Words By Allison Paige | Photos by Lauryn Hottinger
A look at passivhausMAINE’s bright ideas
As Mainers, enduring our long, cold winters in oftentimes lovely but less than airtight historic homes, we know only too well the seasonal tug-of-war with our thermostats once the temperature drops. We are used to drafts and toughing it out in slipshod ways, sealing our windows with cling film, or simply putting on an extra sweater and a pair of wool socks before capitulating, at last, to cranking up the heat, much of which escapes through minimally protected windows and doors. PassivhausMAINE hopes to change that by helping us rethink the way we build, insulate, and heat our homes.
PassivhausMAINE is a nonprofit organization committed to decreasing carbon emissions and dependency on fossil fuels and reducing the costs for winter heating in the state. Founding member and Executive Director Naomi C.O. Beal explains, “It works to support the passive house industry and community in Maine, North America, and internationally.”
The nonprofit was formed a year ago by a group of like-minded architects, builders, and creatives. However, PassivhausMAINE’s founding members, Naomi of ncob photo, Chris Corson of Ecocor, Jesse Thompson of Kaplan Thompson Architects, and Jesper Kruse of Maine Passive House, first gathered much earlier than that, in April 2011. “Meetings in coffee shops evolved into monthly site tours, and interest and membership have steadily increased. We formalized as a nonprofit in 2017,” says Naomi.
On October 5th, passivhausMAINE held a unique event to coincide with Portland’s popular First Friday Art Walk. The mission of this project was to engage the general population in concepts of building efficiency, focusing on comfort, money savings, and health, as well as carbon savings and climate change. PassivhausMAINE partnered with Portland firms The VIA Agency and Headlight Audio Visual Inc., with the participation of Maine College of Art (MECA), to broadcast their ideas in a colorful and novel way.
The display, based on full-scale thermographic images, was projected onto the facade of historic Mechanics’ Hall at 519 Congress Street to illustrate the energy loss that such buildings experience daily, particularly during the winter. One of Greater Portland Landmarks’ notable structures, the building was chosen by the organization as a canvas for their event, as much for its historical beauty as for its central location. Mechanics’ Hall, completed in 1859 by architect Thomas J. Sparrow as the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, faces many of the same energy-loss challenges as a great number of Maine residential and commercial buildings and is currently undergoing renovations of its own to address some of the issues the organization hopes to spotlight.
Naomi relates, “The dynamic images scaled to the shape and features of Mechanics’ Hall highlight the imperative for better-built buildings in Maine.” The two-minute slide show ran approximately every 10 minutes from 6 to 7:30 p.m. PassivhausMAINE founders and board members were on the street to answer questions, take surveys, and distribute handouts promoting recent projects as well as their annual conference. The thermographic images shifted from magenta red to cool aqua blue, vividly illustrating where the building loses most of its heat and what it would look like if that heat loss were remedied.
Naomi adds, “The playful illustrations belie a serious effort to educate and engage those who might not be aware of the carbon footprint of buildings as well as solutions to building problems of moisture, drafts, and wasting of money for heating and cooling.”
The organization’s primary objective was to reach beyond the professionals who are their usual audience. Says Naomi, “PassivhausMAINE tends to interact with architects, engineers, builders, and developers who are looking for innovative ways to work. We are excited about this project because we want a broader audience to understand the benefits of a properly built structure. In effect, we want to activate the consumer while giving a nudge to the professionals.”
Additionally, this past year, the organization hosted two conferences: The New England Passive House Multi-Family Conference in Kensington, New Hampshire, and the Maine Wood + Sustainability Conference in Portland, along with Local Wood WORKS and AIA Maine. The latter was the first design conference to focus on Maine’s natural resources and how they lend themselves to beautiful, sustainable, low-carbon buildings.
Continues Naomi, “I love when good architecture impacts how we relate to each other, how we relate to the outdoors. Maine’s ‘brand’ of outdoor living and healthy, natural land and seascape could be tied more inextricably to our architecture. Design and construction with intention to protect our natural environment, while enhancing the life of those in and out of the building, is our goal of Maine’s best buildings. Using building science/passive house standard to ensure that the structure is actually low energy, comfortable, and resilient is not gilding the lily; it is the lily itself.”
The mild autumn evening saw art lovers and city strollers out in droves, meandering down Congress Street, where vendors of painting, pottery, photography, and jewelry lined the sidewalk. PassivhausMAINE’s bright, colorful graphics projected onto Mechanics’ Hall’s facade, in the heart of Portland’s downtown, gave their message a festive appeal, attracting many an eye of the passersby and creating an opportunity for organization members and volunteers to mingle with the public.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, as they say, passivhausMAINE’s innovative, awareness-raising demonstration made visible the significant energy loss Maine’s drafty homes and businesses experience every year. Yet, with the progressive minds behind passivhausMAINE growing in strength and numbers, and with their project reach ever expanding, future projections look bright.