a house in harmony with nature
When Fiona Wilson and her husband, Rob, headed to Maine for a winter weekend to visit friends, they had no idea that their getaway would provide the impetus for a permanent home on the coast. They arrived late at night and had no idea of their surroundings. Daylight revealed a stunning scene. “The view was simply dazzling,” Fiona says. “We looked out onto a frozen Casco Bay with the sun glinting off the ice and this snow-covered countryside. It was so gorgeous that we both were struck with the same thought—that maybe we should move to Maine.”
Fiona is a professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire, while Rob works for a nonprofit economic development organization in Portland, Maine. Since the couple had previously lived in London (Fiona is originally from the United Kingdom); Barcelona, Spain; and later Boston after coming to the States, they had expected to remain city dwellers. Now, fate had other plans. They began searching for property and soon found two and a half adjoining lots not far from their friends’ home. The lots were on a quiet street with frontage facing Casco Bay, and one lot had a small, 1940s camp on it. The couple initially planned to tear down the camp and build a larger home. They hired an architect who drew up plans for a lovely 3,500-square-foot residence, but then their ideas changed.
“My husband and I were both making career transitions at the same time we were planning the house,” Fiona explains. “We lived up here for four months while we were between jobs, and during that time, we got to know the land around us. It changed our idea of what we wanted. Both of us are committed to sustainability, and I actually teach classes in sustainability at the university. The more we thought about it, the more we realized that we did not need a large home. We both liked the idea of something smaller. We had seen the Zimmerman House, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian design in New Hampshire, and liked that approach. It had a low profile and blended in with its surroundings; there was not a big roadside presence. In fact, the design brings nature into the house. Our lot is a narrow finger of land that juts out into Casco Bay; it just made sense to build something that fit with the landscape.”
Fiona and Rob hired Jesse Thompson of Kaplan Thompson Architects in Portland, Maine, to design a home that met their needs and environmental philosophy. Thompson reduced the home’s footprint to 1,800 square feet, while orienting it to capture the lots’ stunning vistas. The couple also decided to keep the camp, remodeling it and using it as a summer guesthouse while building the main home on the adjacent lot.
“The project was not without challenges,” Thompson says. “The lots were narrow and Fiona and Rob understandably wanted to capture the ocean views, so that limited how the home could be placed. They also wanted the house to be energy efficient, so we wanted to bring in as much natural light as we could. We wound up situating the house on a diagonal to give it the best orientation for capturing the sun and achieving maximum ocean views. Another goal was to build a green home on a budget. With careful planning and by working closely with the contractor, Michael Monaghan from Monaghan Woodworks in Portland, it all came together.”
Thompson created a home with an unorthodox shape. The section facing the road has a very low roof slant since there are no views to accommodate. This gives the home an understated presence. As you approach the water, the house rises up three levels, and windows wrap the corners of the oceanside walls to ensure stunning views from all directions. Every room save for one looks out to sea.
The home has simple, clean lines and its green clapboards fade into the wooded surroundings. Fiona notes that when kayaking on the bay, she cannot see her home onshore.
In addition to its unique design, Thompson and the couple created a home that has achieved LEED Platinum certification, the highest environmental efficiency ranking from the United States Green Building Council. The walls are one foot thick, helping the home stay cool in summer and warm in winter, and the windows are triple glazed. Building such a well-insulated structure reduced the need for a heavy-duty heating and cooling system. Instead, all they need to keep the whole house cozy and warm is a small radiant heating system built in to the main floors. “The entire home can be heated for just hundreds of dollars per year,” Thompson says.
The home has energy-efficient LED lighting, low-flow faucets and toilets, and is built to be durable enough to withstand Maine coastal winters. “Homes on the coast are under constant onslaught from wind, snow, rain, and the ocean-driven climate,” Thompson explains. “Moisture is a constant problem. To combat that, we used fiber cement clapboards on the outer walls but did not lap the clapboards. They are mounted on a vertical screen with drainage space in between; there is also space between the sheathing and the building so that water can drain and moisture can be wicked away. Otherwise, it would remain trapped there. We also used copper sills on the windows. These should last a hundred years and the patina will only improve with age.” Thompson and Monaghan conducted a blower door test three times during the home’s construction to check for water leaks, and the home passed with flying colors.
As a finishing touch, only native, indigenous plantings were used in the landscaping, which reinforces the home’s “disappearing act” among the trees.
Indoors, the home is striking in its simplicity. Fiona and Rob kept all the walls white, allowing the exterior vistas to provide the color. The cohesive color scheme lets rooms flow seamlessly into one another and conveys the impression of extensive space. Furnishings are understated and echo the colors of the outdoors. The charcoal-gray sofa and chairs in the living room partner with an earth-toned rug and wall hanging of similar hue. Polished cement flooring is environmentally sound, and its smooth gray surface reminds them of ocean stones. The living room opens onto a screened porch, which the family enjoys in warmer weather.
“This is very much a house where the outdoors is brought indoors,” Fiona says. “We never tire of looking outside. Whether it is the changing light or the changing seasons, the view is always beautiful and restful.” According to Fiona, the cement floors are also a boon in terms of cleaning. “We are an outdoors family and constantly tracking in mud, sand, you name it, and they clean up easily.”
In the kitchen, the couple bought cabinet bases from Ikea and then had doors custom-made for them from bamboo. The master bath features bamboo cabinets and vanity. Here, the white walls are softened by neutral hues in the rug and in the tile work above the tub, where a brown-toned mosaic is framed with natural slate. The upstairs rooms feature bamboo flooring, and, again, furnishings are kept to a minimum. Fiona’s daughter, who is eight, has the coolest room in the house, with access to her own private loft and spectacular views. “She loves it up there!” Fiona says. “It is her own nook for reading or playing with friends, her own special space.”
The couple’s home has won several awards including the 2013 Best Energy-Smart Home from Fine Homebuilding magazine. Thompson thinks the recognition is because of the home’s unique mix of energy efficiency and style. While he enjoys the accolades, he is most pleased by his clients’ satisfaction.
Fiona and Rob love their “big enough house,” as they refer to it, and feel that they made the right choice. “We did not set out to build an LEED home,” she says. “We just wanted to make good choices. We wanted a healthy home for our daughter to grow up in and felt that by choosing natural materials, we could provide that. I think anyone can achieve a house like this by doing some research. We spent a lot of time on the Internet and working with our builder, who was amazing, to find materials and fixtures that were green, yet fit our budget. The result is a home that suits us perfectly.”