I’ll have what she’s having. The When Harry Met Sally quotable often gets repeated at Kaplan Thompson Architects. The 9-year-old, Portland, Maine–based firm has earned multiple honors from the AIA, USGBC, and other organizations, and with accolades come numerous inquiries to adapt or repeat a success. Potential clients stream through the doors of Kaplan Thompson’s office when projects astound architecture critics and CPAs alike. Barn Door’s Open and Ranch Revival, the respective homes of principals Phil Kaplan and Jesse Thompson, rung in under $100 per square foot (albeit sans design fees).
Though completed at different ends of a decade, Barn Door’s Open and Ranch Revival embody sustainable-design principles. Passive performance figures largely in the environmental strategies. Barn Door’s Open is smartly oriented and maximizes natural ventilation without succumbing to Maine’s famous mosquito swarms while Ranch Revival is heavily blanketed in insulation, some of it salvage, and employs heat recovery. Both homes enjoy pedestrian-friendly locations and feature recycled finish materials.
Between these two projects, Kaplan and Thompson decided to pursue only design work whose primary goals included lower energy consumption. Today the firm does energy modeling on every commission, running schemes through Passive House Planning Package from Germany’s Passivhaus Institut, and it has essentially eliminated furnaces as a result. Just as important, the potential clients wanting their own Barn Door’s Open or Ranch Revival also want in on the green mission—as long as the enhancements would not bring the price tag to $200 per square foot, which is the region’s standard baseline pricing for a custom stick-built home. “We wanted an option that could fulfill a lot more of these dreams,” Kaplan says.
Modular construction presented a solution, yet a first foray into the type did not exactly realize prefab’s promise of utter affordability. BrightBuilt Barn, completed in 2008 in collaboration with manufacturer Bensonwood Homes, certainly inspired more client interest. Within a modernized vernacular form, it boasts much recycled and locally sourced content, few VOCs, and all-over R-40 insulation. In lieu of a furnace, rooftop photovoltaic and solar evacuated tubes run an air-source heat pump and supply hot water, while multiple gauges monitor real-time energy production, efficiency, and net carbon footprint over the life cycle.
“With BrightBuilt Barn we were still designing this interesting, special accoutrement [that happened to be prefabricated],” Kaplan says. It was a little jewel box, and the person who can afford that price point ultimately wants the self-expression that a customized home offers, rather than a prefabricated home. On the other hand, in the modular marketplace, price is essential and the homeowner’s self-expression is not. We sensed a middle market.”
With the Oxford, Maine–based modular manufacturer Keiser Homes, the architects decided to stake a claim between commodity and bespoke work. Keiser approached Kaplan Thompson after the completion of BrightBuilt Barn, and the new team tried articulating design opportunities from within the parameters of modular construction.
“They weren’t really pushing us,” Kaplan recalls of the exercise. “We were reading what was available. For example, Keiser said a 12:12 roof pitch was way too expensive, so we asked them for the numbers. The cost estimating showed a surcharge, but it wasn’t unbearable relative to the customers who were coming through our door,” because the surcharge did not bump against that $200-per-square-foot threshold. And so went that dialogue, ultimately spilling into custom design commissions that provided benchmarking for the architects, as well as two prototype homes for Peaks Island Home Start, a volunteer organization dedicated to affordable housing. The results inspired Kaplan Thompson and Keiser to team up for good, incorporating the BrightBuilt name into the brand BrightBuilt Home and marketing nine high-performing modular designs within a cost range of $130 to $165 per square foot.
A recently completed Appledore design from the series, located in Wells, Maine, typifies the new business model, says Parlin Meyer, who recently joined Kaplan Thompson as development director responsible for BrightBuilt’s rollout. “In this case, the client was a builder who wanted to develop something on spec. The design was refined in terms of finishes, and there is a slight upgrade in the kitchen.”
“The phrase ‘net-zero capable’ annoys me,” Kaplan admits. But, of the Appledore in Wells, “the truth is there are PVs on the roof, enough for a certain type of person to achieve net zero.” Instead of the test 12-inch-deep double-stud construction that forced changes to the production line, Keiser now produces a 2-by-8-inch deep staggered double-stud wall filled with cellulose and clad in rigid insulation for a thermal break. After production lead time that ranges between 4 and 6 months, on-site assembly requires no more than two days followed by a month of mechanical installation and project closeout. Kaplan says, “Our overarching goal is to reach cost neutrality, not including PVs and other upgrades. We want a super-insulated and properly oriented building, which requires only a single-point air source heat pump, to cost the same as a building that exhibits less interest in energy conservation.”
There is other work to do in the meantime. Currently, BrightBuilt’s prefabricated homes are limited to Keiser’s 300-mile distribution radius. So Meyer is on the hunt for manufacturer partnerships farther afield. Her colleagues also are working to validate energy modeling as homeowners start occupying their new residences, by collecting metrics and performing blower door tests. Currently BrightBuilt houses are forecast to consume approximately 20 kBtus per square foot annually, or about one-third the energy of average new construction. Ten houses representing five designs have been completed, using both modular and stick-built construction methods. The remaining designs in the BrightBuilt catalog are mostly ordered or underway.