Back Story: Actively Passive

G•O Logic's passion for energy-efficient building has secured a niche for the firm

Cousins River by G*O Logic

Cousins River, a modestly sized home on the Maine seacoast by G•O Logic, was designed to passive standards. Wide expanses of south-facing windows allow a concrete floor to be thoroughly warmed by the winter sun (Photos by Trent Bell).

October 12, 2016

Whether it was happenstance or fate that brought them together, before becoming business partners in the design/build firm G•O Logic, Matt O’Malia and Alan Gibson both lived and worked in and around Belfast, Maine. Gibson, a contractor, and O’Malia, an architect, met because their children went to the same daycare and then the same school. That school was in a house in Belfast that needed an addition. O’Malia volunteered to design it; Gibson ended up as general contractor. Working together on that project in 2004, they discovered a common interest in energy-efficient building. 

A PATH TO PASSIVE

Gibson and O’Malia attended several conferences and seminars as part of their building performance research, including the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) conference, in Boston, where they heard an architect from the Passivhaus Institute in Germany explain Passivhaus, an energy performance standard for buildings developed and engineered there. “It instantly clicked that that’s what we should do,” Gibson says.

The home needs minimal heating, but for extremely cold days, a wood stove provides supplemental warmth.

“A passive house is all about a super low-energy building you don’t have to actively heat or cool,” O’Malia explains. “Through the performance of the envelope, it does it passively, [so] you’re not using energy.”

The two wanted to try to build a passive house to see what it would involve. “Being design/build, we quickly understood that we would have total control over the concept, material selection, assembly design, in a way that allows flexibility to innovate all the more easily,” O’Malia says. They formed G•O Logic in 2008 and, in 2009, working with the Passivhaus Institute, built a little red house they called the GO Home, built on spec. “We knew no one would hire us to do that,” Gibson says. “We wanted to show the world that it could be done in this way.” Theirs was the first house in Maine certified by the U.S. Passive House Institute, one of just 12 in the country at that time. 

The red house “was a great way to start our business because we promoted the heck out of it,” Gibson says. “We had open houses once a month and would get 20, 30, 40 people walking through.” The duo started receiving local media attention; guerilla marketing followed. “We created videos and put them on our website,” Gibson says. “People still watch those. They’ve gotten 40,000 or 50,000 hits, which seems crazy to me.” 

The year that Gibson and O’Malia founded G•O Logic was a terrible time to start a business, but the two rode out the downturn and grew their business all through the recession. Gibson attributes that success to having a niche and a specialty. O’Malia notes that as the economy has improved, more builders are building passive houses. At the same time, G•O Logic has expanded its range of services to include institutional and multifamily projects, which provide a cushion for when one market expands and another contracts.

Various projects include a theater/multi-use building, a retreat center, a 6,000-square-foot school, and a campus for the Episcopal Church of Ohio. G•O Logic is working on more prefabricated homes as well. One is a small custom home and a seasonal yurt with kitchen and bath facilities. Another, Cousins River, is a compact home for a family that lives full time on the Maine coast. “The design lends itself to passive performance,” Gibson says. “The open plan gives the modest footprint a generous feel, and finishes provide warmth and practicality.”
G•O Logic has had eight construction starts this year to date, compared with 11 in all of 2015. The firm’s construction gross so far this year is $1.7 million, compared with last year’s total of $2.7 million. Gibson and O’Malia have built about 65 to 70 custom homes since they began working together—about six to 10 per year. “Some we build, some we just do the design,” O’Malia says. 

“We apply the passive building concept to all of our projects,” Gibson adds, “since it’s simply the right thing to do—for the client and the planet. The passive building market is still quite small in comparison to standard construction, but we’ve found success in riding the niche into wider adoption.”

Though a passion for energy-efficient building launched the firm, G•O Logic wants to be known for more than that. “What we really try to instill is quality,” Gibson says. “This is a much higher-quality home than standard because of the envelope. It is more air-tight, there are more durable materials, the detailing is better, and the windows and doors are higher quality. We have a ventilation system. And you can heat the house for $300 a year.”

 “Our DNA as a firm is R & D based,” O’Malia says. “We haven’t arrived yet in terms of proper building technology and solutions, as the world around us continues to evolve. It’s something we should all have our eye on until we’ve completely solved building and sustainability issues. Which, of course, we never will.”

Felicia Oliver, a writer who covers home building, is based in Chicago.

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