell for Maine Home + Design
Q: What has surprised you about the performance of the building?
A: The amazing comfort of an interior environment that is quiet, balanced, and consistent year round. Due to the tight envelope, the triple-glazed windows allowing very little heat out or cold in, and the existing heat being circulated by the heat recovery ventilation system, heating costs from the baseboard heater came in less than estimated at only $275 a year, and much of this cost was offset by the solar PV.
Photo by Trent Bell
Q: Which features have been less useful in retrospect?
A: We installed a buried water pipe to use for geothermal cooling in the summer, which was not successful due to condensation buildup.

Q: What’s next?
A: We’ve tried an air-source heat pump in another project and will monitor its efficiency, and if it does well, we will use that technology again. We are also interested in phase-change materials that act like a thermal mass to absorb air and regulate temperatures during heating and cooling seasons.

See for more info.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Q+A with Jeremy Burden, owner of the Harmony House, Opus II in Freeport

From the October 2011 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Designed by architect Christopher Briley of Green Design Studio, Opus II was the first home in New England to receive a LEED Gold Certification based on features including a geothermal heat pump, passive solar design, balloon framing, and super insulation, as well as the use of natural and local materials such as zero VOC paint and local cedar shingles.

What have been the benefits of your home’s efficient features?
The southern orientation, geothermal heat with the concrete radiant flooring, extremely tight envelope, and great insulation provide stellar efficiency. Our energy costs of just over $1,000 a year are approximately a third of the cost of my office in a 1900s building with a modern oil/baseboard. There are no extra rooms or wasted space in this house and the room proportions and window/natural light placement make it a very relaxing and natural space. It feels like the perfect size for our family of four though it is almost 1,500 square feet less than what many of our friends have for similar size families. In our case, less energy, less materials, and less waste means more efficient, more comfortable, and more economical.

Photo by Christopher Briley
Are there any systems or products that you’ve found less useful than others?
The positive pressure fireplace/stove is more than is needed. A simple sealed fireplace would be adequate for a house this tight.

What's Next
This house is ready to install PV panels. I'm waiting for a great cost/benefit scenario to come to fruition before investing in that technology.

See more Chris Briley designs at

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Q+A with Mike and Rebecca Lambert, owners of the Redfern House

From the September 2011 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Known as one of the more affordable Platinum LEED homes in Maine, the house features a 90-tube solar thermal system for domestic hot water and radiant heat and a 2.1 KW photovoltaic array for electricity, as well as passive-solar features and high-efficiency framing, insulation, and windows.

Q: What do you like most about your home’s efficient features?
A: It feels like a living, breathing system and acknowledges that we are part of nature. Energy production and consumption changes with the seasons, the cycles of day and night, and cloud cover or rain. Our TED energy monitor graphs these fluctuations, and the resulting picture is similar to a graph of photosynthesis or tree growth. In the winter, the passive-solar design and the solar hot water provide a large portion of our heat. However, the best return is our wood stove. As the owner of Canopy Tree Care, I have access to free wood, so it just makes sense.

Q: What challenges have you faced?

A: LEED certification wants you to landscape with drought-tolerant plants, but the property is wet, so many plants died. Then we installed plantings that like wet feet, but it was before that dry spring in 2010, and everything died again. It’s a work in progress, but we’re planning to try edibles next.

Q: What’s next?
A: We’d like to adapt the heating system. We’re currently using an on-demand electric boiler to supplement the solar thermal to heat a 160-gallon tank. It seems that, ideally, the tank should be reserved for collecting heat from the solar hot water, and domestic hot water should be heated separately only if and when needed.

Learn more at

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Q+A with Stew MacLehose, owner of Double Thick Walls on the Dime in Falmouth

From the August 2011 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Designed by Kaplan Thompson Architects, this prototype for a Modular Zero Home does not have a furnace. Instead, its radiant floors are heated by the rooftop solar thermal system and supplemented with an electric on demand water heater. Triple-glazed casement windows minimize heat loss, and the exterior walls are double-studded and filled with R-40 dense cellulose insulation. The name is a pun on “Double Nickels on the Dime” by The Minutemen.

Q: What have been the biggest benefits of your home’s efficient features?
A: Not having an oil bill.  My electric bills can get high ($200) in mid-winter when solar gain is at its weakest and the electric on demand water heater kicks in, but even then, that’s a lot less expensive than an oil bill and it’s our only bill. The solar hot water has produced the best return on investment, due in large part to the tight construction of the house. 

Q: Are there any systems or products that you found less useful than others?
A: No, there are only two mechanical systems in the house, the solar hot water system and the ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator), which is necessary to bring fresh air into the tightly-sealed house. Both of these systems are essential and very useful.

Q: Are there any new efficient technologies out there that you'd like to try that you haven’t yet?
A: I’d like to move to photovoltaic panels next.  At this point they wouldn’t be cost effective, but I’m hoping the price comes down in the future.

