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A widower builds a net-zero home in Maine to gather with his grown children

Architect Stewart Roberts stuck with his roots and adhered to principles that felt true to the environment.

Dark green Blu Dot chairs add color to the screened porch.Darren Setlow

Stewart Roberts, having downsized from the family home in Carlisle — which he and his late wife and architectural partner, Karla S. Johnson, designed — built a getaway on Westport Island, Maine, at the behest of his now-grown daughters. “It’s a rocky site surrounded by firs and pines on a tidal river,” he says. A perfect place for the family to gather and for Roberts to host jazz jam retreats with friends.

The project afforded Roberts the opportunity to revisit his architectural roots: In the 1970s, before devoting his career to designing public libraries, the architect concentrated on passive solar houses and other buildings employing then-experimental energy-saving techniques. The Maine getaway would be a modern, net-zero home whose architecture reflects the way it is built.


Energy-wise, Roberts points to the “skin” as the project’s innovative aspect. “There is a continuous layer of exterior insulation on the outside of the frame that extends from the footings up over the roof, creating an extremely efficient, airtight envelope,” he says. This helps the 2,500-square-foot home stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer by keeping the energy used to heat and cool it to a minimum. “It becomes about moving energy, not making it,” Roberts explains. “An energy-recovery ventilator pulls fresh air into the home and pushes stale air out while transferring the moisture contained in them, too.”

That the building highlights the construction methods is integral to Roberts’s design philosophy that architecture be straightforward and materials honest. Because there are 6 inches of insulation on the home’s exterior walls (in addition to insulation within the frame, in the rafters, and on the roof), the sides of the house overhang the foundation and protrude beyond the windows, creating a deep-set effect. The thermally-modified poplar siding, left raw, will gray naturally and never rot. “The wood was baked to remove moisture, sugar, and oils,” Roberts says. “Anything an insect would want is gone.”


Save for the walnut flooring, Roberts detailed the interior of the open living space, from the cabinetry to the wall panels, with Baltic birch plywood. As with the plywood sculptures he makes in the workshop behind the kitchen, Roberts left the edges unfinished to reveal the wood’s laminated layers. “Anytime I can expose an edge I do because I want people to know that it’s plywood,” Roberts says.

The same goes for the coffee table, side tables, and dining tables that the architect designed and the cabinetmaker built on site. “They’re done in the spirit of early modernists who designed furniture using the same material as the house,” he says.

The home is oriented to the river, with the main living space on the upper level to best capture the view. The seating area features 14-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling windows, and the corner window next to the television offers a 180-degree view of the river. “It’s a Frank Lloyd Wright trick to open the corners of a room so it feels more connected to the outdoors,” Roberts notes.

Twenty-seven solar panels on the metal roof produce more energy than the family uses each year.Darren Setlow

The screened porch, which projects from the side of the living space so as not to impede the view, opens fully to the dining area via an accordion door. “When it’s open, it makes the whole house feel like a screened porch,” he says. The porch’s wood columns are painted chocolate brown, helping the structure blend with its surroundings. When sitting or eating out there, it’s as though you are in the woods. Meanwhile, the mossy green Heath Ceramics tiles used for the kitchen backsplash pull the color of the forest inside the house.


Roberts’s bedroom, a small bright space with a corner window, sits on the other side of the living space beyond the porcelain-tiled entryway. The upper-level bath is tucked behind it. “The bedrooms and baths are modest,” he says. “They’re conceived like basic hotel rooms, with wardrobes instead of closets because that’s all we need here.” His daughters, their partners, and his 1½-year-old grandson share the lower level, where there are three bedrooms, one bath, and easy access to the granite patio with boulder-like Frank Gehry furniture.

Roberts spends about half his time here, and his daughters visit often, making the endeavor a family success. “I see them more here than I do in town,” he says.


Architect: Johnson Roberts,

Contractor: Senecal Construction Services,

Landscape and hardscape designer: Brookton Landscapes,


A vintage Frank Lloyd Wright lamp sits on the credenza (to the right of the owner’s guitars) which does double duty as a stair rail.Darren Setlow
Hay chairs and Muuto pendants complement the dining table that architect/homeowner Stewart Roberts designed.Darren Setlow
One of Roberts’s plywood artworks graces his bedroom.Darren Setlow
Northern light spills through the high window of the main level bath.Darren Setlow

In the living room, Roberts chose Herman Miller chairs that he’s also used in public libraries he designed.Darren Setlow
Although the home is two stories on the water side, it is barely perceptible from the river.Darren Setlow

Marni Elyse Katz is a contributing editor to the Globe Magazine. Follow her on Instagram @StyleCarrot. Send comments to