Small Footprint, Big Impact
On the York Coast, an artistic couple builds an eco-friendly, solar-powered home ready for family memories.
When Nick and Molly LaVecchia started planning their first home, they were faced with a constraint that limits many young families: a tight budget. Nick, a lifestyle photographer who focuses on the ocean and surf culture, and Molly, a garden designer and landscaper, were looking for a space that would reflect their eco-friendly lifestyle while providing space for their young family to grow. Fortunately, they had several things that would serve them well: vision, creativity, and a nice plot of land, courtesy of Molly’s parents.
Nick and Molly live just a stone’s throw from her family’s sprawling old farmhouse on a long country road in York. The setup suits them well (particularly because of the close relationship Molly’s parents can have with their grandson). “Molly grew up on this property,” Nick says. “One day, her dad said, ‘If you guys ever want to throw a house up in the field, you can.’”
Molly loved her childhood in southern Maine, which she spent exploring the fields, woods, and seashore. “When we were kids, my mom would slather us up with sunscreen and let us walk to the beach,” she remembers. Molly and her two sisters would stop by the fruit stand for a bag of cherries before heading out, returning only after they were tired or hungry for lunch. “The line starts to blur between inside and outside,” she says. “I’m grateful to my parents for that—I hope I can do that with Leo.”
Their new house takes cues from Molly’s childhood, Nick’s profession, and the couple’s longtime interest in preserving and celebrating the natural world. Featuring large windows oriented to promote passive solar heating, green building materials such as locally sourced hemlock beams and long-lasting, Maine-milled white cedar, and a contemporary, minimalist design, the 1,000-square-foot house also showcases the ingenuity and craftsmanship of the team at Caleb Johnson Architects and Builders in Portland. Although the couple approached the company with a restrictive budget of $200,000, Caleb Johnson agreed to take on the project because, as he explains, “Nick showed me right away that he had an interest in making a small, high-quality, and energy-efficient home.”
The entire house is just 16 feet wide, yet inside it feels much more spacious, thanks to the open floor plan, high ceilings, and strategically placed windows. It did, however, take time to sell the couple on such a narrow home. When they were in the midst of the planning stages, Nick remembers coming out to the field, measuring out 16 feet of space, and laying tape down on the ground. “I would put a chair in the grass and look around, trying to imagine it. I’d ask Molly, ‘Can we really do this?’” he recalls. But Johnson kept reminding him that 16 feet was a fine width for a room. “The rooms are actually comparatively large,” Johnson says. “The entire house is only ever one room wide—we just stacked rooms on top of each other instead of putting them next to each other, like you might see in a typical Cape house.”
The streamlined floor plan packs a lot into the first floor: a laundry room, storage closet, bathroom, office, and open- concept kitchen–dining–living space. The second floor features the couple’s bedroom, another bathroom, and a small bedroom for Leo. Despite its small footprint, the house feels roomy, thanks to conscious design choices made on every level, from the basic architecture to the interior decor. There are clean white walls, a vaulted ceiling in the living area, and exposed wood beams in the open kitchen (made from pieces of reclaimed wood connected by a single scarf joint)—all harmonious elements that contribute to an overall sense of unassuming elegance. “The entire house is very simple,” says Andy Herbine, construction manager on the project and managing partner at Caleb Johnson Architects and Builders. “But it is the simplicity of it that makes it beautiful. As designers and builders, we strive to create moments in our houses where, although you may not be able to verbalize it, you experience comfort, wonder, and awe.”
Many of the elements that contribute aesthetically to the house also serve practical purposes. The polished concrete floor, which looks sleek and modern underfoot, functions as a heating source. “Concrete slabs used to be something people would cover up and hide,” says Johnson. “But in the homes we build, it’s structure, finish, and a heating source, all rolled into one.” Sunlight streams in from the south-facing patio windows, hitting the concrete slab floor, and over the course of the day, the floor heats to an even temperature. At night it lets that retained heat slowly flow into the air. The house is tightly insulated with a combination of spray foam (installed on the roof), fiberglass batting, and recycled newsprint (installed in the walls), which ensures that little of this energy is lost through seepage. “If you can make the sun work for you, and it’s free, why wouldn’t you do it?” Nick says.
In addition, Nick and Molly decided to install solar panels on their roof, purchased from ReVision Energy in Portland. “Everything is run on electric in this house,” says Nick. “The hot water, the heat, the lighting—it was a no-brainer.” Mini-split heat pumps provide additional heating for days when the sunlight isn’t quite strong enough, and mechanical ventilation helps the house retain heat while allowing for air circulation with the outside. Another feature that helps optimize solar power is the sunshades installed around the exterior of the house. “Since the sun sits lower on the horizon in the winter, the shades don’t hamper it from coming in and heating the concrete floor,” explains John Haskell of Company Nineteen in Portland, which did the rough and finish carpentry on the home, including the sunshades. “But in the summer, when the sun is higher in the sky, they provide shade to help keep the interior from getting too hot.”
While Nick and Molly love living in this smartly designed home, they still view it as a work in progress. The couple admit that they are still working out the interior design scheme, figuring out what photographs go where, what furniture will best fit their lifestyle, and where to fit their many books. (They plan to construct a large bookshelf in the living room, which will take up the entire wall and require a rolling library-style ladder.) “The decor has evolved as we’ve lived in the space,” says Molly. “I have always loved the stark lines of the house, but I’m also trying to bring in some softness.” As a gardener, one of her first impulses was to bring in some houseplants. Evidence of her green thumb can be seen on nearly every surface, from windowsills to the kitchen counter, where potted ZZ plants, ivy, bamboo, and pencil cactuses enjoy the abundant natural light.
In the summer, the couple likes to throw open the windows and doors, using the patio and garden as an extension of their living space. Molly has designed and planted a sprawling vegetable garden, complete with kale, chard, tomatoes, zucchini, squash, eggplant, and “every herb you could possibly want for cooking,” as Nick puts it. The resulting bounty keeps the family well fed. “We don’t go to the store much in the summer,” Nick says. “We eat every single meal out of the garden, and we get honey from our bees.” Since Molly is a vegetarian and the primary cook, they tend to consume mostly plant- based meals, which suits Nick just fine. “When my friends come up from New York City to surf, they’re just blown away,” he says. “We don’t go out to eat—we get our whole salad right here.”
“I started planting the vegetable garden before the house was done,” Molly says. Every year, for Leo’s birthday, she plants fruiting trees and shrubs as a gift to her son. So far, she has planted a hedge of blueberry bushes and a single cherry tree. But the garden, like the house, isn’t quite complete yet. “It’s been a slow process. I have to keep reminding myself that none of this will happen overnight,” Molly says. But homes, like gardens, grow best with patience and love, and those are two things this creative family has in abundance.