Going Small, Thinking Big

SMALLER DSC_6251Building a smart, sustainable home on Munjoy Hill

About 10 years ago, we bought a modest shingled home on Munjoy Hill. Built in 1879, its porch listed to one side, the kitchen ceiling leaked, and the floors upstairs bounced a little under your feet. Nonetheless, we were delighted with our little fixer-upper, our handyman’s special.  We envisioned a swift, sustainable renovation that would result in the trim and efficient home of our dreams.

We fixed the ceiling and rented the house to a nice couple “from away” who would occupy it happily and tidily until our youngest graduated college.

Kitchen with island

Fast-forward five years.

We readied our rambling Victorian for sale. We sanded floors, painted the interior, replaced several windows and rotted exterior trim. Selling at the worst time in real-estate history isn’t recommended, but you know what Langston Hughes said about a dream deferred: “…it just sags, like a heavy load.”

Our beloved home sold in less than two weeks. This was the airy, turreted Queen Anne where we read Madeline, Where the Wild Things Are, and Goodnight Moon to our daughters each night. This was the grassy yard where our goldfish were buried. This was the porch swing where we’d spent countless hours admiring the white peonies and purple iris in the garden.

We developed a painful case of seller’s remorse. Heartbroken, I transplanted the peonies and iris to a friend’s garden and hoped they’d make it through the winter. They didn’t.

Stairway 5

First Things First

We wanted a distinctive house that would stand out from the crowd but not look like it was dropped from outer space. Armed with a respectable preliminary drawing from our family architect – Mom, Yale Architecture ’55 – we took our floppy little sketch to City Hall for a building permit where we received a resounding “no.” We needed CAD drawings, site plans and elevations, 21st Century-style.

Around this time, our “nifty little renovation” morphed into a total tear-down. I noticed little frowny lines forming between my husband David’s eyebrows.

Portland architect Anne Callender came to our rescue. She incorporated a roof pitch, side porch and square bay window that resembled other Munjoy Hill homes. Anne was patient. Anne was calm. She supplied the requisite set of seven drawings produced to the exacting standards of the City of Portland. We hashed out glitches during “wine time” at the Blue Spoon. I’m now convinced that some of the world’s great architecture happens on cocktail napkins.

Libby on stairs

Finding Your Builder

We needed a builder. We were looking for someone honest, talented, skilled, intuitive, responsible, trustworthy and flexible – a tall order. Our “captain” finally emerged in Munjoy Hill native son, Rick Romano. Rick crafted our shingled exterior with a distinctive four-inch reveal and mitered the corners “tight” in quasi-antique style. He allowed Dave to participate and save money by staining the shingles himself – over 100 bundles. Rick designed the exterior trim to resemble his mother’s house on Morning Street, and added a natural-finish beadboard ceiling to the front porch.

Rick was wildly creative with interior finishes, like our Maine Island on wheels, Lady Newels, and Hardy Boys half-bath which took a solid weekend of noodling around and an entire stack of cocktail napkins.

Stairway 3

Bottom line: Hire an architect who won’t freak out when you want a tweak or a change, and hire a builder who will match your creativity with his own. Whether by luck or sheer doggedness, we managed to find both.

Dave and I wanted an open, airy feeling, and to to take advantage of the abundant East End sunshine to light and heat our home. We enlisted the advice of knowledgeable friends and pro-bono collaborators, one of whom suggested moving the staircase from the main living space into its own “silo” of windows. This was brilliant – a total game changer – and amazingly enough, no one on our design-build team freaked out. The stairway became the focal point of our home, sunny and generous, graced by distinctive “Lady” newels.

At the top of the silo, Rick installed an antique stained-glass window from my father’s house in Connecticut. Each morning, the iridescent pink and green glow captures Dad’s optimistic spirit.



Living on a hill can be a drainage challenge, so from the very beginning Dave’s goal was to get the moisture out of and away from our home. Since we were downsizing and storage space was a premium, we wanted to be sure that we had a warm, dry basement.  His foundation underdrain system combined 18 inches of crushed stone and 4-inch rigid perforated pipe. A little overdesigned, maybe, but very effective.

For stormwater runoff, he directed site drainage to our porous driveway’s 18 inches of crushed stone. Runoff percolates into the ground – not into the sewer system. Everything from this kind of sustainable landscaping to rain barrels can chip away at your carbon footprint.

