Beauty on a Budget
A Portland architect’s energy efficient, single-family home.
By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographed by Trent Bell
How do you build one of Portland’s most energy efficient, single-family homes on a budget?
First, find a dilapidated ranch on a double lot in a good neighborhood and buy it despite the clear-indentation of an in-ground pool buried in the backyard.
Then, move in with your wife and two children and hang a tack board on the living room wall to meticulously post notes about what to change. Next, draw plans while your wife hunts for salvaged materials. Finally, hire a builder and subcontractors to bring those plans to life.
The result? A smartly modern, award-winning, two-story house that is as friendly to the wallet as it is to the environment. Of course, it helps if you are a licensed architect whose firm specializes in energy-efficient building and remodeling and you aren’t in a rush.
“You can do things very inexpensively if you can move very slowly,” says Jesse Thompson, one of the home’s owners, who is a principal with Kaplan Thompson Architects, a design firm on Fore Street in Portland.
“It felt very long,” agrees his wife, Betsy Scheintaub, a fiber artist who spent more than a year amassing secondhand kitchen appliances, bathroom tiles, sinks, and tubs. “As we found stuff, we figured out how to use it.”
With Jesse drawing the plans, helping with construction, and serving as general contractor, the couple spent less than one hundred dollars per square foot on the remodel — less than half the typical cost. An additional upshot: the Maine branch of the American Institute of Architects, a leading professional association, recognized the project with a 2012 merit award for design.
That’s because in addition to being affordable and efficient, the 1,800-square-foot house is uncommonly comfortable. Centered around a white-painted, brick fireplace, the light-filled main living area combines cozy seating, a narrow kitchen with a raised butcher-block counter, and a simple dining space. The curvy ceiling, which soars to twelve feet above the front-facing windows and swoops to eight feet over the kitchen, helps define the room.
In keeping with the ceiling, the Thompsons hired DSO Creative Fabrication, of Scarborough, to build a rounded steel mantel and frame for the inset wood-burning fireplace. “We were trying to echo the theme of the curve as a way to soften the house,” says Thompson, who although inspired by Scandinavian modernism wanted the house to feel playful rather than harsh.
“What I really liked,” Betsy says, “was that we could live in the house while we were designing it. So we could say, ‘I wish this room were larger,’ or, ‘I wish there was a window over there.’ ”
To add space while keeping costs down, the Thompsons built up rather than out, lopping off the roof to add two bedrooms and a full bath.
“Most of the guys on the crew refer to that as the worst day they’ve ever worked,” says Jon Clark, owner of Rising Tide Custom Builders in Buxton, of the December day they removed the roof only to be walloped by a massive snowstorm. The challenges kept coming, including wrapping the house with a truckload of salvaged, six-inch-thick, Polyiso insulation.
“We’d never done anything like this,” Clark says of working with the rigid foam sheets, which came in odd sizes because they were salvaged materials. “Jesse’s focus was to get the building as [air] tight as possible.”
“It basically has a big down coat,” Thompson explains of the uncommon technique, which works well for existing houses. “The building is the skeleton, and we put clothes on it.”
The crew also installed triple-paned, Canadian fiberglass windows and European-built doors to bring in light while keeping out the cold. The basement floor was insulated and a new concrete slab poured over the top. To test for leaks, the Thompsons hired Diane Milliken, of Horizon Residential Energy Services in Portland, to fill the house with fog and pressurize it with a fan before standing outside to see what escaped.
“Jesse was out there crawling around on his belly trying to find even the minutest leak,” says Milliken, whose company assists homeowners around the state. “That’s what high-performance construction is today.”
A four thousand dollar air filtration system pulls dirty air from the kitchen and bathrooms and pipes fresh, warmed air into the bedrooms. The system runs twenty-four-hours a day on the energy equivalent of a 40-watt bulb.
“I spent my whole life in cold, drafty New England farmhouses, but in this house you sit around in a T-shirt,” says Jesse, who also burns propane and spends about five hundred dollars per year on heat. “It stays seventy degrees all winter. You wake up and walk outside and you feel like a fool because you didn’t know how cold it was.”
With the exception of the bold blue entryway decorated with a cascade of salvaged cedar panels arranged by Betsy, the rooms are snow white. “We decided to use color elsewhere,” says Betsy, who found the downstairs bathroom’s daffodil yellow, eight-inch, English tiles at the local Habitat for Humanity Re-Store, among other finds. A coat of autumn-orange paint defines the wall under the affordable birch-plywood stairs. And a candy-apple red vinyl chair in the living room came from a hotel in Old Orchard Beach.
For additional contrast, the couple stained the home’s original red oak flooring black using a vinegar and steel wool treatment known as “liquid nightmare.” The tint is echoed in the kitchen’s polished concrete counters, custom molded by Jon Meade Design of Portland. The bright birch cabinets were purchased from IKEA.
Other items originated closer to home. “We used as many Maine materials as we could,” says Jesse, pointing to the home’s wood trellis, wood decking, and gray stained shiplap siding — all eastern white cedar from Day’s Hardwood in Freeport. Slate shingles, an afterthought salvaged from a 150-year-old Monson barn, sheathe the chimney and portions of the exterior. Jesse spent an entire summer punching holes and hammering each slate in place.
To complete the exterior, the Thompsons hired an excavator to dig up the backyard pool, which was filled with household junk, including a swing set. They planted blueberries, hops, and apple trees for an edible front yard, narrowed the driveway, and turned a portion of the garage into a woodshed.
“This was a little bit of a leap of faith,” says Betsy, standing in the kitchen, near several of her framed fabric collages hanging on the wall. “It’s amazing to look back and see where we started.”
“The project proved you can affordably renovate buildings and create incredibly comfortable spaces at an extremely low energy level,” Jesse says. “You don’t need to suffer to be warm.”
The one thing he would change is to acquire better construction financing so his family could have moved in sooner.
Nine months after beginning construction, the Thompsons and their children returned to their new high-efficiency home. But walk down the maple-lined street of this Deering Center neighborhood, and it’s easy to imagine the house has always been here, a bit of modernity tucked between a modest gambrel and a compact four-square. Wheelbarrow propped against the woodpile, broom leaning against the doorframe, one would never guess at the efficiencies inside.
Meadow Rue Merrill is an award-winning journalist who is currently working on a memoir Redeeming Ruth.