Yankee Ingenuity: A New England Home

An alternative-energy home in Maine showcases a New Englander’s sense of beauty and self-reliance.

| September/October 2008

  • Tony and Sally Grassi’s house blends New England tradition with cutting-edge green technology. Run entirely by renewable energy, it fits beautifully into Maine’s coastal ecosystem.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • Windows on the project room’s southern and eastern sides provide illumination for Sally’s quilting and rug-hooking projects. The Shaker-style storage cabinets are crafted from formaldehyde-free plywood with FSC-certified poplar frames and doors.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • Tony and Sally’s antique colonial furniture—including the 18th-century horse weathervane—contrasts with sleek 21st-century steel beams, windows and opaque-glass walls. The hardwood floors are FSC-certified Brazilian cherry with a natural oil finish.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • A roaring fire in the living room supplements the home’s in-floor radiant heating. “We love the warmth and atmosphere of our wood fireplaces,” Sally says.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • Tony and Sally display their collection of early 19th-century whirligigs against an opaque glass wall.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • Maine stonework and firewood from the Grassis’ property give local, country flavor to the modern, energy-efficient kitchen. The countertops are stone, chosen because they’ll last longer than synthetics and can be reused in another home someday.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • Though nestled into the trees, the Grassi house offers gorgeous views of the Atlantic Ocean. “I love living in a house where looking out at the forest and ocean is part of our daily existence,” Tony says.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • The stable’s sloped roof is the perfect location for photovoltaic panels, which generate much of the electricity needed to power the home’s geothermal pumps and other electrical needs.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • “We like the design tension between the traditional and the contemporary,” architect Matthew Elliott says. “The glass is a beautiful counterpoint to the home’s historic elements.” The eagle above the dining table is a stern board from an 1830s ship.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink
  • Hot water for the efficient, tranquil and modern bathroom—with paper-free gypsum on the walls—is supplied free by the geothermal system.
    Photography By Brian Vanden Brink

Clad in unpretentious wood-shingle siding, Sally and Tony Grassi’s coastal Maine home looks every bit the stoic New England farmhouse. Yet beneath its traditional exterior is cutting-edge environmental innovation: A blend of geothermal and solar power generates the energy the couple uses, plus the home employs a host of environmentally sensitive building techniques.

Tony and Sally’s goal was to create a nontoxic, eco-friendly home that reflects their environmental ideals. They declared independence from nonrenewable energy and banned PVC, a planet-polluting plastic, from their house. They also insisted on sustainably forested, formaldehyde-free wood for both framing and finishes.

Set back from the ocean on an 18-acre parcel of field and forest, the house and accompanying buildings occupy the site of a house removed by a former landowner. “We didn’t want to make a new scar on the land,” Tony says. The couple built a cluster of buildings around a central courtyard: the main house (with kitchen, living room, dining room, office, master bedroom and guest room), a guest house (with three more bedrooms) and a workshop/garden house. A pony barn, which houses the complex’s solar panels, is farther away in an open field. No trees were cut to make room for the new buildings.

“We wanted to keep the house small but have enough room for our extended family for holidays,” Sally says. Locating most of the guest rooms in a separate building allows them to turn off the power there until company comes.

Learning and leading

The Grassis worked closely with architects Dwayne Flynn  and Matthew Elliott of Elliott Elliott Norelius Architecture and builder Jay Fischer of Cold Mountain Builders. “Lessons from the Grassi house continue to influence our firm’s decisions on new projects,” Flynn says. “Tony and Sally were intensely involved in choosing materials. They wanted to know how everything was made, how durable it was and whether it was reusable or recyclable in the distant future.”

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