The solar-powered office of David Foley and Judy Berk is designed for passive solar gain. The twelve solar panels on the roof provide enough electricity to offset 'plug loads' for both the office and Foley-Berk's nearby house. Photo: Judy Berk
On a recent wintry afternoon, a UPS truck pulled into the long, curved driveway of David Foley and Judy Berk, who have called Northport their home for nearly three decades. For 15 minutes the driver talked to David about solar: how did he like it? What's the payback? "I don't sugar coat it," says David. "It's a big investment. But if you know you're staying in your home and have the means to do it, solar is reliable, has a 5% return on investment at less risk than a CD at the bank, and your return is risk and tax-free."
For David and Judy, renewable energy is a natural extension of the environmentalism they've nurtured throughout their professional and personal work. As the communications director for Natural Resources Council of Maine (see their solar powered Augusta office here), Judy and her colleagues lead the charge for effective environmental policy in Maine; at Holland & Foley Architects , David and partner Sarah Holland design structures that incorporate comfort, beauty and sustainability; since 1994 they've designed hundreds of homes and community buildings, including MOFGA's headquarters in Unity, the Vose Library in Union and Audubon's Field Pond Center in Holden.
David and Judy's Northport story began in 1988, when, after looking at almost 100 parcels throughout Waldo County, they found what they lovingly refer to as "fixer upper land". Their first step was to build a 20' x 24' structure, which David constructed largely by himself. Beyond a small loan to buy the land, they didn't borrow any money: "No mortgage helped pay for things like solar later on," says David. In addition to their home, an office building for Holland & Foley sits nearby, built with passive solar in mind - on a 19 degree December day, it was a comfortable 68 degrees inside. Atop the roof are twelve solar panels; installed in 2012, this first solar array offset all the plug loads (lights and appliances) at both the home and office.
But for David and Judy, their energy upgrades aren't only about values - it was also about timing. "Following the Paris talks in 2015, we thought, let's stop waiting for diplomats. How are these changes going to get done? We have to do it ourselves, one household, neighborhood, and community at a time," says David. "At the same time, we had 27 year old plumbing that needed to be redone, so it made sense to get a new water heater. The shed roof needed repair - so it made sense to make it bigger and fill it with solar. Our appliances were aging, so we replaced them with newer, more efficient models."
The second solar array we installed for Foley-Berk sites atop a shed and offsets the electricity consumption of highly efficiency air source heat pumps.
In 2015, ReVision installed 16 more solar panels to offset three heat pumps used for heating their home and office. Between the two arrays, rated at 2.88 kilowatts and 5.04 kilowatts, they're producing 10,300 kilowatt hours of homegrown renewable electricity annually. In November, after pulling out their old water heater and replacing it with an efficient electric model, David and Judy called the propane company to take away the last of their fossil fuel. "A really nice guy came by to take away the propane tank," says David. "He asked about our solar, about our heat pumps, about being 'zero net energy' by producing as much each year as we use. He said he's been asking everyone he can because he'd like to do the same thing."
That sensibility is a driving force behind "Small Planet Homes", one of Holland & Foley's recent projects, along with several Zero Net Energy or Zero Net Energy Ready homes and renovations. "We've encountered real people with real stories over the years and these homes are for them," says David. "The average home in the U.S. is 2,500 square feet, yet six out of ten American households are two people or less. Maine's housing stock is not only old, it's also uncomfortable and inefficient." These varied and thoughtful plans range from 336 to 1,986 square feet and are net-zero ready.
So what's next for David and Judy? They'll keep an eye on battery storage and electric vehicles, install triple glaze windows as current ones fail, and tackle more air sealing in the house. They'll also maintain their sizeable garden and orchard, which provides much of their food - an enviable mix of annual vegetables, perennial fruits, two sheep, and 30 chickens. "We know that chapters are turning," says David. "We'll soon be living on a fixed income and are interested in predictable expenses. We like to do things that align with our values but also are pragmatic."