October 6, 2014
Next 2014

GO Logic's Matt O'Malia and Alan Gibson quietly stage a 'passive house' revolution

PHOTo / James McCarthy
PHOTo / James McCarthy

Alan Gibson (left)

Co-founder, principal/builder GO Logic LLC, Belfast

Matt O'Malia (right)

Co-founder, principal/architect
GO Logic LLC, Belfast

GO Logic LLC

137 High St., Belfast

Founded: 2008

Co-founders: Alan Gibson, principal/builder; Matt O'Malia, principal/architect

Employees: 23

Sales: $5 million

Contact: 338-1566

Architect Matt O'Malia and business partner Alan Gibson have racked up a number of firsts since launching their Belfast-based architecture and building company, GO Logic LLC, in 2008.

First company in Maine — and 12th in the United States — to be certified by the Passive House Institute U.S. to design and build "passive homes" that meet the highest international standard for energy efficiency and typically use less than 10% of the energy required to heat standard-built homes. First passive home in Maine: the GO Home, completed in 2010. First certified passive-house student dormitory in the nation: TerraHaus, built at Unity College in 2011. First passive home in Michigan: The Jung Haus, completed in 2013. First certified passive laboratory in North America (and fifth in the world): The University of Chicago's Warren Woods Ecology Field Station in Michigan, completed this August.

Numerous accolades have followed, with TerraHaus receiving the 2012 EcoHome Grand Award, the 2012 Ever-Green Award from Eco-Structure and a 2012 Citation of Excellence in Architecture from AIA New England and Jung Haus receiving Fine Homebuilding's 2014 Best Energy-Smart Home.

Gibson and O'Malia — the 'G' and 'O' of the company's name — are pleased, but hardly complacent about their company's success, which includes growing their work force from just themselves and four builders to 23 employees and reaching $5 million in sales this year.

"The thing about this business is that I never feel confident about what the future might bring," says Gibson, a home-builder since 1990, who met O'Malia when they were working on a project together in Belfast in 2004.

Even so, the 'Logic' part of the company name reflects the partners' common belief that building homes that are 90% or more energy efficient than standard code-compliant homes makes good sense in a world of climate change and ever-rising costs for fossil fuels.

O'Malia became aware of the PassivHaus movement when he was an architecture student earning his master's degree in the 1990s in Germany, where the movement began. Gibson had been building energy-efficient homes as often as he could as an independent builder who came to Waldo County in 1990. "I had always struggled with architects who had no idea or desire to focus on energy efficiency," says Gibson, "When Matt and I started talking about forming our own company, we just figured the world was ready for what we had to offer."

That idea took hold even more after they attended a 2006 presentation by Katrin Klingenberg, a German architect who three years earlier had designed and built the first certified passive house in the United States and is now executive director of the Passive House Institute US. "Both of us were blown away seeing what levels they went to build a truly energy efficient house," Gibson recalls.

They decided to embrace the Passive House standards for energy efficiency and construction and to become certified to design and build passive buildings under the banner of their own company. Although 2008 wasn't the best year to launch a home construction business, O'Malia says he and Gibson have used the housing collapse that triggered a deep recession that year to their advantage in marketing their company.

"Coming off the housing bubble of many tracts of poorly built homes that weren't selling, it was clear our alternative way of building homes was necessary and would offer real value," O'Malia says. "For people out there who were looking for a well-built high-performance home, we've been saying, 'Here we are.'"

Building their first passive house, which they called the GO Home, gave them the opportunity to demonstrate how a near-zero-energy building could be built at costs comparable to standard residential construction. What they found is that the up-front cost difference comes to only about 6% to 7% more for a passive house: While about $30,200 in costs are associated with a super-insulated building shell and foundation, triple-paned windows and a fresh-air ventilation system, those costs are largely negated by the savings of not having to install a central heating system, which typically costs $15,000. The net cost increase for a standard passive home comes to $15,200.

But that modestly higher cost pales in comparison to the long-term savings in heating costs. The GO Home's bill for electric baseboard heat is about $200 a year, a considerable savings that creates a six-to-seven-year payback period on the up-front investment in a tighter energy-efficient home. But the real payoff comes over the life of the home, which O'Malia estimates comes to a savings of $170,000 or more over 30 years for a 1,500-square-foot home.

If solar electric panels and solar thermal tubes for hot water are added the passive house becomes a net-zero-energy building.

"We want to show people there is an alternative out there, a design and building approach that's good for the planet," O'Malia says. "Part of our goal when we formed this company is that, yes, we want to build a business that's successful. But we also want to effect positive change."

The GO Home earned LEED Platinum certification and brought several accolades to Gibson and O'Malia, including the U.S. Green Building Council's Residential Project of the Year Award. They followed that early success with the 2011 TerraHaus dormitory at Unity College, which demonstrated that similar benefits of the passive house approach can be achieved in an institutional building, and the 36-unit Belfast Co-housing & EcoVillage intentional community that GO Logic designed and served as general contractor.

An initiative they began this summer involves building pre-fabricated modular sections for their passive home designs in a local woodshop. "We've seen for a while that Waldo County is a limited market for us," says Gibson. "Pre-fabrication allows us to build under optimal conditions year-round. We can ship those components long distances, so that will enable us to expand our reach into other markets, including institutional buildings and multi-family housing."

O'Malia says GO Logic now has projects under way in Boston, New Hampshire, Michigan and Pennsylvania. If the pre-fabricated modular division takes off as they hope, he says it could easily double the company's workforce and sales.

"We did get a patent on a foundation system we developed," he adds. "It's a very efficient way of using additional insulation to offset and reduce labor in the construction process."

With a growing portfolio of completed passive homes, O'Malia says the feedback they're getting from clients runs along the lines of "We love the feel of the house" or "These houses are so quiet, there's no furnace running in the background."

Gibson's favorite story is of an older couple who told him their passive home "remains totally comfortable" all winter, but acknowledged there were a few occasions when they had to take extra measures to stay warm.

"They told me whenever it's a cold winter's night, they bake cookies and by the time the cookies are out of the oven their home is back to temperature," he says, grinning.

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