Friday, November 30, 2012

Q+A with Jesse Thompson on his Deep Energy Retrofit

Architect Jesse Thompson and his wife searched for two years for the perfect beat up and inexpensive house within walking/biking distance to schools, work, and restaurants that they could retrofit and expand for their primary residence. The resulting home won an AIA Merit Award in 2012.
Photo courtesy Jesse Thompson.
Q: As an architect, why did you want to retrofit an old ranch instead of building new?
A: In greater Portland, if you want to walk the kids to school and ride your bike to work you need to be flexible in your land search. We sought an inexpensive house that needed new siding, and didn’t have historic character or significant toxicity issues. The resulting “building lot” came with a free foundation, garage, utility connections, and a first floor.

Q: What were the most successful aspects of the project?
A: We were able to add 800 square feet and update the insulation and siding of the original building to improve the envelope by 90 percent, which helped reduce heating costs from approximately $3,000 a year to $400. All this at $85 per square foot.
Architect Jesse Thompson. Photo by Winky Lewis.
Q: What were some of the biggest challenges?
A: The salvaged foam insulation wasn’t flat product and the framers had to shim the strapping to make it work. However, we paid only $2,500 to cover the house in 6” of insulation (see

Q: What’s next?
A: We’re adding solar photovoltaic panels this year. PV electricity has come down in price and is now only $0.14 per kWh if you spread the cost of buying the panels over 25 years, which is their minimum lifespan. That’s cheaper than Central Maine Power, and that’s BEFORE the 30 percent Federal Tax Credit for Energy Efficiency.

Learn more at and share your thoughts here.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Q+A with Brian Haddock, founder and owner of Furniturea

Furniturea (pronounced fur-ni-chur-ah) began in 1974 as a carpentry company but eventually transitioned to furniture and, in 2006, opened a Portland showroom. Furniturea's colorful, modern designs are inspired by the shapes in rural Maine architecture and made in Portland from regionally harvested wood.

Furniturea's Portland showroom at 75 Market Street
 Q: What is Furniturea's mission in terms of sustainability?
A: My goal when I created Furniturea was to build a company that appealed to me as a designer, a worker, and a consumer. I'd never heard the term "slow design," but that was, in hindsight, what I was after. Our mantra is "artful, functional, and affordable," and our goal is to create original furniture with a local workforce, using sustainable regional materials. The wood components are designed so they can be cut from stock panels with minimal waste, our smaller products are built from material left over from larger products, and any remainder after that is utilized as biofuel.

Local inspiration for furniture designs.
Q: How does custom furniture factor into this mission?
A: If a customer has furniture built especially for them, I think they're more likely to take better care of it and keep it longer. As well, customers who purchased furniture in the past bring it back and have it painted different colors to match a new home or makeover. It's like taking old shoes to a cobbler to replace the soles.

Furniturea Crate Storage Series
Q: Anything new and exciting?
A: We've expanded our customizable Crate Storage Series to more than 150,000 choices in sizes, styles, and functions, and recently incorporated Maine Cottage's 40-color palette with our own 24, for 64 eco-friendly paint choices.

Learn more at

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Q+A with Unity College’s Michele Leavitt and sustainability coordinator Jesse Pyles about Unity House

Unity House is Unity College's on-campus residence of English professor, Michele Leavitt, and her husband, President Stephen Mulkey. Completed in 2008 by Bensonwood, the 1,937 square-foot LEED Platinum home features a 5.4 KW solar photovoltaic array, solar thermal hot water, a Hallowell cold-climate air-source heat pump, high-efficiency insulation, recycled and locally sourced materials, and passive solar design.

Photo by Mark Tardif
What have been the most impressive features of Unity House?
The passive solar layout, with tight envelope and large triple-paned windows, allows the sun to reach in and warm the air and concrete slab floors to 70 degrees on a sunny winter day, with no additional heating needed. As well, in one year the solar PV panels produced 6,441 kWh of electricity and the house used 6,430 kWh, which means we met the net zero goal, with 11 kWh to spare. The open and welcoming common space feels connected to the outdoors and is great for entertaining.

Photo by Mark Tardif
Would you do anything differently?
Nothing, except add more closet space. It has all the comfort of a normal middle-class home, but one that, amazingly, uses less energy than it produces.

Photo by Mark Tardif
What’s next?
TerraHaus, the first student residence in the country built to Passive House Institute US standards by GO Logic, just completed its first school year of use. It houses 10 students and features many of the same elements as Unity House. Both projects are part of the college’s 2020 Master Plan for a fully sustainable campus.

Learn more at and

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Q+A with Richard Renner, principal of Richard Renner Architects, on deep energy retrofits

From the May 2012 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

Known for his expertise in green building, Richard Renner has been busy with two deep energy retrofits in Massachusetts—one full and one phased—both with the goal of increasing the energy efficiency of an existing home. We checked in with him to find out more about these projects.
Architect Rick Renner
Q: What’s the main difference between a phased and a full deep energy retrofit?
A: In a full retrofit, all the work is done at once, so the disruption is minimized and benefits accrue as soon as the work is complete. A phased retrofit unfolds over time, so it takes longer and is probably, in the aggregate, more expensive; however, it is more suited to a limited annual budget.
Before the retrofit
Q: What does each entail?
A: In the full retrofit we’re adding four inches of rigid foam to the roof and above-grade walls and basement and replacing all windows. The result is a complete upgrade of the exterior envelope making the home tight enough to require a heat recovery ventilator. The phased retrofit balances a desire for increased energy efficiency with the need for significant architectural changes, including a new kitchen and a master bedroom suite addition. So whenever we changed an exterior wall, we improved the envelope. Along the way we also added insulation to the roof, replaced all windows, and installed a heat recovery ventilator.

