After adding a big addition to our already too big house in 2006 (what were we thinking?), we have decided to downsize and build a new, much smaller, highly efficient single-floor house for the two of us.
We live on 43 acres in rural Maine, in a town called Alna about an hour northeast of Portland. We love the land and love our house as well. But at almost 4,000 square feet for the two of us, keeping our house cleaned and maintained and heated and so on has become a bigger burden that we need at this point in our lives.
We went back and forth about selling and moving somewhere else, but kept talking about how much we love the land, with the rolling fields, gardens, ponds, and forest. We have friends and neighbors we’d hate to leave.
So, around the beginning of 2014, we made the decision to build a new house on the land, just up the hill a few hundred yards.
Of course, we also considered renovating, but we’d still end up with too much house. I even thought of demolishing the little-used 200+ year-old front part, but we couldn’t make that concept work, since we’d need to add on a first-floor bedroom and bath once we knocked down the front section.
So, we needed a plan, starting with the design. We had a pretty good idea of what attributes we wanted the house to include:
Why we chose the Pretty Good House approach
There are lots of organizations which can certify a house as meeting certain standards for efficiency. LEED, Energy Star, and Passivhaus all have developed systems for assessing how well a structure meets the organization’s standards. These certification systems have aided in the development of technologies and construction processes as well as the creation of new products.
But certification comes at a significant financial cost, because someone needs to be paid to certify that the claimed efficiencies have been realized in the finished product. In addition, it may be necessary to spend money to meet the standard, even though some expenses may not make financial sense. On the other hand, why not use some of the concepts developed by the certifying organizations that have proven to be beneficial?
I first read about the concept of the Pretty Good House here on Green Building Advisor. In a nutshell, what I think it means is that we can try to find the sweet spot between cost and benefit when addressing efficiency and assessing the tradeoffs necessary when planning a house that we want to live in.
The other concept we are trying to employ comes from Sarah Susanka. Her concept is simple enough: Focus on quality, not quantity, and recognize that good design can help make a smallish home work better than a big one.
With the two concepts in mind, we started our initial design planning. I had heard of Jesse Thompson, an architect in Portland. I emailed Jesse and we arranged a meeting in early February. Both of us liked Jesse and it seemed like a good fit, so we had an architect. We were on our way!
We have already settled on a builder: Tom Greenleaf from Jefferson, Maine. Tom built our addition in 2005-06 and has done work for us over the years. He’s a good builder and, most importantly, we work well together.
We met several times with Jesse and with Jamie, another architect at Kaplan Thompson. Over the course of the meetings, we refined the scope and worked out the building footprint and, for the most part, the floor plan. We had already decided on a single level, accessible house with no basement, large garage, lots of south-facing glass, designed for maximum efficiency and minimum upkeep.
At Jesse’s suggestion, we paid a visit to Maine Green Building Supply to look at windows. I’d read a lot about triple-pane windows made in Europe. We looked at Intus windows and were quite impressed at the robust construction and the very impressive performance numbers.
In early June, we met with Jesse, Jamie, and Tom to look at where the design was and get Tom’s input. The next step was to start looking at prices for major items like windows and doors and siding materials.
The lay of the land
We met with Jesse, Jamie, and Tom to stake out the house and garage. We plan to place the house at the edge of a field of several acres to take advantage of a view to the south and downhill to some fields and a small pond. We need to selectively clear some trees both to enhance the view and to derive a heating energy benefit from solar gain through large windows on the south side of the house. The house is set back far enough from the tree line that we’ll be able to use photovoltaic panels on the roof if we choose that option.
The basic footprint is 60 feet by 28 feet, with a bump-out for the living room of 10 feet by 18 feet, for a total of 1,860 square feet. Of course the interior dimensions will be smaller. If we use 12-inch-thick walls, we’ll lose almost 200 square feet to framing.
Once we staked it out, the house looked enormous! We had extended discussions about how to level the grade and we moved the footprint around a bit to take advantage of the topography. The land slopes several feet from the front to back of the house site. We need to ensure that we have positive drainage away from the house in all directions. Fortunately, we have enough land available that we can shape the surface without too much trouble and we can avoid creating any steep slopes that might need retaining walls. It looks like the garage will be encroaching on part of our asparagus patch, so we will see if it is possible to transplant the crowns in the middle of the growing season.
Next steps for the site include getting a driveway permit from the Maine Department of Transportation, since we will enter from a state road; getting a septic system design; deciding where the well should go; and arranging for the excavator to look the site over and see if he has any concerns.
At the same time, we’re still refining the interior layout and considering siding options.
Power to the site
Yesterday, we met with Jeremy, our electrician, to look over the site and start thinking about bringing power to the house site. The house is a few hundred feet from the road, across a field. Power poles would look awful, so we’re going underground. We discussed installing several conduits for power, cable TV, phone, etc.
The first job is for me is to contact Central Maine Power and set up a new account. I did that this morning. As usual when dealing with people from Maine, it was a painless experience. We have a new account and Jeremy will work with CMP to establish the service, locate the meter, etc.
We plan to include a stand-by generator for when (not if) the power goes out. We have one now and it makes long power outages tolerable for us and the occasional neighbor who needs to get warm, eat a hot meal, or take a shower.
Jeremy suggested that we might be able to locate the generator and the electric meter out by the road, well away from the house. The generator is noisy, so that sounds like an option worth considering.
Here is a link to Part 2 of this blog series: Site Work Begins for a Pretty Good House in Maine.
Stephen Sheehy is the author of a construction blog documenting the process of building a Pretty Good House in rural Maine. Over the next several weeks, GBA will publish a serialized and slightly condensed version of Sheehy’s reports.