Thinking small gets big gains

A green home helps this young family cut costs


One growing family’s desire to downsize their home proves that, even in our materialistic, wasteful society, we can aspire to live simpler, smaller, more sustainable, and—yes—richer lives.

Two summers ago, the Cinilia family—Marla, Mike, and toddler Bodhi—defied convention by moving to a 1,150-square-foot home on Gerrish Island in Kittery Point, Maine, from their 1,600-square-foot Portsmouth abode. Their new home sits 200 yards from the Atlantic Ocean, near wooded conservation areas, and utilizes the latest in green technology.

The Cinilias’ plan for the Kittery property had builder Jeff Stacy, Little Green Homes (LGH) co-founder, taken aback.

“Most people that we meet say, ‘We’ve got to add more space to our house. We’ve got to do this and do that,’” Stacy notes. “But the Cinilias were thinking, ‘We really want to simplify our life. We want to downsize and reduce our energy needs and, in turn, our bills, and be inspired to do some outdoor living.’ I just don’t find that typical for a growing family to decide to cut their house in half, to simplify their lives. I find that inspiring.”

The Cinilias, in turn, were impressed by LGH’s core values—energy efficiency, reducing the client’s environmental footprint, using durable materials, and promoting a healthier quality of life.

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“Portsmouth is definitely getting busier and busier, and we’ve always loved Kittery,” Marla Cinilia says. “Our Portsmouth house had a full huge basement, a crawl space, and a big garage where we stored tons of junk. It wasn’t just the living square footage; it was this extra space that we then felt compelled to fill with things. We got rid of a lot of stuff and packed up only what we thought we needed.”

“We tried to build the house in a way that would continue to force us to do that,” says her husband, Mike. “We decided not to have a basement. There is an attic space here but we don’t access it. We try not to have extra space.”

“Because of the size, we’re being held accountable to our original desire to ‘stay simple, stay small,’ and only do with what we need,” Marla adds.

Their simpler life included building a barn-style home with a cupola and a sliding barn door. “Our builders were really into the barn, and they had some great ideas,” she says. “I grew up in a farm town, so for me that symbol always signified home.”

Little Green Homes created an efficient layout, eliminating spaces that never get used, according to LGH co-founder Chris Redmond, an architectural designer from Newmarket, New Hampshire.

“There are no hallways,” he says. “Every inch of that house is used. There is one large room that is their kitchen, dining room, and family room.”

Marla says Redmond and Stacy thought about flow and functional space, especially in the largest room, warning that some ideas, such as expanding the kitchen, would inhibit easy movement. “And because of that we’ve been very, very comfortable,” she says.

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LGH reclaimed the kitchen countertop and soapstone sink from a previous job in Portsmouth. And the Cinilias recycled other materials through their connections. “In the kitchen, some of the wood that you’re seeing on the back of the wall and on the bookshelves, too, comes from an early 1800s barn in my hometown, Hoosick Falls, in Upstate New York,” Marla says. “The farmer let us take away boards and the pieces we thought we could use in the house for free.”

Stacy recovered corrugated metal pieces for the back splashes of the range and the wood stove. He salvaged a ceiling beam from an Eliot, Maine, home for use as a traditional mantel in the Cinilia house. The kitchen table, which doubles as a prep table, is a butcher block that belonged to Marla’s great-grandfather, a butcher by trade.

The first floor has a pantry/clothes closet and a small linen closet. The bathroom downstairs is simple, featuring a low-flow toilet and a shower-tub combination with a natural-stone-looking ceramic tile. Without a basement, the small utility closet is tucked in the bathroom under the stairs. In it sits a tankless water heater, a well pump, and an electric panel.

Bodhi’s room, about 100 square feet, is on the first floor—just enough space for a bookshelf, a crib, and a dresser.

The second floor loft is multifunctional—a guest room, a play space, and a practice area for Marla, who teaches yoga at 3 Bridges Yoga studio. The loft floor is new white pine, finished with pure tung oil and cut with a citrus-based solvent, a natural product that, instead of creating a barrier, is absorbed into the wood, giving it a vintage appearance.

GA LGH NetA 10-by-10-foot open space lies between the first and second floors underneath three large windows facing the ocean. “We knew we wanted an open loft so the light could come in from the upstairs toward the downstairs and air could rise and fall between both floors,” Mike says. They decided to install a 10-by-10-foot cargo net in the open space. “My parents love to nap out there, and Bodhi plays there,” Marla says. “It’s almost its own little room.”

The insulation is dense-packed, blown-in cellulose, which has a high-recycled content and is considered a green material. “It’s amazing how tight the house is,” Mike says. “With new windows and new insulation it holds heat pretty well.”

Passive solar heating and cooling and natural ventilation “was something that we were definitely trying to achieve,” Stacy says. The mini-split heat pump serves dual purposes. Running on electricity, it can either draw heat or cool air from the outside. “We use wood as a primary heat source,” Mike says. “This is another primary or a backup.” The Cinilias did not use the air conditioner once last summer.

“We’ve been thrilled with our electricity and heating costs,” Marla says. “It’s basically the cost of the wood and the elbow grease to get the logs in and out of the house.” The Cinilias bought two cords of wood for the stove, which she says can see the family through the winter. Their electric bill has been cut by more than half in their new home, and they have eliminated their oil costs of $1,500 to $2,000. LGH poured a concrete floor to retain heat, and the Cinilias installed Energy Star certified appliances.

An important green principle is building a durable, long-lasting home with minimal maintenance requirements. LGH installed a standing seam metal roof on the house that Redmond says will “last forever.” Installing a rain screen behind the siding also promotes durability. “It is an air space that you put behind your siding and in front of the sheathing to allow the siding to breathe,” Redmond says. “The air gap helps the siding dry out when moisture gets back there. Using this installation method makes your siding last a lot longer.”

The indoor air quality is good. Minute Men Painters applied no-VOC finishes to the walls, and because the natural tung oil finish does not have any hardeners, the upstairs floor is also safe.

A local New Hampshire company, Rye Beach Landscaping, installed a high-tech septic system made by Clean Solutions. It utilizes the normal anaerobic process of a typical septic system, but a second tank introduces air that also causes aerobic break down. “It allows you to have a much cleaner byproduct in a smaller leech field, which, in a very small lot close to the water, was a good choice for us,” Mike says.

The couple appreciates living by the water. Gesturing to his son, Mike says, “For him, it’s freedom to run on the beach and play in the tide pools. It’s a raw, beautiful spot.”

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