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Guest Blogs

Pretty Good, Not So Big Maine House

A couple decides to shed a house that's too big and build a smaller, more energy-efficient version nearby

House in the works: Stephen Sheehy and his wife are building this "Pretty Good House" in rural Maine. The project is the topic of a series of guest blogs that begins today and will run regularly over the next several weeks.

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:

  • Everything on a single level. We are in our 60s and, so far, in good shape, but one never knows when climbing stairs could become a challenge.
  • An envelope that is highly energy-efficient.
  • Materials that are very low maintenance.
  • An open-plan kitchen, dining, and living area.
  • Southern exposure.

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 Lakesideca 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 . 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 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 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.

17 Comments

  1. Ven Sonata | | #1

    So far, so good,
    A couple of points: "If we use foot thick walls we will lose 200 sq ft because of framing". Let me give you a sunnier way of seeing it. If you use foot thick walls, 'instead of 6" walls' we lose a modest 100 extra sq ft! Every house has to "lose" something to walls. Next, I like the generator and solar idea while still connected to the grid. It might be good not to use micro inverters since if you decide to use a battery as well at some point you would need another inverter to go from AC to DC. You might as well get an off grid inverter right from the start that is Tesla battery compatible since you may decide to drop a battery in later.

  2. Tom Bland | | #2

    Battery storage
    Regarding your last paragraph about the generator – please instead consider battery storage rather than a gasoline or natural gas-powered generator. Look at Tesla's battery options and see if one of those might work for you. From what I understand they're very cost effective compared to typical generators.

    Good luck!

  3. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #3

    generator v. battery storage
    We were intrigued by Tesla's Powerwall, but it just won't substitute for a whole house propane standby generator. It would require a different inverter that what we installed, ar a cost of about $2000. But the biggest problem is the limited storage capacity. The Powerwall stores 10 kwh at a cost of $3500 plus installation. Our house is entirely electric and we expect daily usage to be between 20 and 30 kwh. How many powerwalls would we need for a power outage lasting a week? Three? Four? Six? We'd love to skip the generator, but that's not going to happen.

    1. T. Barker | | #16

      I absolutely agree with Stephen's assessment.
      We'll be building a new house/cottage next year and I've run the numbers and design possibilities for battery backup every way possible - and they just don't work. If you're going to have a modern house with all the amenities, there's no way you can justify a properly designed battery backup system. No way. Start with $40,000 and add maintenance issues.
      If you're going to go all ecogreen and only use 5 kwhr per day, sure slap in a couple of batteries or hack together a couple of solar panels, turn off the A/C and electric heat, and move half of your food supplies down to the cold room. Be my guest.
      And even if you have a 10 or 15 kw solar array hooked in, chances are when the power is out so are the clouds and snow.
      So, unfortunately the only reliable way is to hook up to the grid, and if the grid is unreliable in your area, then a backup generator is absolutely the way to go.

      1. User avater GBA Editor
        Martin Holladay | | #17

        T. Barker,
        For more on this issue, see "Batteries for Off-Grid Homes."

  4. Peter L | | #4

    Powerwall
    Couldn't one use the Tesla Powerwall at night and then during the day use the 10kWh PV solar array to power the home and charge the PowerWall during a power outage?

  5. Malcolm Taylor | | #5

    Stephen
    Nice house. Looking forward to future updates.
    We lose power all the time. It usually happens when it's stormy, so the chances of re-charging batteries during the day is slim - and it's not really a time you want to be out monkeying with anything - you just want power.
    Edit: I think it's probably a bit early to be making plans around the Tesla product. It isn't generally available, the data storage by them isn't something I'd be comfortable with, and it has virtually no track record.

  6. Peter L | | #6

    Malcolm
    Regarding the data storage. You own a computer and I assume a cell phone. The data storage and info they have on you and your activities is more than you will ever know. I wouldn't worry about the PowerWall data storage, your computer and phone provides plenty of data.

  7. Peter L | | #7

    Intus Windows
    Did you end up going with Intus Windows and if so, what SHGC did you use on the south facing windows?

    BTW - Energy Star Certification only costs about $700

  8. Malcolm Taylor | | #8

    Peter
    My computer is protected with privacy software and I don't own a cell phone. There is also a fundamental difference between using a device which may store and record your data, and incorporating something into your house that needs a link to the company that you bought it from to work.
    A bigger issue is about the direction the building energy conservation movement is going to take. Whether it concentrates on improving the basic components of the structure, or decides to make the building part of the Internet of Things, dependant on a larger technological system for it to function.

  9. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #9

    windows
    Peter- we did install Intus windows, except on the porch where we wanted casements. There we used windows from Kohltech. The SHGC for the Intus windows is .49.

    If we lose power for several days and the sun isn't out, the Tesla solution isn't workable. In addition, I understand that the amount of power draw it can handle at any instant is limited. I'd be popping the breaker every time the water heater kicks on. We went with a conventional electric resistance WH because of the noise from a HPWH.

    We built the house with no regard for resale, so decided early on not to bother with any certification. In the event we decide to sell some day, the low energy costs we expect should help market the house. Maybe someday, certification will be important to some people, but right now, hardly anyone has ever heard of LEED, Passivhaus, etc. As has been discussed here for the last few years, reaching certain goals in order to get certified is often not cost effective. We expect to be roughly net zero and that's good enough for us.

    Malcolm-I think that building a robust structure that is easy to heat and maintain is more useful and greener than most high tech, "smart house" gadgetry. I really don't want to be consulting an owner's manual every time I want to turn on a light. Moreover, I have no need to turn on my lights or cook my dinner via the internet.

  10. Malcolm Taylor | | #10

    Stephen
    Where are you in the construction of the house? I'm just asking so we don't all chime in with our advice about things you have long since decided on and done already.

  11. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #11

    reply to Malcolm
    We're about to move in. The house isn't done, but close enough. I'm building the cabinets and various built-ins, so that'll take a while. I'm not all that good a cabinet maker, but I'm slow.
    Nevertheless, it's interesting to discuss people's ideas about what we might do, even if it's too late for us.

  12. Malcolm Taylor | | #12

    Close enough
    "The house isn't done, but close enough."
    I did the same 18 years ago. Still have half a kitchen and no baseboards in the dining room.

  13. Janet Brewer | | #13

    your old house
    What are you doing with your old house? I hope you are doing something "green" with it.

  14. Bob Corrigan | | #14

    floor plan?
    I've been looking through the attached blog and I can't find a floor plan for the house - is this available?

  15. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #15

    Reply to Janet and Bob
    Janet- our old house is for sale. I can arrange a good deal for GBA folks.

    Bob-I attach a floor plan

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