Check out more Kaplan Thompson designs at

Monday, August 29, 2011

Q+A with William Lord Owner of Maine Solar House in Cape Porpoise

From the July 2011 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Having lived in one of Maine’s older solar homes for 17 years now, William Lord and his wife like to refer to themselves as “solar groundhogs,” watching for the sun each morning to power their home. The solar panel-covered south-facing roof of their home, which was designed by architect Steven Strong and built by Tim Spang, generates both hot water and electricity.

Q: What have been the best benefits of your solar setup?
A: The solar thermal panels, which provide hot water for domestic use and radiant floor heat, have paid for themselves already, and our home requires just a small amount of propane for backup heat in the winter. The other half of the roof consists of a 4.2 kilowatt photovoltaic array that on a sunny day generates more electricity than we use, exporting that surplus to the grid, which we draw from at no cost at night and on cloudy days. Our monthly electric bill is less than $8 during late spring through early fall.

Q: Are there any systems or products you’ve found less useful than others?
A: The only weak link we had in the system was in the early 1990s when the inverters, which convert DC electricity from the panels into AC household current, were less dependable. Today our inverters are smooth, cool, and reliable.

Q: Are there any new technologies out there you’d like to try?
A: Both of our systems work seamlessly without “adult supervision” required from my wife or me, so we do not, at this juncture, see any new technologies that will replace others or significantly enhance our home. Come see it for yourself during Northeast Sustainable Energy Association’s Green Buildings Open House Tour on Saturday, October 1, 2011.

Learn more at

Friday, August 26, 2011

Q+A with Peter Troast, Owner and Founder of Energy Circle

From the June 2011 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Not only does Peter Troast feature energy-monitoring devices on, but he’s tried them all in his once-drafty, but now well-sealed and insulated farmhouse in Freeport. I wanted to glean some knowledge from him about these tools.

Q: In your experience, what are the best energy monitors out there?
A: There are two main types: single-number devices like the TED 1000 ($125), which provides a real-time reading of watts per hour for the whole house, and the more granular Emonitor ($699), which divides up usage on a circuit-by-circuit basis and includes an internet connection for extensive data retention. If the TED is reading 1,100 watts in the middle of the day, we know that lights and fans might have been left on in bedrooms and are reminded to turn them off. Although you have to log in to see it, the Emonitor takes it one step further by telling you exactly where the power is being used.

Q: What have been the biggest benefits of using an energy monitor?
A: Energy monitors give you a tool to make a behavioral change. When you can see your power usage in real time you’re empowered to make the changes needed to keep your home running as efficiently as possible.

Q: What other energy-saving tools do you recommend?
A: The Smart Strip provides one of the highest returns on investment. If your entertainment center is plugged into it, the vampire loads of the stereo, Wii, and DVD player are turned off with the TV. This $28 tool can save you as much as $12 every month in unnecessary energy usage.

See for more information.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Q+A with Maine Huts and Trails about Going off the Grid

From the May 2011 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Maine Huts and Trails’ three off-the-grid wilderness lodges in Western Maine provide year-round accommodations and meals to hikers and skiers by using a combination of solar, hydro, and wood-generated energy to power the radiant floor heating, lights, water pumps, refrigeration, and fans for the kitchen and composting toilet.

How is power generated at each hut?
The Poplar Stream Falls Hut has a wood-fired boiler for heat and hot water, a 2.7 kWh solar array tied to 24-volt battery storage, and a 5 kWh low-head hydro also linked to the batteries. As long as there’s water, the hydro can produce up to 120 kWhs a day, while the solar produces a quarter of that due to size and dependence on sun. The Flagstaff Lake Hut and Grand Falls Hut also have wood boilers, and 5.2 kWh and 5.9 kWh solar systems, respectively, tied to 48-volt battery storage. Both average 25 kWh per sunny day. All huts use propane generators for back up, but if there’s sun and water the generators can go days without use.

How would you compare your electricity producing systems, and what’s next?
Hydro is the hare, solar is the tortoise. While the low-head hydro produces a quicker pay back (assuming a reliable water source), there are fewer variables and maintenance issues with a solar array. We plan to build another hut in a year or so using the systems above, plus a solar thermal system for domestic hot water. 

See for more information, and share your thoughts here.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Tips from the Conservationists of Art

From the April 2011 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Fine art is as worthy of conservation as are natural resources, so I asked some art conservators and the director of a photography gallery for tips on keeping photographs and paintings in good shape for the long haul.


