The architect Gary Graham has come full circle. The Portsmouth, R.I., home that he recently designed for himself and his wife Susan is, in principle, remarkably similar to one of the architect’s first projects. In 1967, fresh out of the University of Virginia, Graham joined the Peace Corps in Colombia, where he designed a simple hospital for the coastal town of Buenaventura. The building encapsulated “the whole notion of passive environmental design,” he says. Thanks to excellent ventilation, proper solar orientation, and other features, the little hospital could operate with minimal use of air conditioning and electricity.

Graham admits that his 1,700-square-foot residence is fully air conditioned. “I wanted to keep my marriage intact,” he says. In fact, Graham didn’t sacrifice creature comforts in any respect, but by taking the climate into account like he did with the ’60s hospital, and a few 21st-century features, the house operates more efficiently than the average home.

The most important green decision, says the architect, was to keep the house small. With the couple’s four children all in their 30s, there was no need for extra rooms to accommodate potential post-college identity crises. The cozy spaces are connected in an easy, fluid floor plan to enhance the sense of openness and increase air circulation.

They also maximize exposure to the north and south. It is much more difficult to block out the low-angled sunlight that would flood windows facing east or west, Graham explains, so his design allows the home to receive a lot of natural light without the problem of overheating. In summer, when the south-facing living and dining rooms would bake in the sun, a postcard-perfect Norway maple tree substitutes for a canopy.

In what Graham calls “another relatively easy choice,” the bones and tendons of the house are green. Following local regulations, the building is raised on wood posts filled in by breakaway walls made of glass block, which can literally detach from the home in the event of a flood to prevent the structure from collapsing. Above this base, the wooden framing system is designed with hollowed-out corners to save lumber. To keep chilly drafts to a minimum, a foam insulation called Icynene was installed in lieu of traditional bat insulation (the fiberglass kind that comes in huge pink rolls). Unlike the more familiar product, which is precut and jammed into place, Icynene is sprayed into the wall’s cavities and expands to fill voids. Graham estimates that Icynene costs about four times as much as regular insulation, but figures that his bank account is benefiting from the added efficiencies it offers.

Another green strategy was using double-paned, “low-e” windows, which have a special coating that prevents glare and screens out the sun’s harshest rays. As for that dreaded air-conditioning, it’s split into zones so that the system can be turned on in a bare minimum of rooms. Other than the two or three weeks of unbearable heat that inevitably hit Portsmouth each summer, ceiling fans usually shoulder the task of cooling the house down.

Due to rising energy costs, Graham is unsure exactly how much his house’s occasionally pricier green features save in fuel consumption, but he happily recalls the $1,200 he earned in Energy Star credits for installing efficient appliances. There’s also a third-party testimonial: “The propane guy who comes down the street told me that we buy only half of what the other houses in the neighborhood use,” Graham says.

Just as the Grahams’ house saves energy inconspicuously, it doesn’t look too different from the neighbors. With its white cedar shingles and backyard deck, this slice of Portsmouth seems like any other cottage enjoying the views of the Sakonnet River to the southeast and of Mount Hope Bridge, which connects Bristol to Portsmouth. 

There are a few surprises, though you have to look for them. The top of the roofline, for instance, is split down the middle to reveal a private roofdeck for sunbathing. Inside, the Sherwin-Williams paint is low in VOCs; Graham swapped hardwood floors for quick-growing bamboo; and the area surrounding the fireplace is tiled in limestone, which captures some of the warmth from the winter sun and radiates it back into the house at night.

“I always believe a building should fit into its context,” says Graham, who remembers the fledgling eco houses of the ’70s that sacrificed style for solar efficiency. And there are more green features on the way: Graham is planning to attach a photovoltaic array to his rooftop, which will not only reduce the house’s footprint even more, but also let the world know of the new and improved workings within.

Story by David Sokol. This article originally appeared in Plenty in September 2007. It was moved to in March 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007