Architect Matt O’Malia of Opal Architecture on Embracing Tradition While Raising the Bar on Sustainability
“We are engaging with the traditional fabric of landscape and building forms while grafting on some very potent spatial concepts from contemporary architecture.”
MH+D ASKS O’MALIA TO TELL US MORE.
Q. What are the common threads that connect OPAL projects?
A. OPAL is very much a Maine firm, so our work reflects the landscape, climate, culture, and architectural fabric we find here, things that we deeply appreciate. We’re also committed to moving architecture forward. My partners and I have had professional experience outside the states—I was trained in Germany—so we bring perspectives from outside of Maine. But while we’re not interested in replicating historical details, or even in repeating ourselves, there is an essential and archetypal Maine quality that we try to distill in our work. The other common thread is an intense focus on building performance. The first goal we set as a firm was to make the Passive House standard the baseline for all our projects, and every building we design represents an effort to raise the bar on sustainability even higher.
Q. How do you define that archetypal Maine quality, and how do you move it forward?
A. For us it starts with the elemental quality of the Maine landscape and traditional Maine architecture: the monolithic form and material palette of the Cape, its spare exterior detailing, its climate responsiveness, its austerity. The Cape is an authentic form that is nothing more than it needs to be. It’s not ornamented. It doesn’t put on airs. We find all of that inspiring, and while we’re not replicating the Cape, we try to hold that same line in all of our buildings. The shapes can differ, but we’re always striving for that tight, clean, fundamental quality.
What we don’t love about old Capes is their interior spatial conditions: the cramped, dark rooms, the small windows, the fussy painted trim everywhere. So we take advantage of modern material and glazing technology, which permits flowing, adaptive spaces, and large areas of operable glass for daylighting and connection with the outdoors, all of which are compatible with the overall form language of the Cape. In fact, we find that minimalist detailing aligns our interiors very well with the spare exterior detailing we admire so much in old Capes.
Q. How does material selection play a role in this?
A. When we reference modernism, we’re embracing contemporary concepts of space and light, clean lines, and spare detailing. But instead of concrete and steel, we’re incorporating natural materials within the modernist language for a warmer, more humane response. Our work shares a lot with Scandinavian modernism, which we feel resonates strongly here in New England. We’re also increasingly specifying solid wood construction, in the form of cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels, which are beautiful and durable and also offer the shortest path to a carbon-positive building.
Q. How has OPAL’s design practice evolved over time?
A. With our first project, the GO Home, we took a very traditional building form and kind of abstracted that traditional language by inserting these large windows and a bright, open interior. As our work has evolved, we’ve gone further in that same vein—with more glass, more interior flexibility—still inspired by this tight, compact volume, but being less precious about referencing vernacular forms.
Our Little House on the Ferry project connects three simple, Cape-like forms, and that’s an approach we often take with our larger residential projects. This is shown in a recent island home that consists of three gabled volumes—essentially three GO Homes—joined by an area of flat roof. It’s ultimately still inspired by the Cape, but we’re using it in a much more flexible way, creating a village-like interplay of forms.
This approach also works as a response to the pandemic, when everything is happening at home. Instead of having this single, dense form—the Cape—we’re keeping the austerity of that language but articulating it, pulling it apart, and connecting and integrating it with the site. That lets us create spaces for both privacy and gathering, along with greater engagement with the outdoors—all of which we need more than ever—in a way that a simple volume doesn’t.
Q. In recent years OPAL has seen increasing demand for its work from outside of Maine. What’s driving that development?
A. Maine has a very distinct image outside the state, involving appreciation for the environment, connection with the outdoors, and a sense of cultural continuity. Maine culture—including our architecture—embodies an intimate relationship with the natural world and an authentic response to it. For us, that goes beyond the aesthetics that drive our work. Much of Maine still looks like it did in the nineteenth century, but we’re quite aware of the world we live in. And there’s no authentic design response that avoids reality, so we’ve always focused intently on the way our buildings are made and how they perform.
Much of that focus now is on increasing our use of CLT and other forms of solid wood construction that sequester carbon in the building’s structure. We’re also launching a national-scale startup to manufacture a line of wood fiber insulation called Timber HP. These are advanced, renewable technologies with the potential to transform the construction industry by producing beautiful, high-performance, low-carbon buildings. They also reflect the realities of our local environment and local resources and support an authentic evolution of our design aesthetic. We feel that’s both on-brand for Maine and a lead for the rest of the world to follow.
Q. Lastly, can you tell us a little about your recent work with College of the Atlantic? It has received a lot of press in the past couple of years.
A. We don’t believe that Maine is or should be static in its expression, whether in the arts, architecture, or anything else. If we’re really going to embody Maine values, when we see a problem, we’re going address it. We’ve been fortunate in having clients who are aligned with that perspective, including College of the Atlantic, for which we’re now completing a major campus building that breaks new ground in energy and carbon performance. Those partnerships have allowed us to develop innovative technologies, popularize them, and export them. So we’re taking what we create here, pushing it back out into the world, and changing how people think about design, construction, aesthetics, and sustainability.