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Open house offers window into energy efficiency

A farmhouse dating to the Civil War isn’t necessarily the first place one might look for 21st century energy innovations, yet, this historic property in Gorham blends the past and the future.
University of Southern Maine environmental science professor Robert Sanford and his wife, Robin, are first-time hosts on an annual Green Buildings Open House event, organized by the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, the Sanfords and hundreds of other property owners will open their properties to the public.10-12-energy-1
The Sanfords live in an 1860s farmhouse that they’ve converted within the last three years to a model of energy efficiency. The roof is equipped with solar panels, the home boasts a solar-powered water heating system, and in the driveway is a charging station for the couple’s Nissan Leaf electric car.
“We’re on the second year on the hot water, starting our third year, and we’re starting our second year with the solar panels” for power production, Sanford said. At the beginning of the summer the couple bought the car, making them among the first to purchase an all-electric Leaf in Maine, Sanford figured.
The Green Buildings Open House, which is billed as the largest sustainable energy event in the Northeast, is likely to bring visitors who are hoping to see on-the-ground energy-efficiency innovations, Sanford said.
“I figure most of the people, if they’re interested in this kind of thing, they’d rather see a homeowner who’s done it and is using it and is happy about it,” he said.
Phil Kaplan, principal at Kaplan Thompson Architects, which specializes in renewable-energy and energy-efficient building design, said “green” building technology has moved increasingly into the mainstream.
“The truth is it’s for everyone,” said Kaplan, whose firm designed many of the buildings featured on Saturday’s tour.
“It’s not and it shouldn’t be a luxury any longer,” Kaplan said, noting the Portland firm has been “very busy even throughout the recession.”
“We’re doing work all throughout the Northeast, we’ve had projects in Virginia, Ohio and up the East Coast, Rhode Island, Massachusetts,” he said.
“The demand is without a doubt increasing dramatically,” he said.
“Green” buildings often are perceived as more expensive, but that doesn’t have to be the case, Kaplan said.
The cost of the mechanical, heating and cooling systems can drop within a “green envelope,” he said, arguing that the idea that “green buildings are difficult to obtain both financially and logistically is a myth.”
“We’ve got at least 15 homes completed that are net zero or net zero ready,” meaning they produce more energy than they consume over a year, he said.
“A lot of these homes can get through a Maine winter without a furnace,” Kaplan noted.
Sanford said he found it more affordable today than a few years ago to retrofit his Gorham farmhouse.
“Basically you do a life cycle cost analysis so I figure out at what point do I start to break even, and then once I’m past that point, I’m making money. I think it’s about seven years,” he said.
Sanford likened this type of investment to a college education, which can require several years of commitment before the rewards are realized.
Sanford displayed a 220-volt charging station which provides power to the electric car.
“Since I’m charging almost half of my power, up to 48 percent from the sun here, I can at least fantasize that I’m pretty close to getting half of the power for this from the sun,” he said, gesturing to the gasoline-free Leaf.
Eventually, he hopes to install more solar panels, Sanford said.
“It feels good to do this much,” he said.
Kaplan said he’s not surprised to see Maine builders shifting to renewable energy methods.
“Mainers are traditionally smart and tough,” he said.
For information on the open house, visit http://www.energysage.com/projects/nesea-gboh. For a local company involved in the tour, see http://www.revisionenergy.com/blog/events/upcoming.

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