As far as Judy Walsh is concerned, the house she and her husband Paul Stenzel share on Peaks Island was a winner the day they moved in. But there was an added accolade—Fine Homebuilding magazine named it the “Best New Home of the Year.”
The house is open, airy, full of interesting angles and windows that bring in the North Atlantic light, and is essentially “net zero,” meaning it produces as much energy from photovoltaics as it uses.
But one element of the house sets it quite apart from any competitors—it maintains humidity levels of 50 percent year-round, and does so without creating unhealthy mold or mildew problems. The humidity, Walsh explains, was essential for her husband’s health, following the removal of his larynx after a cancer diagnosis.
“It’s a perfect house for us,” Walsh said in a recent telephone interview.
The journey that brought them to the island and this house three years began in Maine, led to Washington D.C., then to Buffalo, N.Y., and finally back to Maine.
The couple lived in Portland in the 1980s, with Stenzel owning and operating a restaurant, Sebastian’s, in Freeport. In 1991, they moved to D.C. where Walsh worked as an art conservator at the National Gallery. In 2003, they taught at the state university in Buffalo, he in the culinary arts, she in the art department.
“Once we retired, we could go anywhere,” and they decided to return to Maine. Neither had ever been on Peaks Island, but a piece of property on the Back Shore beckoned. It was at the end of gravel road, surrounded by a land preserve, 300 yards from the shore.
“We talked to different architects, and we really liked Kaplan Thompson,” she said. “They were committed to energy efficiency and using local materials.”
Though the couple had lived in an Arts & Crafts home in Buffalo, they opted for a modern design. Somewhat gleefully, Walsh describes selling much of the contents of their previous home.
“We were going to build a 21st century house,” she said, with solar panels, triple-glazed windows, and heat pumps—even a heat pump hot water heater. “Everything is electric,” and in fact, the couple is looking into installing batteries, the next step toward self-sufficiency.
“It’s a real nice way to live,” she says.
Still, there were challenges to overcome.
“You have to be able to deal with high levels of humidity in what’s essentially an air tight house,” explains architect Phil Kaplan. A whole-house air exchanger was key to letting out dirty air and bring in fresh, while capturing some of the heat that otherwise would be vented out.
The couple also wanted to use materials that did not consume large amounts of carbon-based fuels in their creation, so that meant far less concrete was used.
Half the house sits on piers, Kaplan said, there are few right angles, and the goal was for the living space to feel open and bright, despite being just 1,750-square feet.
“One of the things I really like,” Kaplan said, “is that from the road, it’s very modest and unassuming.’” Yet on entering, the house reveals “incredible surprises,” in the form of more windows, more light, and higher ceilings.
Builder Heather Thompson, of the island-based Thompson Johnson Woodworks, faced “a sloping site, in the woods, down a dirt road.”
The house has a double-wall construction, with vertical I-beams attached to the traditional studs, offering secondary bays in which to dense-pack cellulose insulation, she said.
“The house isn’t rectangular,” with some angles as slight as 10 degrees. Thompson credits owner, architect, and her firm for the success.
“It was a complicated build,” she says, “but the team was extremely collaborative.”
But the biggest satisfaction? “Building a house for year-round islanders. That’s the best.”
The Walsh-Stenzel house is featured in the April issue of Fine Homebuilding magazine, and at finehomebuilding.com/2020/04/08/science-drives-design.