During the retrofit
Q: Are deep energy retrofits growing in demand?
A: Without some form of subsidy, it’s hard to see how full deep energy retrofits will be more than a niche market. It’s more likely that we will take the lessons from full retrofits and apply them in a phased way.
Completed deep energy retrofit
Learn more at

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Q+A with David Moser, principal designer at Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers

From the April 2012 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Deisgn:

David, youngest son of Thomas Moser, is the principal designer at the iconic 40-year-old Auburn furniture company with showrooms in Freeport and across the country. (Read profile of David Moser in Maine Home + Design by Rebecca Falzano.)

David Moser, photo courtesy Thos. Moser

Q: Describe your vision of sustainable furniture design.
A: We design our furniture to last as long as, if not longer than, it took the tree that made it to grow, and to be passed down through a family. I don’t design for fashion or timeliness, which ebbs and flows, but for timelessness—to create something that will survive my life and be just as current then as now. This seems to me the most basic form of sustainability. Products today often exhibit design obsolescence—they are made to break down within five years. Then you must buy another and another so in the end you consume and pay more than if you bought one table designed to last a lifetime.

Q: Is furniture art?
A: I don’t know that furniture ever really becomes art, but the process is artful. Art, for me, has no masters—it doesn’t owe anything to anybody. Design has a lot of different masters: economy, craft, utility. Still, looking at good design is like hearing music that satisfies the soul; you come into its harmony and are free for a moment.

Ellipse Dining Chairs in walnut, photo courtesy Thos. Moser

Q: What’s next?
A: The long-term plan is to build a showroom on the plot of land in downtown Freeport [currently featuring a Moser chair in a glass case]. I like to dream about what I would create for that space if I were an architect—glass and stone, natural materials, gardens, art. A place you go not only for the furniture, but just to visit. A reason to pull off the highway.

Share your comments here, and learn more at

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Q+A with John Rooks, founder and president of SOAP

From the March 2012 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:

SOAP, Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners, helps companies, governments, and non-profits understand, improve, communicate, and own their impact to the world via environmental sustainability, social/cultural sciences, and business strategies. John is also the author More Than Promote: A Monkeywrencher’s Guide to Authentic Marketing. He spoke at TEDx Dirigo about something he called “the wink” of green marketing.

John Rooks
Photo by Jason Esposito, courtesy TEDx Dirigo
What is "the wink"?
It’s when a teenager invites a date upstairs "to listen to music." They both know the sub-text, but it’s a safer question than asking to go upstairs and make-out. The Green Marketing Wink is the same. Most brands promote how green they are through advertising. Kermit the Frog’s "It’s not easy being …" has been used on everything from Fords to pension funds, but it’s often only lip service. The product manufacturer gets to say, "We are green." Wink. The consumer gets a guilt-free purchase and winks back, but underneath, both know it’s simply giving permission to do commerce.

What can businesses do to practice more authentic sustainability?
There are bright spots in the "collaboration is the new competition" movement where companies are collaborating with competitors to reduce environmental impact. Nike, particularly, has done this well by working with other footwear companies on "pre-competition" problem solving, and open-sourcing much of its material impact data and product design tools.

SOAP advocates that companies complete an Authenticity Audit. It’s a scary concept, but one that helps align corporate culture, business goals, and sustainability to create the most effective path toward achieving business goals and sustainability at the same time.

Learn more at and and share your thoughts here.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Q+A with Clare Hannan and Stephen Podgajny of the Portland Public Library

From the Jan-Feb 2012 Bright-Minded Home column in Maine Home + Design:
With the goal of cutting energy costs, phase one of Portland Public Library’s renovation by Scott Simons Architects incorporated many energy-efficient design features, including a solar chimney, low water-consumption plumbing features, high-efficiency gas boilers, radiant floor heating, improved HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning) zoning, high-efficiency lamps and ballasts, and lighting fixtures with optical efficiency. The solar chimney takes advantage of the southern exposure and existing stone panels at the front of the building to direct naturally preheated air to the mechanical system.
Photo by Trent Bell for Maine Home + Design
Q: What benefits have these energy-efficient features provided? 
A: Of note was the impact on the natural gas usage—a decrease of just over 23 percent—due to installation of high-efficiency boilers. However, given that we added 2,400 square footage of volume, and that the first phase included only a partial renovation to our HVAC system, we weren’t surprised to see an overall expense increase of just under 10 percent, when comparing usage in 2011 to that of 2009 (the last full year on record), and using 2009 rates for comparison. Our kWh usage went up overall by 14.65 percent, in large part due to additional volume in the atrium area requiring cooling, and the age of our chiller, which was not replaced during the renovation.

Photo by Trent Bell for Maine Home + Design
Q: Are you happy with the results?
A: We believe the measures implemented during Phase One of the renovation resulted in improvements, and overall, the facility is more comfortable for our patrons and staff.

Photo by Trent Bell for Maine Home + Design
Q: What’s next?
A: In Phase Two we plan to work toward final HVAC system upgrades to include high-efficiency air handlers, a new chiller unit, and consideration of solar panels.

Learn more at and