Green home design takes off in Maine

SEARSMONT — What’s coming off the assembly line at Ecocor looks a bit like a really fat, firm box spring, 18 inches thick, swathed in high performance fabrics, framed with wood, so solid that even the princess couldn’t feel a pea through it.

But these are building panels, walls for prefabricated homes, very different from the kind of prefabricated homes we’re accustomed to, the single-wide rolling slowly down the highway. These walls are for homes certified to Passive House Institute standards – that’s the German energy efficiency movement founded in the late 1980s – which means they’ll be 90 percent more efficient than traditional construction. With solar panels on the roof, Ecocor’s houses can even be net positive, i.e., producing more energy than they consume.

Ecocor founder, owner and technical director Chris Corson built his first Passive House in 2010 in Knox and has finished about 35 since then, all over the Northeast. After years of flying under the radar, he is ready to talk about making houses like his commonplace, and in so doing, helping fight climate change. Because it’s not just freeways clogged with cars that are heating the planet.

“The built environment is responsible for approximately 50 percent of global carbon emissions annually,” Corson said.

Some might see that as a defeating statistic, but for Corson, it’s a motivator. He’s 44 and grew up in a drafty cobblestone Tudor with “almost no insulation” to protect its denizens from the chill winds of western New York state. While he’s not technically an architect, he’s studied architecture, interior design and fine art. By the time he was 19, he was managing commercial properties on Chicago’s North Shore.

“I was a scrawny kid who was motivated and worked and put myself through college,” he said. There weren’t many courses of study around sustainability, but the issue was in his mind even then.

“The concept that our entire civilization globally runs on fossil fuels, which is a finite resource, has always seemed asinine to me,” Corson said.

The Ecocor home combines thick walls with precise marriage joints, heat recovery ventilation, triple-glazed windows and doors and efficiencies throughout that mean little actual heating fuel is required, even in a Maine winter.

“Ultimately the more buildings we build, the better off the world is,” he said.

He’s not blowing smoke.


Corson definitely doesn’t have to go far to work on changing the world through housing. Maine’s housing stock is old. In surveys, it’s consistently one of the nation’s oldest; according to a 2015 study for the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, 31 percent of Maine housing units were built before 1950. It’s also notoriously dependent on fossil fuels. The U.S. Census Bureau tracks households by their heating sources. In 2015, surveys of Maine’s 545,000 occupied housing units showed 336,000 used fuel oil or kerosene, a decline from approximately 423,000 households in 2015. The biggest shift in that decade, about 35,000 households, was to wood, the rest to the natural gas or propane.

How many Maine households are net zero or close to it? It’s tricky to calculate because there’s no category for Passive House or other high-performance energy efficiency homes. The Census Bureau includes a “no fuel used” category, which has doubled to just over 1,500 in the last 10 years. Solar gets its own category, and that nearly tripled from 2005 to 2015, but still has only 604 households. There’s also a category for “other fuel” (not wood, oil, propane, natural gas, coal, coke or solar), and which shot up to 11,000 in 2015 from 2,700 in 2005. (For the Census Bureau to add a category for Passive House to its questionnaires would require a mandate from Congress; there’s an idea.)

But the movement is making progress inside Maine, and the state with the energy-inefficient homes is gaining a reputation for trying to change that. Earlier this fall, Naomi C. O. Beal, a photographer who serves as the director of passivhausMAINE, was on a panel at the American Institute of Architects New England annual meeting titled “Why is Maine, a small rural state, a national leader in energy-efficient design?”

Beal started thinking about a group like passivhausMAINE after spending a year in Germany. She returned to Maine in 2010 and founded the group, along with her architect friends, including Corson and Jesse Thompson of Kaplan Thompson Architects in Portland, which builds a line of high-performance homes called BrightBuilt. PassivhausMAINE organizes monthly site walks and hosts an annual forum (coming up this week, November 9 and 10). It’s far from typical for a state to have its own Passive House organization; there are only 12 state or regional groups in the North American network.

“Maine is way ahead of a lot of other places when it comes to how active this Passive House movement is and how many builders and architects are pursuing it,” said George Penniman, an architect from Connecticut who hired Ecocor to build his family a new house in Harpswell. While Ecocor offers nearly a dozen models of its pre-fab Passive Houses, Penniman chose to design his own (and had the finish work done by Creative Carpentry of Georgetown). He was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to find someone to build him a Passive House.