Bath 1

Our high-tech foundation is a system of interlocking Styrofoam™ blocks called insulated concrete forms (ICFs) that look a lot like Legos. Thanks to this new-age technology our unheated basement will never get below 50 degrees – a great temperature for wine. Plus, no freezing pipes, no winter coat and mittens, and no tippy space heaters are necessary, maintaining functionality in all seasons.

Warm and Dry

Our old Victorian, below, was leaky and cold. In winter, we’d huddle in front of the woodstove like five birds on a wire. We love the idea of radiant heat for our new home, with two rooftop solar panels (40 tubes, total) preheating the water that circulates through tubes beneath the floors. Warmboard® spreads the heat evenly. Being warm on the coldest Maine days, and going barefoot in winter seems farfetched, unimaginable. It’s – we are still pinching ourselves.

Our house II

In Europe, “passive” homes use minimal energy because they’re so well insulated. Mechanical ventilation circulates and exchanges the air – the key to air quality in a tightly built home like ours. Jim Robinson, our savvy plumbing and heating contractor, made sure that the air in our home is exchanged every 15 minutes. His high-efficiency gas furnace, programmable thermostats, low-flow showerheads, faucets, and dual-flush toilets all cut our energy costs considerably as well.


Sustainable Chic

You can also save a lot of energy with simple CFL and LED lights, foam insulation, and high-quality windows. You can get tax credits for Energy Star appliances, high-performance windows, efficient furnace, solar panels, geothermal heat pumps, and even windmills. We didn’t go quite that far, but I pocketed enough in rebate checks to buy a white canvas sofa – where sustainable meets fab.

Hill Rosemont


From here we can walk to Micucci’s, Coffee By Design, and the Nick. Building sustainably isn’t just about efficiency, using recycled materials, or even the dreaded carbon footprint. It’s also about walkability. We chose a lively urban setting where we could walk, bike, or take public transportation. We recently joined a car-sharing program. Check your address’s rating on walkscore.com.

Living 1

Less Is More

We went from 3,200 square feet to 1,600 square feet – that’s downsizing. Small works if your design is right. Take a look the Not So Big books (Rick refers to them as his “bible”) by architect Sarah Susanka. Susanka advocates using fewer resources in construction, aiming for greater efficiency over time, and simply having less stuff. “Downsizing” means different things to different people, however. Friends sold their home and bought a warehouse-sized building on Fore Street. Their discussions are not about how to squeeze in their books, but where to put the elevator.

Designing sustainably from scratch offered us a perfect opportunity to put our money where our mouth is. Less really does feel like more, here.

Hardy Boys BathWe’ve learned the hard way about green building. The maze of eco-claims can be daunting, the process can be frustrating, and the costs, downright alarming. Our “green” home is therefore more of a “green-ish” hue. We budgeted what seemed like a hefty amount for design and construction, but building new is isn’t cheap, even in a weak economy. We focused our budget on energy efficiency rather than high-end finishes – the glass shower doors, pizza oven, and landscaping had to go. We bought kitchen pulls and knobs on clearance at Restoration Hardware, found plumbing fixtures online or at Home Depot, and got a flawless antique clawfoot tub for $300 on Craigslist from a nice guy in Augusta ­– delivered.

Kitchen and Fab Four

We chose instead to splurge on lighting, energy-efficient appliances, high-end windows, super-tight insulation, and prefinished ash floors. We can always add a glass shower door later, and as for landscaping – we’ll tackle it next year. Another pro-bono collaborator suggested a housewarming where people bring overgrown plants from their gardens. We will continue planting our bright, blooming “friendship garden” in the coming years.

Wherever you go, there you are.

Sometimes, I miss the old neighborhood – Burbank Library, Pat’s Meat Market, and yes, even Quality Shop. But I will never doubt our decision to downsize our life. Will we flourish on this breezy, urban hilltop where the median age is 34?  Only time will tell.  •


© Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram – Photos by Jamie Salomon. This home was chosen Best Small Home of the Year 2014 in Fine Homebuilding magazine.

2 Responses to Going Small, Thinking Big

  1. There’s only 2 things missing. One starts with S, the other with R.

  2. Such a wonderful story of intention, hard work, and collaboration. The house is absolutely gorgeous and the artwork is well-showcased. Love the sofa too!!

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