By Rebecca Falzano | Photography Trent Bell
Fueled by the sun, a barn-inspired retreat for the ages.
A house’s “good bones” are the stuff of architects’ dreams. They’re talked about in nostalgic tones, often from the inside of old homes. Of course, if an architect designs skillfully and a builder builds well, the phrase can just as accurately be applied to a house on recently broken ground—a house whose materials and well-considered design make it an instant classic. A solar barn recently completed near Biddeford Pool is one such house. Sure, it has all the bells and whistles of an energy-efficient home (solar tubes, radiant heat, R-values that are off the charts), but even beyond that, it’s sustainable in a bigger-picture way. A local team, using local materials, created a modern classic designed for longevity. Sustainability through timelessness.
What was your first meeting like? What attracted you to this site?
Caleb Johnson: When I met Cameron and Jennifer [his wife], they were living in a Brownstone in Boston and wanted a rural getaway for their young family. They found this beautiful wooded site on the west side of Biddeford Pool on a winding road abutting protected coastal wetlands. I could tell that the project was all about having a place where their families could gather. The house was to be the first phase of a family compound on the property.
Cameron had dreams of a true timber barn with lots of exposed wood and plenty of room for the stuff that accumulates on family compounds. They explained to me as we walked through the beautiful pine woods carpeted with ferns and bordering a saltwater marsh that we were going to build a barn and two-bedroom guesthouse that would be a comfortable place for either of the in-laws. So from the very beginning there was the idea that it would be a big place. The site dictated almost every aspect of the design in determining window, roof, and door placement, not to mention the floor plan as it related to the southern orientation—that is, the view to the woods and the need to shield views to the neighbors. The fact that the barn would be the gateway to the eventual main house had a big influence.
Cameron Hyzer: Jenn’s father grew up in the Bangor–Blue Hill area, and we still have some family in that part of Maine. Jenn’s sister moved to Yarmouth a few years ago, so we had been spending a fair amount of time in the Portland area before buying the land. We wanted to find a place that was less than two hours from Boston, so we would be able to come regularly on weekends without wasting too much time traveling and be closer to family. We did a fair amount of searching for the right property when we bought the land in Biddeford. We fell in love with the natural aspects of the property: old-growth pines, ferns, and proximity to the salt marsh and coast. We also really liked the history of the land and being part of an old local farm.
How did the architectural vision for the home evolve?
CJ: We wanted to create a building that would age gracefully and have the feel of a classic barn. We didn’t want this structure to upstage the main house that is yet to be designed, so it needed to be fairly restrained. Jennifer and Cameron love timber frames and antique buildings, so we looked for an aesthetic that would meet this desire without blindly copying details that were irrelevant to the modern building. They wanted a classic-feeling building, something that would feel natural in this Maine setting. The layout was intended to be open and informal, as this is a weekend guesthouse. Since the main living space is on the second floor, it was important to provide an outdoor space that related well to the living space. Floating outdoor decks can look temporary and tacked on, so we worked hard to integrate this one into the massing and design of the house by making them part of the space below. This building is unique in that it incorporates some very modern elements such as a glass garage door, steel railings, and floor-to-ceiling windows without making an overtly modern statement. It sticks close enough to the New England building traditions that people who only have eyes for the old buildings can appreciate its design. It’s certainly our hope that the design is the product of the site, region, and owner needs.
CH: We envisioned keeping the farmstead style with a bit of a modern twist and had talked a lot about having a barn with a lot of multifunctional space—garage, shop, open living space, etc. Naturally, the process was a bit iterative as we came to the right design to fit our budget and constraints of the lot, but the outcome is very much in line with our initial vision.
How did energy efficiency play into the design?
CJ: From our first meeting, the homeowners made it clear that they did not want any oil or other fossil fuels on-site burning away while they weren’t there. They wanted a house that relied on the sun to keep it at temperature while they were in Boston, and they were willing to go through the process of figuring out how to accomplish this goal.
