Environmentally conscious community breaks ground on their passive housing development


December 12, 2011
Former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell got to work with Pia Gibson, 8, and Mike Shannon, 76, at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage development. photo by Ramona du Houx
“I have enthusiastically and with pride joined Belfast Cohousing,” said Lindsay Verite, one of the 50 future residents of the Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage at the ground-breaking ceremony. “Community is what I’ve bought. And the amazing, energy-efficient, well-thought-out house is a bonus.”

Ecovillage represents what could become the subdivision of the future, with a return to community and environmentally responsible principles to live by. The community on the outskirts of Belfast will consist of 36 one-to-three bedroom homes, built to meet the highest standard for energy efficiency in the world. The old-fashioned neighborhood houses will be clustered together on the 42-acre site, supporting small-scale sustainable agriculture connected by pathways — 85 percent of the land has been put aside for agricultural use and open space.

Residents will work collectively and collaboratively to run their affairs.

Passive-energy-efficient homes being built. Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage is still looking for new members to purchase homes. Prices range from $150,000 to $330,000. photo by Ramona du Houx
“Global warming is so large and so vast in scope, there’s a tendency on the part of many individuals to say it’s too big for me to solve. We know it will take the combined efforts of millions — perhaps billions — of people all over the world. Those efforts begin with individuals looking at what they can do to help and taking action. Those efforts here have begun with this community asking what they can do — and doing it,” said Senator George Mitchell, the guest speaker at the community development ground-breaking. “This project is unique in several respects: In a broader sense, for the commitment to energy efficiency, environmental concern, and being a walkable community, and in the global sense for its contribution to combating the unnecessary releases of carbon into the atmosphere. It’s important for others to understand the environmental and energy conscientiousness that the people here in this community are demonstrating in a very real, practical, living way.”

Mitchell added that just seeing Ecovillage’s plans inspired him more at home to be a part of the global environmental effort, fighting global warming.

The community has already sold 21 homes out of 36 sites before the first shovel began moving the dirt. Most housing developments never sell that many homes before they are built. Right now, new housing developments are hard to find anywhere.

“We signed a contract with a builder a month or so ago, and we signed our purchase sale agreements with our house buyer members a month ago,” said Geoff Gilchrist, the Belfast Cohousing coordinator. “What we’ve done is taken a few years to really get our designs and our membership together, to be sure that we’re as safe as we can be going into developing.”

Geoff and Abby Gilchrist renovated previous buildings and will move from a church in downtown Belfast into their new home in Ecovillage in about a year. Being residents will allow them the freedom to be part of a farm, without having to work as farmers full time, which appeals to them as well as having neighbors that could readily help with their kids.

“I just opened Fiddlehead Arts in Belfast, and community members are already helping me out,” said Abby.

The cohousing movement began in Denmark in the 70s, creating intentional neighborhoods of clustered, low-impact, energy-efficient homes. These communities combine the autonomy of private homes with the advantages of a large common house, shared land, self-governance, and design input by the community. In the U.S. over the past 15 years, about 120 cohousing communities have been built and another 100 are under development.

“One thing that has been proven is what makes people happy — is having connections with people. Here our kids will be able to play without worry, and neighbors will be helping neighbors on a regular basis. We will share dinners — that means with 36 families we will only have to cook once every 36 days,” said Geoff. “The whole community is designed so you run into people, get mail together, have some meals together, but at the same time you have your own house and you can do your own thing.”

The group is still looking for new members to purchase homes. Prices range from $150,000 to $330,000. In addition to their own houses, the members will share a common house with a kitchen, and land for farming, gardens, trails and open spaces.

“It’s going to be really fun because all my friends will be nearby,” said Pia Gibson, aged 8, the daughter of Alan Gibson, the project builder and future homeowner.

Gibson with his wife, Sanna McKim, and business partner Matthew O’Malia started the cohousing development in 2007. McKim noticed the former dairy farmland for sale in 2007, rounded up some friends, and together they put a down payment on the land. Then the project grew exponentially.

“The Belfast community has been really, really supportive,” said Gibson. “We’ve had no complaints from the planning board at all, which in any builder’s experience is unusual.”

G•O Logic, a Belfast architectural design and building company owned by O’Malia and Gibson developed the passive solar houses of Belfast Cohousing & Ecovillage.

“Our passive house building standard makes us unique in cohousing projects; they make us the most energy efficient project. We’re meeting the highest energy standard for efficiency in the world,” said Gibson.

O’Malia believes the subdivision of the future will be the communities of the future with passive buildings, because they are the cutting-edge in energy-efficient building and attract people who want to stop paying high heating bills and reduce their carbon footprint.

“I sure hope communities of the future will be like this. It is an innovative and sustainable housing option for living in rural Maine and across the country,” said O’Malia. “We’re doing this because we believe in it — we love it.”

The G•O Logic house —

Gibson and O’Malia gave a tour of G•O Logic’s prototype home, just down the road from the cohousing project. The 1,500-square-foot, three-bedroom house on Cedar Street is a super-insulated building with passive and active solar heating systems.

