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Project

Maine Island Cabin Is Rugged Off-Grid

Credits: ©2012 Alex Scott Porter Design

In Penobscott Bay, Maine, a 550-square foot cabin rests among the rocks and trees of the shoreline of Ragged island 20 miles east of the mainland. This three-season retreat house is completely off-grid on this small island – with no paved roads to it, no stores, no utilities such as running water or electricity, no year-round inhabitants and no ferry service. The house itself has been designed and built to provide enough solar energy to power a refrigerator, lighting and outlets for music or a laptop computer – and eliminating the need to bring fossil fuels to the island home. When the sun shines, four small solar-electric panels mounted to the southern facing shed roof feed 12v DC to karge-capacity batteries, which in turn power lights, a super-efficient DC-powered solar Sunfrost Refrigerator (originally designed to protect medical supplies in sub-Saharan Africa), and a small water pump. The house gathers rainwater for a kitchen tap and an outdoor shower, using a 525-gallon rainwater catchment tank that stores more than enough water for the home. A small on-demand water heater supplies hot water for an outdoor shower and the sink. A graywater system recycles water and the composting toilet uses no water. The tiny lot faces the harsh northeastern open ocean that offers up highly corrosive salt air, with winds of up to 100 mph measured here. To combat the punishing weather, the house is sheathed in a hard, protective, corrugated aluminum shell that is virtually maintenance-free. During the off-season, three large, rolling corrugated aluminum-clad, storm panels slide to cover windows. Clerestory windows provide natural ventilation and daylighting, and a standing-seam metal roof should last several generations.

 

Maine Cabin on Site

A three-season “green built” 550-square foot retreat house is completely off-grid on a small island in Penobscott Bay, Maine. ©2010 Alex Scott Porter Design

According to architect Alex Scott Porter, the main part of the house is roughly 16 feet by 20 feet, plus a small screened porch, a storage closet and a composting toilet room add another 160 sf. She designed this house for her father, a retired professor. All framing is on a two-foot grid for fail-proof planning and coordination. The house is situated on a tiny sleeve of rock tucked close to the water, sited as close as legally allowed to the sea, and far enough away from the septic field where there is sufficient soil for percolation.

Construction occurred over approximately five months at a cost of USD$175,000 in 2010. Costs include transport of all materials and crew to the island which Porter estimates as perhaps $25,000 to 50,000 of the total. Building materials were brought to the site on an amphibious Vietnam-era US Army landing craft that pulled up onto the beach. Construction began in late summer when the crew built a tight shell before winter weather made access nearly impossible, and then, the following spring, the team spent about two months finishing the interior.

Inside, the walls have unfinished northeastern wood, the cabinets are made with a recycled plastic laminate, and the hearth is made with local beach stones. Countertops made of concrete were cured on the island. The interior includes upscale furnishings such as CB2 Lubi Daybeds, Arper Leaf chairs, and exposed CFL lights. Porter designed storage cubbies beneath and behind the cushions.

Ragged Island was the summer home of famous American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and husband Eugen Jan Boissevain from 1933 until her death in 1950. Ragged Island provides habitat for a large and diverse population of nesting seabirds, including the: eider duck, black guillemot, greater black-backed gull, herring gull and osprey. Since 2008 a 76.6-acre (310,000 m2) natural area used by seabirds for nesting has been protected on Ragged Island as part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Coastal Wetlands Conservation Grant program.

The following article appeared in DWELL Magazine:


Worth the Wait
By Amber Bravo, DWELL Magazine, January 2011
On an island 20 miles off the coast of Maine, a writer, with the help of his daughter, built not only a room but an entire green getaway of his own. 

Living on one of the outermost inhabited islands on the American eastern seaboard requires a vigilance in numbers, and the villagers of the community of Criehaven (technically Ragged Island) take their record-keeping seriously, but not too seriously. The library—–still littered with evidence of a raucous game of Texas hold ’em—–is a fine example. In addition to portraits of the Crie and Simpson families, early residents of the 0.7-square-mile island 20 miles off the Maine coast, one mile south of Matinicus Island, there are photo albums dating back to the early 1970s documenting island life. There’s also a copy of the “2010 census,” a cartoonish rendering of the 20 family homes on the island. In it, a series of circumflex rooflines populate the page, save for an aberrant addition on the eastern end: a simple backslash of a roof, under which is written “Welcome Porters!”

