Once a residence, now an office, Viridescent House is all about sustainability and passive solar design
The untimely demise of a circa-1880 house in Falmouth spurred the design and construction of Maine’s first net-positive Passive House. The polar vortex of 2015 ruptured pipes in the original home, causing water first to run amok throughout the structure and then to gush out into the street. “That totaled the house, and it was demolished,” says architect Chris Briley, founding principal in the Portland-based firm Briburn.
Briley was the lead architect on the design team that created a new structure—called Viridescent House—that generates twice as much energy as it consumes. This was no small feat and a complex process, to be sure. “The owners had to honor the zoning and build a house there, then later convert it into the commercial property they wanted,” he says.
That meant a certain amount of politicking. Fortunately, Briley’s client, Steve Woods, has served on the local planning commission and town council, so he’s savvy at that. He also heads up an advertising and marketing firm called TideSmart Global, and he had recognized the eight-acre site’s value as a commercial campus for the seven separate agencies he operates under one umbrella.
But Woods also cares about the environment. “As a business owner, property owner, and community leader, I’m sensitive to the role we play when we own land,” he says. “From the earliest time, I wanted to be a good steward of the land.”
That meant a forward-thinking strategy about sustainability. “He wanted the greenest, most energy-efficient house in Maine,” Briley says. “So I said, ‘A passive house is the most rigorous standard you can meet,’ and he said, ‘Let’s do that.’”
Woods approached town officials with the concept of siting the structure so it would face solar south, about 18 degrees away from magnetic south. That would place the building diagonal to the street, which initially didn’t appeal to the town.
“There was some resistance, but we would have lost 10 percent of the solar collection,” he says. “Ultimately, we prevailed, and to this day we get two or three school or design groups a month wanting to tour the building.”
And for good reason. The goal for Briley was to design a sustainable building that would be contemporary and modern throughout, and last over 100 years. “Every use and function of the building—like the low-flow toilets, the charging station, the composting, and the LED lighting—follows that mandate,” says Woods. “We used the best materials to meet the objectives of a building that’s high-performance and livable.”
For general contractor Ryan Bilodeau, that meant constantly striving to exceed Woods’s expectations. “For the building performance, Steve [Woods] said, ‘If there’s a way to improve it, let’s improve it,’” Bilodeau says. “And it was already pretty awesome.”
They started with the windows. Briley’s specs called for triple-paned, insulated glazing to maximize solar exposure. “I was told that the only company that makes them is in Lithuania,” Woods says. “They’re unbelievably high-performing windows: they warm the building during sunlight and are incredibly airtight.”
Woods proffers a theory about why the United States lags behind Europe in producing sustainable building products like his high-performing windows. He believes American manufacturers are influenced by short-term thinking centered on the 30-year mortgage. “The primary concern is, ‘What can we do to satisfy the lender?’ rather than the environment or the long-term value,” he says. “Europe is better at playing the long game.”
That’s true especially in Lithuania, from which windows must be ordered six months in advance. “They have to make them, put them on a ship, and sail them across the ocean,” he says.
But clearly they were worth the wait. Because of them, the new building uses neither boiler nor furnace. On sunny days in January and February, when Maine winter temperatures outside dip to the teens or single digits, the triple-paned windows warm the interior to 90 degrees, while two heat pumps kick in for cooling.
“You walk in, and it may be five degrees outside, but you’re immediately struck by the fact that the heat pumps are working to produce air-conditioning,” Woods says. “I love giving tours when people reach up and touch the heat pump fans.”
The building’s wall system, designed by Briburn and developed by Bilodeau, is 14 inches thick, its two-by-four and I-joist frame creates a one-foot cavity packed with cellulose insulation then wrapped with a weather-resistant barrier. “All in all, it’s rated at R-58,” Briley says.
The architect says that, because of budget challenges, the building is basically a glorified two-story shoebox, with large overhangs and solar shading devices over its south-facing windows. “They allow low-angle winter sun in; it’s an old-school method of doing passive solar design,” he says. “And it’s so well insulated, that building will never freeze.”
The exterior is sheathed in Cambia, a torrefied poplar that’s heated in an oxygen-free kiln so it won’t ignite. “When it comes out, it’s a dark brown wood that’s rot and pest resistant, like a tropical wood or cedar,” Briley notes.
For all its environmental friendliness, this is a house that’s aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. “We wanted it to be a beautiful structure,” Briley says. “If it weren’t, and was just a machine-looking box, it would be a failure.”
Today, the home finally functions as office space for TideSmart Global’s creative team. “We set out for it to be a beautiful home that could be converted easily into an office—that was the tricky part,” Briley says.
The home’s former mudroom is now a reception area. A master bedroom was converted into offices, with a conference room where a guest room was on the first floor. There’s a half-bath downstairs and a full bath above, with cubicles in the former loft area.
“Steve’s biggest intent was to create a building for the people and to show the people that it doesn’t have to be a home, that it can be a really good office building with good air quality,” Bilodeau says. “People come in and say it’s awesome and a really cool place to work.”
Its conversion from residence to office makes perfect sense, considering its location. It sits on the edge of two areas zoned completely differently; to the west lies a residential neighborhood, and to the east there’s commercial development. “Making the house more modern than the houses nearby was so transitional,” Briley says. “It’s a hybrid. People usually want to do residential or commercial, and this is neither, or both.”
The downside to all the sustainability played itself out financially. “The cost is about twice as much as a typical commercial building,” Woods says. “It’s producing power, but the Lithuanian windows cost $28,000 instead of $18,000 for others.”
But there are savings to be had in the long run, and there’s an educational component too. “A few months ago, the town of Falmouth called and asked if they could hold an energy summit meeting in our logistics center and give tours of our Viridescent House,” he says. “They made it a public event to talk about sustainability and used our building as an example.”
So Viridescent House—once a residence and now an office—is also a conversation-starter.