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A Photographer Builds Her Passive-House Inspired Dream Home in Maine

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Mar 29, 2021

"It's 2021," exclaims photographer, new mom, and homeowner Sidney Bensimon. "If you are not trying your hardest to create in a sustainable way, you are missing the point!" We certainly can't argue with that. Nor could anyone find fault with Bensimon's sustainable dream home, which she built on two acres on an ocean inlet in Maine. 

Stella House Entry
Stella House Entry. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

Called the Stella House, which she says "was built with love from the ground up!" the light-filled, 1,500-square-foot home has open living space perfect for taking in the landscape, cooking, hosting friends, relaxing, and producing photo shoots. Certified Passive House designer Alessandro Ronfini of DEMO Architects in Brooklyn, NY (Bensimon also has an apartment in Brooklyn) tailored the house to meet Bensimon's needs, dreams, and budget. 

Stella House Living
Stella House Living. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

Design Within Reach 

A large double-height living room facing south connects to an open kitchen and living quarters above. To the south, a window wall spans the structure's width and opens the main level to trees and the bay. On the west, a large window cantilevers out of the wall, resulting in a reading nook with a view. 

The main stairs lead to a lofted area that serves as a room for relaxing, meditation, or yoga. "To bring more light into this space," Ronfini says, "we put a circular window directly above the window wall. The window is like a lens, a camera lens, to view the ever-changing light and shadows on the landscape."

Stella House Bedroom
Stella House Bedroom. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

The home's two bedrooms and two baths are on the east side. The master suite on the upper floor has cathedral ceilings punctuated with large skylights, which flood the room with light. "I love the clean, somewhat simple feel for a home," Bensimon says of the home's Scandinavian modern design, which features hardwood floors, cabinetry, trim. "It is relaxing and calming. It also makes a room feel spacious, however small the home might be." 

Passive House Inspired 

Ronfini and Bensimon decided to build the house to Passive House principles. "Sidney's desire to build a home sustainably and create a healthy and comfortable interior was crucial in the project," Ronfini says. 

"Sidney was very excited by the idea of building a Passive House," he continues. "But, we quickly realized that, because of the small size of the building, it would have been very hard and not economically wise to hit the tight energy requirements necessary for full certification. So, we decided to follow the principles of Passive House but not to achieve certification."

Stella House Roof Winter
Stella House Roof in Winter. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

How Were Passive Solar Principles Used to Help Heat and Cool the Stella House?

A porch on the south side shades the interiors in the summer, while the sun can flow in and heat the space in the winter. "I love when the sun comes in to warm up the main room in the winter but only beams through in the morning in the bedrooms through the summer, keeping the house cool in the afternoons," Bensimon says. 

How Much Insulation Was Used in the Stella House?

The concrete slab on grade has six inches of EPS insulation to reach R-30. The walls are super-insulated with one-and-a-half inches of foil-faced Polyiso rigid board insulation (exterior) and six inches of mineral wool insulation (R-9.3 + R-22 = R-31.3). The roof insulation includes one-and-a-half inches of Polyiso (exterior) and seven inches of closed-cell spray foam insulation (R-9.3+ R-46.2 = R-55.5).

"The insulation creates a warm blanket that keeps the house at a constant temperature year-round."
Stella House Window Bench
Stella House Window Bench. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

Ronfini says. The windows are aluminum-clad, double-pane wood windows by Marvin. Because the structure is exceptionally airtight, a high-efficiency ERV provides a continuous supply of filtered fresh air.

Stella House Wood Stove
Stella House Wood Stove in Living Room. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

Healthy and Homey 

Ronfini and Bensimon decided to clad the home's exterior walls and build the deck with local cedar, which will age to a gray tone over time. The floors are wide plank pine boards from a local mill and were treated with a water-based stain. All of the materials inside the home are free of formaldehyde, VOCs, and other toxic components. 

Stella House Kitchen
Stella House Kitchen. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

A chunk of custom Marmoreal ordered for the kitchen island broke during shipping—but in precisely the place necessary to fit. Bensimon traded photography for several items in the home, including hardware for the bathroom. The bathroom tiles were leftovers from a friend's remodeling project. An interior designer who is also a friend helped Bensimon find and purchase decorative items—including vintage lighting—at a discount.

Stella House Bath
Stella House Bath. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

"With attention to every little detail," says Ronfini, "Sidney and I chose interior materials, finishes, and fixtures that would not only look great the day after installation but also far into the future." 

Looking Back, Looking Ahead 

Ronfini and his firm are currently designing two Passive Houses in the Hudson Valley and just completed his first certified Passive House in the area. The Stella House, however, helped set the designer on this path. 

"Sidney was a great client," he says. "She trusted our expertise and knowledge and created a team that was able to work smoothly and complete the project on time and successfully." The team also included Hatchet Mountain Builders (Hope, Maine), energy and envelope consultants BLDGTYP, and Albert Putnam Associates engineering.

Stella House Dining
Stella House Dining Area. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

"Sidney's expertise in photography and design was also essential during the design of the interiors," he adds, "making sure that the house looked modern but warm and welcoming inside and outside." 

Stella House Fall
Stella House in Fall. Photo Credit: Sidney Bensimon

As for Bensimon, she credits Ronfini for "knowing little but important things, like how the light changes throughout the day." View the house from every angle, she says, "and you can see how every element had that attention to detail. I see everything, and being in a home that pleases me aesthetically soothes me. Being here is good for my nervous system."

Looking back, she wouldn't change a thing. "Not with my budget," she adds. "My home feels perfect for me and for what I could afford. But, I can't wait to build the guest house." 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-05-27T04:35:49+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.