Bruce Porter, a journalist and retired professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has owned a roughly three-quarter-acre lot on this remote, off-the-grid island for years, but it’s taken nearly a lifetime for him to build anything. The Porters first came to Criehaven in 1971, the summer his oldest daughters, Alex and Nell, turned two and six, but it wasn’t until the late 1990s that he seriously considered building. “I was getting older and older, and I thought, If not now, when?” Bruce recalls.

Over the course of 30-plus years, Bruce devised and abandoned countless plans for what to put there, including a Sisyphean scheme that involved shipping a tiny cabin from the Adirondacks. The lot, however, mainly sat empty and unused. It wasn’t until Bruce divorced, remarried, and adopted his third daughter, Hana, that he finally resolved to build. By that time, Alex had grown up and become an architectural designer, founding her own practice, Alex Scott Porter Design, and Bruce’s last and best plan was to have her design something. He’d envisioned an unobtrusive abode that would blend with the local color, to which Alex replied, “Well, Dad, if you want something like a Maine farmhouse, you don’t need me!”

Despite the aesthetic differences, their first real hurdle was finding the borders of the lot, which had come to be known as “the floating acre” among the local fishermen. Nobody was exactly sure of the property lines, so as soon as she graduated from ¬architecture school in 1997, Alex flew to the island with a surveyor. (In inclement weather, chartering a flight to Criehaven is the cheapest and easiest way to get there.)

After determining the site lines, Alex, Bruce, and their contractor, Josh Howell, spent one stormy afternoon in June 2008 siting the house. From the shelter of a pup tent, Alex rendered the house in CAD on a laptop while Bruce and Howell braved the rain with a compass. The difficulty of this task made it clear that building on the island would require foresight and exhaustive precision. “I wanted the interior to be super simple, using local material,” Alex explains. “We did every¬thing on a 24-inch grid. I’m in New York and Josh is up here in Maine, so I tried to make it very easy; you could always tell what size everything was going to be.” Additionally, over 90 per¬cent of the building material had to be organized and shipped to the island on an amphibious vehicle, or “sea truck.” Compared to mainland projects, much of the construction work of the home was done without the aid of power tools, and the primary vehicle used to haul supplies on-site was a converted riding lawnmower.

Time, it seems, has had a curious effect on Criehaven. Technologically speaking, it has moved backward, not forward. When the year-round population of ten lobstering families held tight, there was a telephone line and a power generator (plus a schoolhouse, post office, and general store). Over the years those services withered, leaving the island’s transient residents to their own devices. Personal generators are now the norm, but the Porters have challenged this by installing solar panels and an on-demand water heater. Bruce’s motivation for incorporating these systems, however, was more practical than ideological. After watching a friend haul propane tanks over from Matinicus then schlep them on foot to his house, Bruce was determined to make island life a bit more leisurely. Fortunately, Howell, an avid outdoorsman, armed with an equally intrepid crew, was up to the challenge of building in harsh conditions. The Porters would have been hard-pressed to find a better man for the job. As Bruce recalls with both horror and admiration, “Josh and the workers would drink straight from the cistern!”

In their defense, the water was—–and is—–quite clean. The catchment system operates in conjunction with a clever mechanical contraption called a roof washer, which collects and disposes of the first five gallons of sullied rainwater before directing it into the cistern. The water is then siphoned from the center of the tank, ensuring that any sediment collected on the surface and bottom does not infiltrate the drinking water. Even when the system is taxed by unrelenting sunshine and a slew of summer visitors, the cistern remains half-full and the bathroom—–equipped with a composting toilet (see sidebar)—–smells pleasantly of pine.

Four solar panels, affixed to the southeast-facing porch, collect a surplus of energy—–easily a week’s worth when stored in auxiliary batteries—–and the DC-powered solar fridge is effi¬cient enough to run indiscriminately. “I still can’t get over the fact that I can get an ice cube from the sun,” Bruce quips—–which isn’t to say he doesn’t appreciate it or the luxury of having a hot outdoor shower thanks to the on-demand, gravity-driven water heater, one of only two appliances to operate off propane (the other is the stove). “There was a general feeling that this house wasn’t going to work,” he laughs. “But everything works great, just like a normal house!”

With the cabin up and running for its first season, there’s the lingering question of how frequently it’ll be used. According to Bruce, “It’s best being out there for a time—–I’m thinking about going out for a month to write,” which may seem like a drop in the bucket, considering the number of years “the floating acre” sat vacant. But to be sure, every drop counts.


Resources

Alex Scott Porter Design (New York, USA)