This Carbon-Capturing Waterfront Home Is Insulated with Compressed Straw

Built by a creative couple in Georgetown, the Moss House makes the most of its natural surroundings

The home’s burnt wood siding was both an aesthetic choice and a practical one; the technique provides protection from the sea air and prevents the need for future paint jobs.
The hand-painted cabinet was an antique store find.
The Rosses poured the kitchen’s concrete countertop themselves and covered the backsplash with tiles that had been left behind by the previous owner of their home in Portland.
Homeowner Alice Ross says the loft, accessed by a Putnam ladder, is “a space that our children love—a cozy space for them.”
Perching the home on posts minimized the amount of carbon-intensive concrete and created a special sense of living among the treetops.
The home flows seamlessly from the living area to the outside deck, which expands the home’s footprint.
There's room for entertaining a crowd around the rustic picnic table.
The first thing the Rosses did on the property was to install a deep-water dock. In addition to increasing the property value and giving them easy access to the Sheepscot River, the process gave them a chance to get their feet wet in navigating complex approval and building processes before starting on home construction.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that a pair of creative professionals would share a “good eye.” “We’re completely mad about antiquing, finding the right things,” says Chris Ross, describing how he and his wife, Alice, have furnished their Portland home with treasures culled from antique shops, Facebook Marketplace, and roadside castoffs. But, beyond seeing beauty in the old, they also seem to be able to spot good ideas ahead of the crowd. In 2014, well before the COVID lockdown sent New Yorkers scrambling for Maine real estate, the Rosses and their two children had left Brooklyn to live and work remotely in Chris’s native Maine. During the early months of the pandemic, while they felt lucky to be so well prepared for work-from-home, they needed something else. “We were going out of our minds being home—we’re used to traveling a lot for photoshoots,” recalls Chris, who previously worked in the media and entertainment industry and has recently focused on painting. “It’s a dream we’ve always had, to have a special place that we can go to.” They spent their nights on Zillow, looking at cabins and cottages, with no luck. “We tried to put in offers and realized very quickly that everyone was coming for them,” says Chris. Finally, they spotted a “really random listing without any photographs of actual land,” and headed to Georgetown to investigate. “We couldn’t believe how beautiful the view was,” says Chris. “We thought, even if we don’t do anything here, we should try to buy this, even if we just camped here for the rest of our lives.” They acted fast and found themselves the owners of a gorgeous piece of waterfront property covered in mossy ledges and old-growth spruce. It was time to turn their artists’ eyes to the building process.

“We kept it really simple—a kid’s drawing of what a house should be, with a peaked roof and a chimney,” says Chris. They took their sketches to Andrew Frederick, an architectural designer then in the early stages of launching Croft, an innovative company that creates structural panels insulated with carbon-capturing compressed straw. Still in the outdoors-only phase of COVID lockdowns, they met on the steps of the Rosses’ Portland house to draft a budget-friendly home that would honor the land it was sitting on. “It is a beautiful place on earth where this building was going to land,” says Frederick. “We didn’t want to swoop in and blast away the beautiful native site in order to build an environmentally sustainable building.” They decided on a treehouse-like structure with a minimal foundation. By drilling directly into the granite ledge of the site and pouring the smallest amount of concrete that would create a flat surface, they were able to use “a tiny fraction of the concrete that is normally found in conventional foundations,” Frederick says. “Concrete has a very high embodied-carbon impact. Anything we can do to minimize the use of it—we are laser focused on that.” 

Embodied (or embedded) emissions are measures of the greenhouse gases created by the materials that go into a building. Many “green building” initiatives focus on the energy a structure uses after it is completed, but Frederick emphasizes that what happens before and during construction should also get attention. “What we make our buildings out of, the physical materials, turns out to be so much more important in terms of environmental impact than how high-performing and efficient that building is,” he says. “The construction and operation of buildings is 40 percent of humanity’s global carbon output every single year; if we solve buildings, we’re halfway done. We can make huge strides in this climate crisis if we just do buildings right.” Unlike conventional forms of insulation, straw takes carbon out of the atmosphere, rather than adding to the building’s carbon footprint; unlike trees, it doesn’t take decades to replace itself. It’s also locally available and inexpensive. “We’re growing so much of it anyway; even if we superinsulated every new home with 16-inch walls, we would use only 10 percent of the wheat straw we will grow anyway, that’s just sitting there as agricultural residue,” says Frederick. “It’s a forehead-slappingly obvious solution. A material that’s plentiful, affordable, and durable, that captures carbon? Use that material; it’s plain as day.” 

Like many good ideas, Frederick’s “forehead-slappingly obvious solution” is less clear to those of us with only normal eyesight, but the perspicacious Rosses were ready to start immediately. On a tight budget, they had decided against taking out a construction loan and hiring a general contractor; instead, they borrowed against their Portland house and managed the project themselves. “It was the thick of supply-chain shortages,” says Chris, but working with local companies helped immensely. The posts, platform, and panels went up quickly; only their windows were delayed. “We had to wrap the house over the window cavities so it was protected from the elements. It had to sit quietly for a while.” They used the time to outfit the interior and install electricity, which is hidden from view. “We didn’t want any big boxes attached to the house, didn’t want to see lines coming in and a thing stuck to the side with a meter,” says Chris. “Everything is channeled in underground. It looks like you’re not connected to the world; there’s nothing penetrating the beautiful siding.” 

With his workload reduced by the pandemic, Chris took the time to learn new crafts and skills. He hand-crafted the bathroom tiles in batches of three, mixing shades of green and brown with the concrete to create a “playful” palette. When they were finished, he went on to learn how to tile: “I made them; I might as well install them and figure it out.” With his new knowledge of concrete, he poured the pad for the woodstove, cutting into the floor so that it would be flush rather than raised, and bringing in the family to put their handprints into it before it hardened. He also covered the bathroom walls using a lime plaster tadelakt technique, following instructional videos on YouTube to create a waterproof, timeless finish.

The Rosses furnished the home primarily with antique and secondhand pieces—some sourced from their own basement, like half of a scrubbed pine table they’d cut to fit their Portland home. A highlight is the Putnam ladder that leads to the sleeping loft. Found at a New Hampshire architectural salvage shop, it was, Chris marvels, “absolutely the exact size we needed.” While the furnishings and finishings are elegant, the Rosses’ skills in secondhand sourcing and willingness to DIY kept the costs down. “We were constantly aware of the budget. Everything came down to budget,” Chris notes. As another way to fund expenses, the couple has made the home, called Moss House, available to rent when they aren’t using it.

All the care that went into the home’s construction and furnishing has the paradoxical effect of turning attention away from itself and toward the woods and waters outside. A wraparound deck extends the home’s small footprint, and the Rosses have made gently shaped paths that lead down to the dock through the moss-covered terrain. To visit Moss House is to have a chance to look through artists’ eyes, to see the land and the water and the trees in a new light. “Moss is one of those things that gets overlooked a lot,” says Chris. “It’s so beautiful and delicate up close.”