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Your Home: Green

Taking flight

The birds that flock nearby provided design inspiration for this edgy solar-heated home in Falmouth, Maine.

ECHOES OF SOHO Polished concrete floors, high ceilings, and a steel-framed staircase give the home a loft-like feel. ECHOES OF SOHO Polished concrete floors, high ceilings, and a steel-framed staircase give the home a loft-like feel. (Photograph by Jamie Solomon)
By Stacey Chase
June 27, 2010

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The architect who designed Jeanne McDonald’s home calls it the Falmouth Flyer, and its setting helps explain why. Located across from Maine Audubon’s headquarters, the property is a haven for shorebirds and offers panoramic views of Mackworth Island (a designated bird sanctuary) to the south and other Casco Bay islands to the east. McDonald purchased the approximately 1-acre pie-shaped lot – with 274 feet of undeveloped shoreline along its widest side – in September 2006 and quickly opted to tear down the existing, poorly sited 1940s ranch-style home and start anew.

Influenced by modernist architects such as Tom Kundig and the Hariri sisters, the 61-year-old divorced orthodontist – who was enrolled in architecture school during the design process – wanted, she says, “a house that looks kind of like a sculpture.”

McDonald chose Kaplan Thompson Architects, based in nearby Portland and known for its green-building commitment, because she also wanted an energy-efficient home that would save her money while helping to save the planet. Tasked with the design, principal Phil Kaplan relished the opportunity to create a structure in stark contrast to the traditional New England vernacular. “It was the birds I reacted to,” Kaplan says. “I started to think of this [house] in terms of avian forms – activity, speed, motion. . . . It looks like it’s going to take flight.”

Evoking birds for some, geometry lessons for others (acute triangle atop a quadrilateral), the 2,389-square-foot house has an open kitchen/dining/living area, an airy office/studio, four bedrooms, two and a half baths, a mudroom, and a double-height second-floor cedar sun porch. There is also an attached two-car garage.

In keeping with his daring design and her push-the-envelope aesthetic, Kaplan and McDonald decided on an industrial-look cladding that’s highly durable and maintenance-free. Rusted, heavy Cor-Ten steel, complete with exposed bolts, sheaths the lower half of the exterior walls; corrugated aluminum siding on top adds texture. “I just like the look of that,” McDonald says of the Cor-Ten. “It’s really earthy and kind of organic.”

Built in nine months by Kolbert Building of Portland, McDonald’s home earned a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold certification, a designation shared by only 15 other projects in Maine. Solar-heated tubes hidden on the building’s south-facing roof supply hot water for everything from bathing to the radiant heating system in the floors. Highly insulated walls and roofing ensure an airtight house, eliminating the need for heat distribution on the upper level. (Like most solar-powered homes, McDonald’s has a backup system: A high-efficiency propane boiler kicks in on less-than-sunny or frigid days.)

Kaplan’s design also employs passive-solar strategies, like polished concrete floors that absorb heat during the day and give it off at night, as well as perforated-metal “light shelves” midway up oversized, stacked south-facing windows that bounce natural light deep into the home and deflect the sun’s rays during the summer. Other environmentally responsible components include paints and sealants low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), low-flow faucets and shower heads, dual-flush toilets, compact fluorescent and LED lighting, Energy Star appliances, and renewable bamboo flooring .

Steel and concrete architectural features give the space a sleek SoHo loft-like feel. A black steel-framed staircase, for example, has concrete treads and cables for rails; more cables extend from it to the 13-foot ceiling. Interior designer Monica Dominak of Falmouth selected the home’s color palette – carmine, periwinkle, and American-cheese yellow – a bold interpretation of more familiar primary colors. And in a flight of whimsy, the building’s soffit – the underside of the wings, if McDonald’s house were a bird – was painted that particular yellow.

“I like my house because it’s so simple and feels manageable to me,” McDonald says. “I feel at peace.” It was not always that way. When McDonald’s neighbors, most of whom live in traditional Colonials and Cape Cod homes, first saw plans for her voguish angular house, many voiced opposition at zoning board meetings. One told the construction foreman the home had “bad karma.” But McDonald persevered, and before settling in two years ago, she had a shaman cleanse it of any negative energy with smoke. She half-jokes: “I wasn’t taking any chances.”

Stacey Chase is a freelance writer in Maine. E-mail her at storychaser@earthlink.net.