Educator Kimberly Sampson and architectural designer Adam Maltese were driven to design their small, efficient and hyperfunctional dream home on a wooded lot in Maine by a common parental desire — to do the best they could for their children. Having grown up in upstate New York, Kimberly says she took a childhood spent in nature for granted. But as her children grew up in a coastal Maine town and she saw the emphasis on busy schedules and technology in so many modern lives, she realized she wanted to give her kids the opportunity for something more.
Kimberly and Adam’s desire to create a home in nature led them to a neglected, off-the-beaten-path tract of land a few miles from the Maine coast that had been something of a dump site for area residences, as well as a nearby sawmill. It had housed gravel pits and was completely overgrown after having been clear-cut in the 1950s. But Kimberly and Adam liked its size, manageable at four acres; its diverse ecosystems, which include pine forest, wetlands, ponds and bogs; and its seclusion, a few miles outside the small town of Damariscotta.
Adam and Kimberly say they both have a knack for jumping into projects with both feet, and they certainly did when it came to building the house. They bought the land and built the house in less than a year, with Adam handling nearly every task himself (along with a few days’ help from generous family members), from setting the foundation piers to building the extensive front porch (one of Kimberly’s aesthetic requests). Adam’s father was a general contractor, so Adam has a lifetime of experience with building projects, and his work as an architectural designer (he worked freelance at the time the house was built and now works for design-build firm Knickerbocker Group in nearby Boothbay) meant he had plenty of design ideas for the couple’s own home. “This was a chance to try some building techniques I’d wanted to try but hadn’t had the opportunity,” Adam says. “The concept was to keep the building as clean and crisp as possible and with as few components as possible, and to make each component do multiple jobs.”
They chose to keep the house small, in part for construction practicality. By sticking with the size of the largest commonly available building materials, Adam was able to construct the home in a modular style, keep costs down, and source supplies as close to home as possible. While Adam and Kimberly wanted the home to be efficient, they valued an adaptive, workable design over aiming for net-zero. “I see it time and again,” Adam says. “People will build these houses that are wonderfully efficient, and five years later they remodel and they kind of undo the resources they’ve tried to be conservative of. They haven’t used a lot of heating oil, but then they cut a hole in a wall and replace windows with new ones and upgrade other systems — it sort of blows the whole idea.”
So instead of aiming for state-of-the-art, they chose to aim for functional, durable and flexible — a home that would last for many years. There were also livability reasons they wanted the house to be small. By staying small, they would minimize their home maintenance requirements, and they’d be able to opt for higher quality — even on their trim budget. “I didn’t want to take care of our house often,” Kimberly says. “We’re pretty tidy, and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time maintaining a tidy home. So we knew we wanted a small home. But there were also a few beautiful things we wanted. If it was small, we could have the beautiful rug or sofa.”
A Natural Education
After the family moved and started settling in, Kimberly, a lifelong educator, began to envision a new purpose for their land — a new project to dive into. “Here our children have this lovely experience of being able to have their early years outside,” she says. She wanted to share that experience with more than just her own family. “I’ve been caring for children and families for more than 20 years, and now more than ever I see the benefits of children spending time outside. I have seen that outdoor time helps children grow strong and helps build their imaginations. Conflict resolution is rarely needed between children, and I feel in the long run children perform better academically. In addition, children who spend time in nature regularly are shown to have a deeper lifelong appreciation of the environment.”
Kimberly decided to open a nature-based preschool out of her home. Adam built a small, efficient schoolhouse next to the main house, styled to match. Today, about eight students aged 3 to 6 gather at the Little House School to spend their days exploring the forest and caring for the school’s chickens, ducks and goats. They spend about 70 percent of their time outdoors during spring and fall, and about 40 percent of their time outdoors throughout winter, with activities that range from collecting wild cranberries to watching salamanders and toads in the pond. Inside, they do work drawn from both Montessori and Waldorf educational philosophies, and learn practical crafts such as baking bread. “It’s a forest-based curriculum,” Kimberly says. “It’s a forest and farm school. One of the girls calls it a goat school.”
Kimberly’s main goal is to take children out of the hectic pace of modern living and let them move more slowly, give them time to be curious. “One of the things the parents appreciate is how slow our day is,” Kimberly says. “If it takes this much time to gather the eggs, it takes that time. Sometimes for 15 minutes we are just looking at the pond. In this world, we’re often rushing from A to B so quickly. We’re rushing from soccer to dance to swim lessons; there’s this feeling of anxiety. When you come here, all of that just stops.”
When it comes to a homesteading lifestyle, Kimberly and Adam look to flexibility as well. Although they grow a kitchen garden, preserve some of their own food, own goats and collect eggs from their chickens, they also both have careers they love, so they look for a happy balance of self-sufficiency and livability. “It’s been this constant evolution,” Adam says. “It gets easier and things start finding a more steady rhythm, and then we want more. We say, ‘Let’s do this or that.’”
The couple continually looks to add new endeavors that enrich their family’s life. Each year, they take on new projects (last year, they cleared a new field for potato planting, and this year they’re considering taking on a rescue donkey and pony) — but they don’t pressure themselves to live entirely self-sufficiently. And just as their lives have evolved over time on the property, so too has their home. When the blended family first moved in, the four at-home kids were 6 and 9, two of each age; today they are 12 and 15 (Kimberly’s oldest son lives and works in upstate New York). As the children have grown, they’ve shifted their home, adding a 16-by-20-foot addition that includes a master bedroom and some much-needed storage spaces, and reworking the children’s spaces from one large room into four smaller compartment rooms and back to two bigger rooms, to accommodate changing needs as the kids grew. This dynamic aspect has worked especially well thanks to the home’s modular design.
“What this house has taught me, or maybe it’s age or wisdom, as we’re starting to see the kids grow up, is how dynamic our house had to be,” Adam says. “In a larger house, with enough space, there is forgiveness built in. We’ve had to change the house multiple times because it’s so small, we’re constantly tweaking and changing the system. The kids change on us — wait a minute, you guys are bigger now. It was almost like this was a lesson on the dynamics of how things change. We’re looking at our future, too, projecting into when the kids are in college, and our house will change again. We’ve tried to make portions of the house so they can be reconverted again, when it won’t have to be broken into two big bedrooms. We used the flexibility built into that system in ways we may not have expected at first. Small forced us to be continually flexible.”
A Home for Wildlife
Kimberly Sampson and Adam Maltese worked to minimize the material inputs that went into building their dream home. The two were also conservative when it came to developing their plot of land. Keeping the building site small and clustering buildings together meant they could preserve the forests, wetlands and bogs on the remainder of their four acres. They worked to enhance these natural areas, clearing away brush, and opening up land that enabled animals to migrate through their property. The old gravel pits have been cleaned up and become ponds. Today, their land is home to a huge array of migrating birds, including a variety of ducks, geese, loons, blue herons and songbirds. Frogs sing from the ponds. And the property is regularly visited by foxes, fishers, coyotes and even moose. “I feel like there’s been a resurgence of life here because of clearing and opening and putting the good work in,” Kimberly says. “It has such a good energy, all the animals want to come and visit.”
In this article, Mother Earth Living Editor in Chief Jessica Kellner has striven to demonstrate to Adam and Kimberly’s two 15-year-old children that their parents are cool — a tall order no matter the family! She is happy to once again showcase the beautiful work of Maine photographer Erin Little, whose home, family and photography were featured in the May/June 2015 issue.