  • Direct sunlight is any photograph’s biggest enemy. To protect the photograph from fading/discoloring in any light, invest in conservation glass or museum glass (non-glare, very clear conservation glass). The photograph should never touch the glass, so a mat or spacer must be used.
  • All framing materials and anything that touches the photograph must be archival, meaning the materials will retain their original properties over time and not leach harmful chemicals into the photograph, causing spots (foxing)


  • Watercolors, drawings, and paintings should never be hung in areas with high moisture content. A constant humidity of around 50 to 60 percent is best. Changes in humidity can be even more detrimental than variations in temperature.
  • If the canvas is buckling, get it keyed out. Most framers and all conservators can do this quickly, and a taut canvas will minimize environmental damage.
  • Attach foam core or card to the back of a painting to prevent the collection of dust behind the stretcher bars. Dust attracts moisture, which in turn swells the canvas, which loosens the paint, causing it to flake.
  • Flaking paint should be remedied as quickly as possible, and if the painting is punctured or torn don’t wait to fix it as the canvas threads will distort over time, making what might have been a simple repair into a costly procedure.

What are your thoughts or questions on art conservation for our experts?

Heather Frederick/VoxPhotographs | Portland and Belfast | 207.323.1214

B.D. Mattozzi Fine Arts Conservation and Restoration | Portland | 207.871.1678

Anthony Moore Painting Conservation | York | 207.363.1794

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Q+A with Rick Renner About His Retrofitted LEED Loft in Portland, Maine

From the March 2011 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

One of the big uncertainties about green building is how well the new practices will perform over time. To find out which systems and techniques are proving smartest, I’ve been asking owners of notable projects around the state what they’ve learned.

Architect Rick Renner's Pleasant Street Loft
Rick Renner
Rick Renner is the principal of Richard Renner Architects, a Portland firm with a focus on environmentally responsible design. Renner lives and works in a late-1800s brick building on Pleasant Street that he retrofitted to LEED Platinum standards in 2007, with architectural offices on the ground floor and personal living quarters upstairs.

Rick Renner
 What’s been the most successful component of the building?
The effort we put into creating as tight a building envelope as possible from an existing structure was critical and very effective. We used closed cell and cellulose super insulation and Accurate Dorwin triple pane fiberglass windows. As a result, the 1,400 square foot loft apartment costs only $320 a year to heat

What’s been the least useful?
We were surprised to find that appraisers didn’t give as much value as we expected to a building’s efficient features. This is something that will change as the market, and therefore, appraisers become more familiar with green buildings. 

What’s new on the horizon?
Using a theater fog machine, we’ve started testing the integrity (air tightness) of building envelopes earlier in the construction process, before the final blower door test. Instead of pulling the air out and noting weak areas with a thermal camera, you push fog into the building to see where the fog is escaping, then tighten up those areas.

Let us know what you think about this project and please suggest others you think we should look at.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Your Two Cents

You might have noticed this blog is a new venture. As we get up and running, I'd love to hear your thoughts and comments on any of the following:
  • What would you like to know about healthy and efficient homes?
  • Who would you like to hear from on this topic?
  • Any homes we should check out?
  • What types of technologies and systems are you curious about?
  • Are you interested in solar PV and solar thermal?
  • Energy monitoring and blower door tests?
  • Passive houses?
  • LEED certified homes?
  • Natural landscaping?
  • Eco-interior design and art?
  • Little things you can do to keep your home warmer, healthier, and more cost efficient?
  • Are there other blogs on these topics you'd like to recommend?
  • Have a story to share?
  • Suggestions on a good story to cover?
Any and all thoughts are welcome and appreciated. Thank you!

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Q+A with Keith Collins About His Net Zero BrightBuilt Barn

From the Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Keith Collins is the owner of the BrightBuilt Barn in Rockport, Maine, a super-insulated, highly weather-tight structure that is “net zero,” meaning it creates more energy than it uses and over time will, in fact, erase its own carbon footprint. Designed by Kaplan Thompson Architects, the barn was featured in Maine Home + Design magazine almost two years ago. I checked in with Collins to see how it’s performing.

Q: What’s been the most successful component of the building?
A: Some people imagine you need a PhD to live in an energy-efficient, solar home. In fact, we’ve had zero problems with the solar photovoltaic (PV) and thermal hot water systems, and are putting about 5,000 kilowatt hours of solar electricity back into the grid each year.

Q: What’s been the least useful?
A: We got famous for the light skirt around the outside of the building that turns green when the solar PV system is putting energy back into the grid and red when we’re using more energy than we’re generating. The thinking was that if you’re aware of how much energy you’re using you tend to use less. However, the house is so efficient that if the sun is out, we’re green, and if the sun isn’t out, we’re red. We don’t need a light skirt to tell us that, all we need to do is look at the sky.

Q: What’s new on the horizon?
A: We’ve tallied the votes, and Community Partners, Inc., of Biddeford, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that has been providing direct support to individuals with disabilities since 1967, has won the BrightBuilt Retrofit. They will receive $10,000 in seed money and access to up to $90,000 in interest-free loans to retrofit their building with the goal of reducing energy consumption by at least 50 percent. The retrofit should be completed by summer 2011.

Check for more information and share your thoughts here.