When Portland, Maine-based architect Jesse Thompson and his family were ready for a house upgrade, they knew they didn’t want to start from scratch with an empty lot. But they also didn’t want to take on a historic preservation project. “We were looking for the cheapest and worst house in the neighborhood,” Thompson says.
Thompson and his wife spent two years searching for ‘the one,’ which turned out to be a typical—if not a little drab—one-story, 1960s-era ranch-style home with a detached garage. The house offered several pluses: its location in the Deering Center neighborhood was blocks from the kids’ school and a baseball field and was only a 15-minute bike ride for Thompson to his downtown architecture firm, Kaplan Thompson Architects. But every house has its drawbacks. This one wasn’t quite large enough to comfortably accommodate a family of four, its curb appeal was lacking, and its leaky exterior let Maine’s winter air penetrate the house.
The revival of this ranch house demonstrates that an older home can be made sustainable on a budget. Thompson, who served not only as architect but also as general contractor for the project, wanted to keep as many of the house’s existing walls as possible and maintain the balance of its roofline while avoiding excavation of any kind. But he needed to gain additional interior space for his family, so the only solution was to build up. He added a second floor with two bedrooms for the kids, and he enclosed the breezeway that connected the garage to serve as a mudroom. These two moves allowed him to expand the interior from 1,000 square feet to 1,900 square feet without enlarging the home’s footprint.
Not only did Thompson salvage much of the original home’s structure, but he also salvaged materials from other sources to complete its transformation. Thompson drew inspiration from the clean lines of Scandinavian architecture, particularly the work of Alvar Aalto, to create “a quiet gray exterior with a lively interior.” In many cases, the types and amounts of materials he found informed the design decisions. For the house’s exterior, Thompson reclaimed a mix of hemlock and local Maine cedar siding via Craigslist, the online marketplace. He stained the siding dark gray to match and paired it with a metal standing-seam roof. Slate tiles that were salvaged from a 19th century barn came in short supply but were too good a find to pass. “We knew we had 1,000 square feet of tile to work with, so we were able to design to exactly that amount of material,” Thompson says. He used the tiles to create an undulating base that weaves in with the wood siding and wraps the outside of the chimney.
A mix of salvaged and new materials enlivens the home’s interior. Thompson’s wife, Betsy, a textile designer and fiber artist, handled most of the interior color and finish selection. She creatively transformed materials such as birch plywood off-cuts left over from the fabrication of a CNC-milled ceiling installation in a recent restaurant project by Kaplan Thompson into coat hooks that she mounted against a striking blue wall in the mudroom. Betsy also selected a canary yellow tile from Johnson Ceramics to line the bathrooms. The high-end kitchen appliances, including a Bosch dishwasher and Frigidaire cooktop, were surprising bargains discovered at the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore resale outlet.
Although the Thompsons appreciated the grain in the home’s original red oak floors, they wanted a darker finish, closer to ebony. They discovered a lost woodworking technique called “liquid nightmare,” an easy and nontoxic process involving the application of vinegar with steel wool followed by a seal of water-based polyurethane. Rounding out the interior palette, simple drywall painted white was the most affordable and moldable surface material for the walls and ceilings. In the living room, the sculptured ceiling billows up to 12 feet in height. Throughout the home, LED and fluorescent fixtures provide a clean wash of light across these surfaces while keeping energy to a minimum.
Thompson was one of the first architects in northern New England to become a certified PassivHaus consultant, and renovating his own home gave him the perfect opportunity to test out his knowledge of the stringent German standards. Although the completed renovation doesn’t quite meet Passivhaus heating standards, it does meet the total energy use requirements for heating, electricity, and hot-water use as a bundle. The house is also projected to achieve LEED Platinum certification.
To seal against air leaks, Thompson wrapped the house’s existing walls in six inches of reclaimed rigid foam insulation. He faced the challenge of accommodating the depth of the insulation while supporting the heavy slate tiles, and he ultimately devised a solution involving mounting the tiles on a lattice of wood furring strips that transfers the weight to the house’s framing via 10-inch-long SIP screws. This assembly also functions as a rainscreen, draining moisture away from the walls’ surfaces. Thompson installed triple-glazed windows, which are much more effective against drafts than standard single- or double-pane units. He also beefed up insulation in the existing slab and then poured a new slab on top to further isolate the home from the ground.
During the construction process, Thompson conducted three separate blower-door tests to ensure that he’d prevented as many leaks as possible, ultimately increasing the airtightness of the home’s envelope by 90 percent (a heat recovery ventilator keeps fresh air circulating throughout). With the house sealed against leaks, heating the interior requires little energy. A Scandinavian wood stove in the living room is the house’s main source of heat, supplementing the existing gas boiler. Two cords of wood are all that’s required to keep the home at a consistent 70 degrees throughout the winter.
Designing the renovation of his own home allowed Thompson to test out many cost-saving and sustainable design strategies. But Thompson wants to share his knowledge; his home has become an educational tool for others and has been featured on several local green-building tours. “Visitors are shocked that such a transformation is possible with a 1960s house,” Thompson says, “especially the idea that you can heat a house for only $500 a year in Maine.”