“It’s funny that you have two of the best firms in New England within 15 miles of each other,” Penniman noted, referring to GO Logic, the Belfast-based architecture and construction firm that builds high performance homes (and bigger projects, like TerraHaus at Unity College, the first Passive House-Certified student residence hall in America).

Maine is also the site of one the largest Passive House developments in the country, the just-opened 48-unit Village Centre affordable housing project in Brewer. It’s the largest to be built in what’s classified as a cold climate. Cordelia Pitman, director of preconstruction services with Wright-Ryan Construction, the company that built Village Centre, said adhering to Passive House standards took some juggling. “We are constantly balancing,” Ryan said. As in, these triple-glazed windows are absolutely necessary, but where can we trim elsewhere to be able to afford them?

But they succeeded. Close on the heels of Village Centre is Bayside Anchor, a Portland complex with 45 affordable units designed by Kaplan Thompson, due to open later this month. The project is funded through the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Maine State Housing Authority; qualified low income tenants at Bayside Anchor will pay rent on a tiered system according to income. With 10-inch thick walls, triple-glazed windows and high efficiency air transfer, residents can expect “miniscule heating bills,” with the savings being shared between the building owner and its tenants.

Jesse Thompson, the architect at Bayside Anchor, said it will take about a year of operation to figure out the actual cost of those utilities. But buildings like this one are “economically safe,” he said, that is, the building won’t be subject to swings from say, a big bump in the price of say, oil or natural gas.

Those behind these impressive big projects hope they inspire.

“Maybe it will makes people in other parts of the country think, ‘If they could do it in Maine, then maybe we can do it here,’” Ryan said.

Perhaps the presence of companies like Ecocor is less of an incongruity in Maine than a natural response to an impending crisis. This isn’t just a state with an aging housing stock, it has an aging populace, living on fixed incomes. The kind with little room to budge on heating costs. As they say, necessity is the mother of invention. Maybe a Maine winter is too.

About that. Perceptions about weather are real road blocks; it’s hard for a lot of people to get past the idea that a place with cold, dark winters is inhospitable to Passive House technology. This makes Corson sigh a little.

“The reality is the amount of sunlight that we have through the course of the winter is more than sufficient to heat a home when combined with heat sources inside,” Corson said.


At Corson’s house in Northport, a 1965 Cape he retrofitted five years ago to Passive House standards, the climate is so well controlled that when his son, 8, and daughter, 6, get up in the morning, they have to check the weather station to figure out what to wear. Sentimental attachment keeps the family in the house – Corson would love a sleek modern home built from the ground up by Ecocor – and it wasn’t cheap to retrofit. “It was a labor of love, completely,” he said. “If you are 70 years old, no way it would make fiscal sense.”

But now they spend about $400 a year to heat both house and water. The annual bills used to be about $4,200. That savings gets applied to the mortgage, and over time, is balanced out.

All of this may seem unattainable unless you’ve got a wad of cash to invest in a new home or retrofitting. But the more Corson refines his process (like directly importing triple-glazed windows from Poland), the more he says he can bring costs down. And work faster. A fancy new computerized saw helps Ecocor cut lumber at record speed. Ultimately, he says it is scaling up the business, that is, gaining more customers, that will allow him to bring costs down.

Asked if he could build a very small model (say, 1,200 square feet) for $200,000, Corson winced. “Not right now.” How about $300,000? “We’re getting toward the ballpark.”

The turnkey price for an Ecocor home is $236 a square foot, but that he says, “is with all state-of-the-art stuff.”

The joy of the prefab house is that it can go up in a couple of days – fitted together like Lego, Corson says – with cranes lifting the walls into place on a highly insulated slab. The finish work will take weeks or months, not days, but the house is weathertight nearly as soon as it goes up.

Ecocor has its own designs, but they’re happy to adapt their technology to the client’s specifications. It’s technology of these walls, the ones that look like really high quality box springs, is something special, Penniman says.

“He (Corson) is an innovator,” Penniman said. “He’s also a great advocate for spreading the word and thinking about the ways that this can be more readily available to people.”

Penniman’s Ecocor house looks like a summer home, a sweet, streamlined cabin with a water view, but because of its Passive House standards, can adapt to a year-round lifestyle as soon as he and his wife, a landscape architect, retire. They’ve left room for an addition. Before he retires, though, Penniman is intent on spreading the word about Passive Houses.

“I’m trying to educate people that this is something they should be considering,” Penniman. “Every day people are more conscious of it. The scary part of it for the typical client is diminishing.”

He’ll celebrate the holidays in Maine. And he will not be wearing a sweater indoors, unless it is a style choice.

“It’s so comfortable,” he said.