Real State

A Tiny, Eco-Friendly House Off the Coast of Maine

This is the story of two athletic people who formed an attachment while cycling and made a home together near the coast of Maine. They built a small, energy-efficient house northwest of Camden that is comfortable throughout the year: in frigid season, sopping season, insect season. It’s got it.

This is also the story of three not-so-little pigs that chomp down on their field. We’ll get to them eventually.

Didier Bonner-Ganter and Nathalie Nopakun met seven years ago while participating in the Cadillac Challenge, an annual bike ride in Acadia National Park. Ms. Nopakun was living in Cambridge, Mass., and had a job as a compliance officer for a Medicaid/Medicare plan, while Mr. Bonner-Ganter was working as a forester and arborist in Midcoast Maine.

“It was just one of those things,” Ms. Nopakun said, sounding like a very fit, female Cole Porter. “We just were totally drawn to each other. We tossed around a bunch of ideas about where to relocate, because we’re older.” (Ms. Nopakun is now 47, and Mr. Bonner-Ganter is 53.)

She added: “It was not like we were about to start a family or anything like that.”

But Mr. Bonner-Ganter had an established business in Maine, which Ms. Nopakun joined in the pandemic after an unhappy bout of working at her job remotely. “I just burned out, so I begged and pleaded and he finally took me on,” she said.

Although the standard property available in coastal Maine is an old farmhouse, the couple didn’t want anything big and drafty that needed constant maintenance. Instead, they bought a 26-acre forested lot near a small lake and a string of hills, clearing two acres for a house and a barn, with the idea of turning the area back into pasture.

To build their 1,200-square-foot house with two bedrooms, they hired GO Logic, in nearby Belfast, Maine. The company is a pioneer in passive-house construction, whereby buildings are positioned and sealed in a way that exploits the sun’s warmth (or the absence thereof), making them less dependent on mechanical heating and cooling.

GO Logic achieves its energy efficiencies with prefabricated insulated panels that are screwed together to create airtight building envelopes. The panels incorporate high-performance doors and large, triple-paned windows from Germany that admit copious quantities of sunlight. Each house is equipped with a ventilation system that recovers 90 percent of the heat and 50 percent of the moisture in the air that is exhausted to the outdoors.

As a result, the couple’s home, completed in June 2023, uses about 20 percent of the energy consumed by heating a conventional house — and this is without solar collectors, which they plan to add later.

“It makes much more sense to improve the envelope before you do any kind of renewables,” said Alan Gibson, GO Logic’s co-founder, who is on the board of directors of Phius, a nonprofit that certifies passive houses. “If you have a super-insulated house, if the power goes out in the winter — which it does here with some frequency — you’re going to be comfortable.”

The contract price of Mr. Bonner-Ganter and Ms. Nopakun’s house was just over $600,000, including $40,000 in site work. Upgrades, including a wood stove, higher-end cabinets, counters and bathroom tiles, and some built-ins added up to about $35,000.

“We priced the project in the fall of 2021,” Mr. Gibson said. “If we were to do it again today, I think the cost would be closer to $675,000.”

“We really wanted to be thoughtful about the materials in the house and chose things that were as sustainable as possible,” Ms. Nopakun said. “Especially being arborists, we didn’t want anything like laminate. We wanted actual wood.”

The exterior siding is pine, and the interior window frames, cabinetry and floating kitchen shelves are maple.

Black pine tar on the exterior created the charred-wood effect of Japanese shou sugi ban at a reduced price. It also offered natural, easy maintenance, with ultraviolet and moisture protection.

“If we painted, this would have to be repainted at some point down the road,” Mr. Bonner-Ganter said. “Now we just have to touch it up if we need to.”

Similarly, the standing-seam metal roof was considered worth the luxury of installing it and then forgetting it for many, many years.

OK: the pigs.

Their names are Wilson, Wanda and Da Vinci, and they’re a New Zealand breed of pig called Kunekune. They weigh about 200 pounds each and are largely vegetarian, which means that they graze in the field surrounding the house but are considerate enough not to turn up the soil.

In addition to grass, the pet pigs eat fruits and vegetables that a local farm swaps for waste wood from the couple’s business and uses to heat its greenhouses in winter. (Sarah Szwajkos, who photographed the property for this story, said the pigs will model for apples.)

“These guys are super easy,” Mr. Bonner-Ganter said. “You don’t have to worry about walking them. You don’t need to let them out. It’s a low-carbon way of maintaining an open field and your view.”

Living Small is a biweekly column exploring what it takes to lead a simpler, more sustainable or more compact life.

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