The little coastal village of Belfast, Maine, is an unlikely place to find a new 36-unit, 14-building multifamily development — especially during the lingering hard times of the current recession. But Belfast's Ecovillage isn't your typical development — it's an "intentional community" patterned after the cohousing projects of northern Europe. And despite a myriad of obstacles — including a near total lack of bank financing — the unusual project appears to be not just surviving, but thriving.
Coastal Connection toured the project during an open house on Sunday, September 9, and we spoke for an hour on Monday with one of the project's founding members, Belfast builder Alan Gibson. Gibson is a principal in the Belfast design/build firm G•O Logic, along with architect partner Matthew O'Malia. G•O Logic's first Passive House project, a single-family home in Belfast the company calls the "GO Home," was the first officially certified Passive House project in Maine, completed in 2010. The house earned a LEED Platinum rating, and in 2011 was recognized by the US Green Building Council as "Project of the Year." "We got a lot of good press from that," says Gibson. (Builder magazine covered the GO Home in July 2012: see "Green Homes, In Every Color," by Amy Albert.)
The Ecovillage houses are duplexes and triplexes, not single-family homes. But they're built with the same basic package as G•O Logic's Passive House — slab foundations on 8 inches of foam insulation; SIP walls augmented with an inner 2x4 load-bearing frame (the inner stud wall, insulated with dense-blown cellulose, serves to keep wiring or other penetrations out of the SIPs); and wood truss roofs with blown-in R-80 cellulose insulation. Windows are high-performance German-made units with triple glazing. "That first house is basically the model home for the cohousing buildings," says Gibson. "But just to be clear, we aren't getting the cohousing buildings certified through Passive House, in order to avoid the expense of the certification process."
The dual SIP-and-stud wall package has become G•O Logic's standard system. "The panels are very slick," says Gibson. "They come through pre-cut, and they make all the framing simpler — for example, you end up framing the windows to the panels, rather than framing the windows first." The air pressure boundary for the wall system is created by sealing the SIP joints with tape, explains Gibson. "We seal the SIPs on both faces," he explains, "because we don't want any moisture getting in there. And we're getting very low air-tightness numbers. The last one I did was 0.31 air changes per hour at 50 pascals. It's twice as good as the Passive House standard." Gibson's crews have elevated their game when it comes to sealing a SIP shell, he says: "We've identified a few areas that we have to focus on every time, we've changed our design somewhat and we've changed the way it's done in the field, and all those problems have been eliminated, now, for like the last six buildings."
Roofs are framed with conventional wood trusses, and get an R-80 load of dense blown cellulose. On the ceiling below the insulation, the air barrier is a 0.5-inch layer of OSB, sealed with tape, applied to the undersides of the bottom chords of the trusses. "The biggest thing I've learned about air sealing in the past five years is, do not ever rely on poly or spray foam," Gibson says.
Building their first Passive House convinced Gibson and O'Malia that it was practical to build a zero-energy house in Maine for a cost that could compete with standard code-compliant housing. And applying the same concepts over and over to a whole development of houses with a common design, says Gibson, has brought the cost of construction down further.
Building attached houses has been one area of cost savings. "We started with the idea of single-family detached houses," says Gibson. "And it was mainly Chuck Durrett, who is sort of the father of cohousing in the U.S., who came out and spent a week with us during our site programming, who told us that it wouldn't work — that it had to be duplex, if not triplex or fourplex." But many of the members of the cooperative, especially the core founding group, had lived for years on big, remote homesteads — in some cases, off the grid. For these people, says Gibson, there's been a long process of letting go of their ideas of what their houses would be like. "People came to see that the community is what's really important," says Gibson. "The houses are less important. But it's not something people have experience with: sharing land with their neighbors. It's a big learning process."
At the same time, there's been whole other learning curve for G•O Logic, Gibson observes: this is the company's first development. The state of Maine treated the cohousing project just as it would any other 36-unit dense development on a rural site: site planning, environmental permitting, zoning, stormwater — problems like that have been a lot of work. And for the members of the cohousing cooperative, these factors have added cost. In fact, says Gibson, the regulatory burden offset much of the cost advantage of spreading the land purchase over the whole community. "At the end of the day, the additional soft costs for a project like this kind of make it a break-even proposition from going out and buying your own — you know, not fifty acres, but like five acres, with your own private septic and well and driveway with no civil engineering, very little code enforcement review, no DEP review ... that kind of stuff, the stakes get much higher when you get 36 units on six acres."
Projects of this size are rare in rural Maine. "I see the cohousing project as a bubble for building in the local area," says Gibson. "Once it's done, we are going to scale way back on building right around Belfast. There just isn't the market for new housing in this area, and so we've been pushing farther south in Maine. We have a project in Falmouth, and a project in North Yarmouth, and a couple more that are ready to go in Freeport. Farther afield, we have a project in Connecticut and one in Michigan."
But those upcoming projects are all stand-alone houses on scattered sites — one-off custom homes. G•O Logic doesn't have any developments on the drawing board. So does this mean that all the learning they've done about land development and standardization during their cohousing project will go to waste? Gibson hopes not. "If anybody starts doing developments and they're interested in our services," he says, "we'd love to do that."
"We see huge benefits and economies of scale from doing a production Passive House," says Gibson. "That's what we set out to do, when a lot of people in the green building community were saying that it couldn't be done. We're trying to show that it can be done, and that you can get airtightness levels below Passive House limits, regularly, every single time."
"I think we're about the biggest development in the state of Maine right now, just because of the economy," says Gibson. "And if that turns around, we'd love to be able to say, ‘Here. We can do this.'"