Although Harpswell has an abundance of open space and natural beauty, building a home here can be challenging. Mortgage rates are rising. Contractors are in high demand and short supply. Materials costs have surged because of kinks in the supply chain. You might hit bedrock where your leach line needs to be, or drill halfway to the Earth’s core to tap a decent well. How do you build a house that feels rooted in the Maine landscape while protecting it from unprecedented weather events — and not go bankrupt in the process?
This is how one architect met these challenges while constructing a new home for her family.
Michelle and Tom Keleher discovered Harpswell when their daughter came to Maine for college. Michelle felt the town had a “nostalgic charm,” and particularly admired its traditional New England architecture. The Kelehers eventually relocated from New Mexico to Brunswick, and, on a September afternoon in 2020, drove down to Harpswell to look at a wooded lot on Jordan Point.
The site sloped down to the calm waters of Middle Bay, and the late afternoon sun cast an autumnal glow through the oaks and pines. A small stream cut through the property, and Michelle saw future grandchildren playing by its banks. When their son raced down to the water’s edge, turned, and said, “Let’s live here!” Tom and Michelle knew they wanted to build on that site.
The family envisioned a traditional farmhouse built with modern, sustainable materials. Given the shape of the lot, the house would be long and thin, sited along a north-south axis with natural light coming in on both sides. As an architectural student at the University of Kansas, Michelle had been influenced by the architect and design theorist Christopher Alexander. In his landmark book “A Pattern Language,” Alexander urged architects to move away from abstract theories and build based on tried-and-true designs refined over centuries. The house the Kelehers imagined would have many traditional elements, such as wide pine floors, hewn beams, earth plaster walls, and a central hearth where the family could gather to cook, eat and talk. It would be built based on past practice in the area, and be “a gathering space for family and friends for decades to come,” Michelle said.
Michelle and Tom had a more immediate hurdle: Another potential buyer had put in a higher bid for the property. But their dreaming and planning paid off. They wrote a letter describing their vision for the site, which helped convince the sellers to choose them.
Michelle had designed the family’s home in New Mexico, so she felt comfortable in the combined role of owner and architect. She worked quickly to draft the basic plans. The ground floor would contain the living/dining/kitchen spaces and the master bedroom. Upstairs would have two loft bedrooms and some office space. All of it, excluding the garage, would total around 2,700 square feet.
Constructing in a high-quality, sustainable way meant finding a like-minded contractor and a group of experienced subcontractors who worked well together. She felt an “instant connection” with Jeff Tillinghast, of First Chair Carpentry in Brunswick, and decided to hire him and his crew of carpenters if financing was approved.
She had a square-foot cost in mind, but in just a few months, the bids from various contractors and suppliers shot up “by over $50 to $100 more per square foot,” she said. After tightening up her design, Michelle submitted her final budget to Kennebec Savings Bank and received financing approval in mid-May 2021. Time is money in construction: If the Kelehers wanted to stay within their budget, the schedule would be aggressive. Building began on July 1, with completion planned for April 2022.
The first step was site prep. Laying the foundation meant making decisions about drainage, tree placement, weather impact and where to run the leach field. Mossy Rock Landscaping, of Topsham, did the excavation work and installed a septic system laid out by Harpswell environmental engineer Heather Merriman. The finished dwelling also had to meet Harpswell’s code requirements for setbacks and building height. Fortunately, Michelle found the town planners and inspectors to be “very reasonable and easy to deal with.”
The well was a major concern. Two neighboring properties had gone down 400 feet to get just 1.5 gallons per minute, at the low end for a full-time family residence. When Ted Rolfe, of Kennebec Well Drilling, came out to drill, the Kelehers held their collective breath. Happily, he hit water at 120 feet, at the rate of 40 gallons per minute. This also meant they didn’t have to build a holding tank to support the sprinkler system required for homes in this development.
The house had to be weather tight before winter set in, so Tillinghast and his team got to work assembling the frame. They used a double-wall design to put in extra insulation, and kept the warm and cold air pockets separate within the walls, which helps prevent mold and mildew. The walls were built with rainscreen, which creates a space behind the siding that allows water to run off rather than get trapped there. As the work proceeded, Michelle observed that “three-quarters of the money and effort goes into stuff you barely see.”
Michelle designed a timber-frame construction between the floors, which saves materials because the ceiling for the first story becomes the floor for the second. The Kelehers considered a metal roof, but thought they were too noisy in rainy weather. In the end, they settled on asphalt shingles.
To reduce future maintenance on the exterior, Michelle went with white pine siding dipped and finished with a penetrating sealer. As the siding weathers over the years, it should need just a touch-up rather than a complete repainting. She selected Marvin clad windows designed to last for several decades. Argon gas in the glass provides added resistance to cold. The red window trim is an homage to the traditional New England barn.
Another bow to tradition was using timber from the property to make the exposed support beams. These ax-scarred beams, hewn by Steve Smith from Cumberland’s Renaissance Timber, give the common rooms a handwrought, rustic feel. Michelle also discovered Hatch Home, owned by Harpswell residents Hannah Beattie and Dustan Larsen, which buys and refurbishes old furniture and antique household items. Upcycled mirrors, rugs, shelving and bedside tables from Hatch were placed in the new home.
Summer 2021 turned to fall. As the pace of construction picked up, Michelle felt pressured by the sheer volume of details and the need for constant communication with the builders. She was often making trade-offs between her idealized version of the finished home and the realities of getting it done on time and within budget. As she watched Tillinghast and his carpenters, she began to appreciate the interpersonal dynamics within the crew. They seemed to enjoy working together, and functioned well as a team, which was crucial if the project was going to stay on track.
The shell of the house took shape. The windows were finally installed in October, and by Nov. 1, “right in the nick of time,” according to Michelle, the house was sealed tight.
Now the subs could come in. The plumber, electrician, painter and drywaller were part of the team assembled by Tillinghast, which made coordination much simpler. Rather than simply paint over the half-inch drywall, Michelle used earth plaster, a clay powder that’s mixed with water. She believes earth plaster makes the walls feel more solid and helps create a mood of calm in a room.
A lot of thought went into how the house would be heated. Because of climate change, Michelle wanted to stay away from oil and propane systems. The house is heated and cooled by electric heat pumps installed by The Breathable Home, of Augusta, supplemented by a wood stove. The oven range is electric as well. As energy from solar farms becomes more widely available in Harpswell, Michelle hopes to buy all her electricity from a renewable source.
By February 2022, the combination of good planning, strong communication and tight teamwork paid off, and the house was ready for the Keleher family to move in, ahead of schedule. The result has the warmth and traditional grace of a solidly built New England farmhouse, with materials designed to make it sustainable and energy efficient through the next phases of climate upheaval. It’s a house in which “aesthetics and sustainability went hand in hand,” according to Michelle.
As we continue to build or remodel homes in Harpswell, we’d be wise to look to a lesson learned in the construction of the Keleher home: Honor traditional practices that have worked here for hundreds of years while adopting sustainable, efficient and cost-effective building techniques. As Michelle put it, “We can create the life we want, if we have the vision and we care.”
Greg Bestick lives in Harpswell and serves as president of the Harpswell News Board of Directors.