“Passive houses are 90 percent more energy efficient than code-compliant homes,” said O’Malia. “Homeowners will be able to enjoy all the comforts of a super-insulated building shell during the winter months, at 70 degrees.” In a passive house, blow-drying your hair, working on a computer, or cooking a meal can provide enough heat to keep the home warm all winter. In the darkest days of winter, it takes just 2,000 watts of electricity to heat the cohousing units to 70 degrees.

“These houses on the coldest day will need the equivalent amount of energy of a hairdryer to keep warm,” said Gibson. “When this house was our office, more electricity went into the computers.”

A Passive House is a highly insulated, sealed, airtight building, heated primarily by passive-solar gain and internal gains from electrical equipment and body heat. The G•O Logic home has a two-foot-thick blanket of blown-in insulation and six inches of rigid insulation gird for the foundation. Triple-glazed, south-facing windows lock in heat during the winter and keep out heat in the summer. The windows alone provide roughly half of the heat the house needs to stay above room temperature.

G•O Logic buys its triple-pane windows from German companies, because they’re the best, and Hammond Lumber will be supplying them for future homes.

Eight inches separate the home from the ground, making bare feet in the middle of winter possible.

“With this amount of mass, you don’t feel the cold ground. The contact is not with the ground at all, so it maintains the building’s heat,” said Gibson.

Passive homes depend upon their complex ventilation systems. G•O Logic’s systems complete a full air change every three hours, with the hot outgoing air warming the cooler incoming air through a heat exchanger.

“This house is ten times more air tight than a typical home,” said Gibson. “And it’s more comfortable because there are less temperature shifts.”

G•O Logic wanted to make their homes affordable.

“The price point is comparable to other contractor-built, architect-designed homes in the area,” said Gibson. “Even if a buyer needs to take out an additional mortgage, they will see energy savings that will be greater than their additional mortgage cost — the first month.”

The New England red-barn-painted home cost $225,000 to build and about $300 to heat per year with backup electric baseboard heat. A solar hot-water system produces 60 percent of a family’s hot-water needs, and a photovoltaic electric system provides the rest of the energy needed for heat and hot water.

There is even a frosted glass panel on the bedroom door which reflects the ambient light, so the lights don’t need to be turned on, saving electricity. It’s all part of the architectural design optimizing the function of the building. An inverter monitors the solar electric usage and transfers any extra electrical energy to the grid, giving the residents credits on their electric bill.

There are more upfront costs initially, due to the windows, installation, and ventilation systems.

“There is an average of $15,000 in additional costs, which can be easily offset in a few years with energy savings,” said Gibson.

O’Malia calculated that over a 30-year period the 1,500-square-foot home will save a homeowner $170,000. “In the long run the energy savings are great,” he said.

The G•O Logic home recently won the U.S. Green Building Council’s highest rating for environmentally sustainable buildings, becoming the 2011 project of the year, and holds the first Passive House certification in Maine.

“I hope this is the wave of the future. A home like this saves its occupants money, provides comfort, and uses materials in a environmentally conscious way. In Maine, where we consume the most oil for heating — more than any other state — this is definitely where we need to be heading,” said Katty Shuettle, the region’s U.S. Green Building Council’s representative at the ground-breaking.

There are only 25 certified Passive Houses in America. O’Malia, who has a background in passive-house construction from the days he studied architecture in Germany, which is where Passivhaus was invented in the early 1990s, sees that figure growing fast.

“With energy costs continuing to rise, its only logical,” said O’Malia. “We’re just at the beginning of the wave of the future.

The name G•O Logic stems from the initials of the owners’ last names along with the logic that answers the problem of how to build in a cost-effective, environmental way. These houses combat greenhouse gas emissions, and for some that’s attractive.

“People are increasingly becoming concerned about the environment and the cost of energy. Our experience has been that once a homebuyer is exposed to a Passive House and realizes that it is also affordable and available, they get really excited about building their own,” said Gibson. “We are seeing a very strong demand for the performance we are offering. We hit the niche at the right time. Other architects and builders contact us to learn more about how they can offer this type of building.”

O’Malia said the company wants to lower the price of the houses more.

“There are still certain barriers that add to costs which can’t be helped. Our biggest goal was to reduce the barrier to supper efficiency. With communities like this, we are able to bring the cost down because of the scale. We’re still at the early stages, climbing up a hill, trying to make it accessible. The more we do it, the more others will do it, the more the costs will be lowered collectively,” said O’Malia. “Looking forward, we have to reach that point where enough people are building to this standard; then we will see efficiencies throughout the market. Once that happens, there will be a critical mass; it will be a no-brainer, and people will build to this standard because the cost barrier is lower.”

Unity College built a new passive residence hall with G•O Logic and now wants to construct passive-solar dorms. The company is also building homes in North Yarmouth, Falmouth, Bath, Orono, and Deer Isle to the Passive House standard. G•O Logic in 2009 had negative income. In 2010 they grossed $750,000. According to Gibson, G•O Logic is projected to make $2.5 million in 2011.