BELFAST — The idea of spending only $300 per year on our heating and electric bills may have most of us salivating with desire. Given Maine’s often brutally cold winters, it seems an unattainable aspiration.

Not so, said Matthew O’Malia and Alan Gibson, founders of G-O Logic, a design-construction firm in Belfast.

The two have brought a type of construction called the “passive house” to Maine. This highly insulated structure, they say, reduces heating consumption by 90 percent. (In a typical Maine house, 70 percent of energy costs go for heating spaces. The rest is spent on heating water and plugging in stuff.)

In the winter, a passive house can be heated with the same amount of energy produced by a hair dryer, O’Malia and Gibson claim.

Founded in 2008, G-O Logic has been going gangbusters, thanks to a sizeable base of clients looking for environmentally friendly alternatives that cost more on the construction side but save a lot of money on the user end.

Gibson is the builder, O’Malia the architect. Both from Michigan, they met in Maine in the early 2000s at their children’s day care center. It was a meeting of like minds, thinking about ways to improve energy performance. In 2006, they attended the region’s biggest energy-related buildings conference in Boston, and heard a presentation by German architect Katrin Klingenberg, now living in Illinois. In 2003, Klingenberg designed and built the first home to meet the passive house building energy standard in the United States; she is co-founder and executive director of the Passive House Institute U.S

The standard is based on superinsulation, airtight envelopes, energy-recovery ventilation, high-performance windows. and solar gain. “Passive,” Klingenberg  writes on her website, “refers to achieving overall energy savings of 60-70 percent and 90 percent of space heating without applying expensive ‘active’ technologies like photovoltaics or solar thermal hot water systems.”

That inspired the men.

“We thought, ‘Yep, that’s it. We’re doing this,'” recalled Gibson.

O’Malia admitted to being skeptical at the start.

“I thought it was a bit extreme,” he said.All this extra insulation—in my standard practice, it was unusual and made no sense.”

But they went ahead—a typical garage start-up story—pulling money together to build a spec house they called the GO Home (“G” is for Gibson and “O” for O’Malia). The first passive house certified in Maine and the 12th in the U.S., it was a real-world experiment to be sure they could use new techniques and technologies effectively to achieve energy-performance goals, and also have a lovely house.

“We wanted to find a nice balance between contemporary thinking within the traditional context of architecture in Maine,” said O’Malia.


Watching the videos ( the two made during construction and upon completion, it’s clear a lot of research and development—invention here, borrowing there—went into the process. At the same time, the outcome seems to make intuitive sense, even to the layperson.

For example, most builders install 2 inches of rigid insulation at the foundation’s base. The passive house has 6 to 8 inches. They realized the thickness of that amount of insulation had a structural capacity that could actually support the weight of the building. So they manufactured and patented a new type of foundation form from rigid foam in the shape of an “L” to run under the slab and 6 inches up the side.

“So we have a continuous, beautiful layer of thermal insulation at the foundation” that also seals air gaps, said O’Malia.

Climate control is further achieved by a moisture/air membrane that separates the building from the ground. Over this is a system of crushed rocks and rebar, and on top of that the slab.

Load-bearing stud walls insulated with blown-in dense-pack cellulose with 8-inch-thick SIPs (a sandwich of insulating foam between structural facings) wrap the exterior. They blow 24 inches of cellulose into the roof’s truss cavity and install a layer of ZIP sheathing (a system with a built-in energy-efficient barrier) on the underside of the trusses. And they import triple-glazed windows from Germany.

Attention to detail is key. Examples include the care with which seams between panels are sealed to prevent air penetration; and, in the kitchen, a mechanical system that captures heat from the stove through an overhead hood, filters it, and returns it to the room.

In the beginning, O’Malia said, clients tended to be adventurous types willing to invest in a concept still new in the U.S.

“But what they saw was, ‘I don’t want a normal house. I want a high-performing house, and to get that, in this country, I have to take a calculated risk to go to people who are in the field developing those ideas,'” he said. “We were very open about what we knew and what we didn’t know. At the same time, we have really good backup. Our structural engineer plays a critical role in how we build these buildings. We run the calculations. So on one level, yes, this is a new concept. But we’re very methodical and careful.”

Ultimately, the goal has been to create a standardized method easily reproducible, while also remaining flexible enough to continually improve.

“When we got into the passive house, it was about how to make highly insulated walls and where to get the windows from,” O’Malia said. “Once you start solving these problems, you realize it’s not much different from average building. It’s the same skill set.”

To date, the team has completed about 50 commissions, in Maine and beyond. These include the Warren Woods Ecology Field Station for the University of Chicago, completed last spring as the first certified passive-house laboratory in North America, and a dorm at Unity College, completed in 2011.

Right now, they’re working on the Belfast Cohousing and Ecovillage, a cooperative venture between more than 30 individuals and families who seek to preserve farmland while demonstrating a smart-growth model based on compact development and low-energy buildings.

“I’ve always been interested in energy-saving buildings,” said Gibson. “It used to be because of population, and air and water quality, and saving people money. But climate change became imperative. Eighty percent less carbon is where we need to be, across the board, to mitigate changes that are going on.”

O’Malia agrees.

“We know what the problems are with energy—the geopolitical problems, the environment, the carbon, the atmosphere, all those things,” he said. “You can either acknowledge those or bury your head in the sand. I think it’s better to acknowledge our role. We can either do bad buildings that aren’t responsive to what we know is going on in the world. Or we can do everything we can to make responsive buildings that are going to work for where we are and where our children need to be.”