CH: Energy efficiency was important to us for a number of reasons. First of all, we feel that it is generally the right thing to do, and while the payback for the higher investment may take years to realize, we plan on owning the property for decades—so over the long term it should work out economically as well. Additionally, we wanted a system that would be low maintenance and low cost when we weren’t using it, but still be usable in the winter months. It has the benefit of not needing any additional fuel (gas, oil, or otherwise), which reduces the things that we need to worry about when we aren’t there. Additionally, the sustainable solution that Caleb and ReVision Energy implemented basically created a zero-cost heating solution when we aren’t there—keeping the barn at 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter—which is supplemented by a high-efficiency wood-burning stove when we are there.
What are the specific sustainable solutions you employed?
CJ: We challenged ourselves with designing an energy-conscious, super-insulated structure that would also maintain the integrity of the classic barn style proven to stand the test of time. Our team promoted the use of both local businesses and local materials throughout the building process. Notable features included 13 two-ton trusses of indigenous hemlock, local ash flooring, and locally harvested custom wood ceilings and wainscoting. On the exterior, the board-and-batten siding was made from locally harvested eastern white cedar. The kitchen cabinets were made entirely from framing scraps left on-site by woodworker Derek Preble, and the custom steel details were made by local metal shop Haley’s Metal. By integrating rigid external insulation and a rain-screen cladding system to provide a thermal break throughout, we were able to obtain a wall R-value of 35 and roof value of R50. The house’s vacuum-tube solar array supplies the majority of the heating and all of the domestic water. We also used passive-solar techniques that let in large amounts of sun through southern windows and solar hot water pumped through radiant heating in the floor—ReVision Energy designed and built this system. The solar system is able to keep the house at around 50 degrees through the winter. When Cameron and Jennifer come up for the weekend they throw a few logs in the Rais wood stove they purchased from Maine Green Building Supply.
What challenges did you run into along the way, and how did you address them?
CJ: At the very beginning, it became apparent that a full timber frame on this scale was going to be too expensive, so we began to study what it was that really made timber frames so unique. We found that most of the punch came from the trusses and roof and that, in reality, the columns either got in the way of the superinsulated walls or became redundant. So we used standard framing in the walls and custom-built exposed trusses for the roof. At the beginning, for all of the exposed timber, the structural engineers wanted to use fir, which comes from the West Coast and is consequently expensive and not that sustainable. To keep the numbers reasonable, we found a local mill that was able to mill all of the lumber for the trusses, roof deck, exposed ceiling, floor, and siding.
Who else worked on this project?
CJ: We acted as the general contractors and worked with several subcontractors that we were extremely comfortable with. Ed Lavertu and his crew from Lavertu Construction, LLC, understood what we were trying to accomplish and took the time to get it right—he was extremely creative in getting the one-ton trusses built on-site. ReVision Energy delivered on the design and installation of the active solar system. Marcus Jolin from MJ Electric did a clean job of integrating the electrical system and lighting system into a nonstandard roof assembly. Derek Preble grasped the concept from the beginning and delivered, in principal and product, the right kitchen for the job. Cat Sumislaski was the project architect in our office who skillfully assembled the design drawings and kept up with multiple iterations. Pinnacle Window Solutions was able to provide beautiful windows that fit the demanding specifications.
This house is sustainable in ways beyond the solar tubes on the roof and the super-tight insulation—can you explain how classic design can be sustainable as well?
CJ: I believe that the most important part of sustainability lies in the timelessness of the design. Timelessness can only be found in sensible details that respond to the actual needs of the users and their environments. When too much superfluous “stuff” is added, in mere decades a building can feel dated. And whatever green fads were bought are quickly put in the dumpster because the house needs updating or simply may not respond well to the needs of contemporary inhabitants. Beauty and good design are the most sustainable things a homeowner and architect can do. Bad buildings fill landfills, but good buildings are preserved by their communities over generations.