363 Sustainable Eco Friendly House Portland Maine

How do you design a home that:

  1. Fits the small-space requirements of an in-town (Portland, Maine) lot?
  2. Meets the needs of not just any family, but that of your daughter’s family, consisting of the husband/wife, infant son and two large dogs?
  3. Meets exacting accessibility standards, since your daughter is a quadriplegic?
  4. Is near net zero to boot?

These challenges might scare off many architects, but not John Gordon, who met this challenge with enthusiasm. “The home demonstrates how a small, sustainable residence built with a moderate budget can fit into an older neighborhood in support of a more sustainable lifestyle. My daughter, Jessica Russell, is a quadriplegic. Therefore, equal and careful consideration was given to accessibility issues within the house. Its high-performance requirements are two-fold – environmental and accessibility.”

Building a Winning Team

Designing and building a home with such a set of ambitious goals requires a team of professionals, including a LEED consultant and LEED modeler (as the home is targeted for LEED Platinum), landscape architect (to help design the green roof), and of course a builder. ReVision Energy was brought in as the renewable energy consultant. Our engineer, Geoff Sparrow, P.E. discussed the options for generating comfortable radiant heat using solar-powered electricity.

“I never thought I’d design an all electric house,” John says, “But as we explored the potential for solar PV (available roof area, orientation, cost, etc.) it became apparent that electricity as the primary heat source was viable, due in large part to a very-tight, super-insulated building shell. Our preliminary energy model was encouraging, so we decided to head down the all-electric path. As a quadriplegic, Jessica has difficulty regulating her body temperature – she is especially susceptible to drafts. We had learned from her house in Bucksport that a radiant concrete slab is a very desirable heating source for Jessica (radiant energy = no drafts). Geoff Sparrow presented the idea of an electric air-to-water heat pump (the Altherma) to provide hot water for a radiant slab (on the first floor) AND a radiant ceiling at the second floor. It seemed like a perfect fit for Jessica’s comfort needs and was a good fit with our energy model.”

Powered by the Sun

Powering the Daikin Altherma, and the remaining household loads, is a 7.2kw grid tied solar electric array, which will produce roughly 8,830kWh of electricity each year. The home also features a solar hot water system consisting of two Wagner solar hot water collectors and Caleffi solar storage tank with electric backup. All told, the combination of aggressive air sealing and efficient systems should equal very small operating costs for the Russell family – the energy model predicts total annual costs for the home to be about $300 annually.

Coordinating a project this ambitious can be tricky, but John says he was impressed with the professionalism he saw throughout the process. “The fun thing about ambitious projects like these is that builder and subcontractors really ‘buy-in’ and do their finest work in support of the many project goals.”

Little Things Make Big Differences

As for Jessica, and her husband Todd, they’re looking forward to moving into their new 21st century home and enjoying all of the features. “Watching our dream home materialize from concept to design to an actual building has been incredible,” she says. “This house features some very specific design elements we will be benefiting from that every day. I am excited to be able to do things in my own home that a lot of people take for granted — cook and use the kitchen, access all rooms and the outdoors with ease… even something as simple as getting a glass of water for myself or feeding my pets. These are all things that are currently difficult or impossible in my 100 year old home.”

Of those features that many people “take for granted,” many can be found in the kitchen. “For me, a high functioning quadriplegic with a stronger right side, we tried to break down each kitchen task and come up with a solution for areas where I need modification. When I’m at the sink, I need to be able to roll under the sink but still reach into it. It can’t be too deep but can’t be so shallow that it doesn’t serve its purpose. The dishwasher is a drawer type, positioned on my right so I can easily move dishes into it while sitting at the sink. A side by side refrigerator allows access to both fridge and freezer. An electric cook-top with touch controls leaves room to roll under and also enables me to operate it with limited finger function. I am always surprised that there are so many products available that aren’t designed specifically for use with accessibility, but can easily serve that purpose. I think my new kitchen is a great example of how a well thought-out design in a small space with carefully selected appliances can do wonders.”

Also a wonder for the Russells will be that all this can be done nearly totally solar powered. “It almost goes without saying that I’m also looking forward to our energy savings. No more jaw dropping oil, gas or electric bills! And we can feel good about our reducing our environmental impact.”