A Net-Zero Residence on Mount Desert Island Designed Around Mountain Views
With a mix of structural acrobatics and unusual geometry, Portland-based Kaplan Thompson Architects creates an aerie with stunning views of Cadillac Mountain
Cadillac Mountain is a focal point for anyone on Mount Desert Island—at 1,530 feet, it’s the most dominant peak in the area and for many miles in either direction along the North Atlantic coast. From early October to early March, it’s also the first place you can view the sunrise in the U.S. So it’s not so surprising that a family would choose to build a new home in Bar Harbor that looks out on this stunning geographic landmark.
The couple, who had been coming to the area for many years to vacation with their family, purchased the 35-acre property to build a multigenerational home that could serve as a seasonal retreat and eventually their primary residence. Soon after, they hired Phil Kaplan, principal of Portland-based Kaplan Thompson Architects, largely because of his firm’s specialty in sustainable design—an important consideration for these New Jersey–based clients. In fact, just four years after starting his firm in 2004, Kaplan won a National LEED Award for the first net-zero building he designed. Since 2008 the firm has been committed to building only sustainable, net-zero properties. (“Net zero” refers to a building that produces more energy than it consumes annually.) As Kaplan explains, it was very important to the couple that they work with someone who already spoke that language—it also helped that they were fans of his firm’s work. “They wanted an engaged process,” he continues, and they also hoped their son, who was about to attend architecture school, could be involved in the project to learn about sustainable building first-hand, which Kaplan was open to.
They quickly zeroed in on a wooded three-acre ridgetop spot on the property that featured spectacular views of Cadillac Mountain. Beyond sustainability, one of the clients’ primary requests was to see the mountain from their living area. Kaplan, for his part, quickly recognized one of his first and biggest challenges was going to be creating a thoughtful approach to the home so that headlights wouldn’t beam directly into the living area every time someone came up the driveway at night. The result was a drive that meanders as it makes its way up to the house in order to protect privacy as well as sight lines.
When it came to determining the style of the home, Kaplan says they tested a range of shapes and forms, from more contemporary to more traditional, and in the end the couple wanted something in-between. They were also drawn to gabled forms, which made it challenging to accommodate south-facing solar panels while also preserving the view. Kaplan’s solution was to create a site-based design that would provide a variety of subtle angles and extra-broad four-foot overhangs that give the home its interesting, wing-like shape as well as additional shade. The design required some of what Kaplan refers to as “structural acrobatics.” As he points out, the end result is surprisingly easy and comfortable to live in, despite the unusual geometry of the floor plan and the unique way the home sits on the site.
The couple ultimately got the gabled look and panoramic view they wanted, with large triple-glazed windows and multiple points of indoor/outdoor access from the living area as well as the second-story main bedroom. Those same windows also provide plenty of daylight and passive heating. The fir beams and interiors only add to the welcoming sense of connection with the surrounding landscape. Originally, the plans for the home included a third-story den/loft/party area and another bedroom, but in the end the homeowners decided they didn’t really need it. “Sometimes, editing can be really wonderful,” says Kaplan, citing the resulting cost savings and increased sustainability of sticking with just two stories.
The finished home comes in at around 2,400 square feet (not including the 730-square-foot guest suite that sits above the attached two-car garage), and contains three full baths and four bedrooms plus a loft for added sleeping space above one of those bedrooms. The guest suite includes an additional bedroom and full bath, and it has the same unobstructed southerly views as the main building. The structure met the homeowners’ overarching goal of creating a comfortable home that connects them to the outdoors and is sustainable and durable.
The project started in early 2019 and was roughly 90 percent complete when COVID hit. At that point, the family decided to ride out the pandemic in the house. As they explain, they spent six months of 2020 living, working, and ‘going to school’ from their new Maine home. “During that time we experienced our first Maine fall and winter. Changing flora and fauna provided entertainment and solace to three generations of family holed up here during the pandemic—and definitely offered a different perspective than our usual two-week August visitors’ lens.” As a result of that initial time spent in the home, the owners added a trellis to the front of the house to provide added shade, and they also added glass walls to the previously open breezeway connecting the house to the garage.
The couple is effusive when discussing their favorite things about the home. “At the top of the list is the experience of designing the home with Kaplan Thompson Architects and watching it come to life through the meticulous craftsmanship of the crew at Roscoe Builders. Inside the home, there are so many beautiful touches,” they add, “including book-matched Douglas fir paneling throughout the living and dining rooms, incredible views from the second-floor main bedroom, and a three-season screened porch that has become our favorite ‘room’ in the house.” They were also grateful that their son, who is about to start his final year of architecture school this fall, could be part of the process.
The couple also insist that the key to making their remote building process go so smoothly was the great relationship between Phil Kaplan and his team at Kaplan Thompson and the builder, John Roscoe, who has a family connection to the pair. “Even before the pandemic taught us how to work remotely, we were having video conferences with Phil to go over our thinking, hopes, and must-have elements for the home. We were aided in the process by several in-person meetings with Phil and John throughout the planning stage, including critical site visits to ensure we were all aligned on important details like house placement, desired views, and preservation of natural site elements.”
As they explain, the property’s name, Crow’s Nest, came a little later. “One special treat during [the pandemic] was a giant flock, known as a ‘murder,’ of American crows that provided constant entertainment from the giant Klearwall windows that comprise the front of the house. We soon discovered what John Marzluff and Tony Angell describe in their book, Gifts of the Crow, that crows are not only playful and mischievous but also intelligent, and seemed to recognize us on sight after a few months.”
Giving that name even more resonance is the avian shape of the structure. “It was almost by accident,” says Kaplan, of the final shape of the home, which is one of his favorite things about the design. “But it looks like it’s floating, defying gravity, the way it sits on the property.” It seems almost fitting that the view when driving up the winding driveway at night is of the “lantern” atop the guest suite that greets visitors as a sort of welcoming sentry or beacon until the sun rises again on Cadillac Mountain.