Case Study: All-Wood, All the Time by OPAL Architecture

For Matthew O’Malia and his firm OPAL Architecture, each design opportunity is not just a creative exercise, it’s also a potential manifesto. The question of where to build is answered by the custom client, but what remains in play is what to build and how to build it. Indeed, how should we build is a conundrum that’s dogged and excited Matt for years, ever since he partnered with builder Alan Gibson to found the Passive House design-build company GO Logic. 

For this lakeside vacation home in rural Connecticut, the central argument and the answer to all the questions is wood—the ultimate renewable, recyclable material. That it happens to be intrinsically beautiful and durable is a lovely benefit, of course, but more critically, it also stores carbon—helping anything built with it to attain net-zero goals. When OPAL decided to construct this house almost entirely of wood products and name it “All-Wood, All the Time,” it was a siren song and a battle cry at the same time. 

Matt has been fighting the good fight for sustainable design for years now, but his ambitions have always been bigger than the one-off building. At GO Logic, he and Alan built the first Passive House in Maine. Called the GO Home, it was completed in 2010 and formed the basis of a business in prefab, energy-efficient homes. While researching high-performance materials for their offerings, Matt became enamored of a wood fiber-based insulation made in Europe. With material scientist Joshua Henry, he founded GO LAB to pursue a means of making a similar product in Maine for distribution in North America. Just the bud of a compelling idea five years ago, this enterprise is now on the verge of full flower. 

“Joshua is a Ph.D. scientist and I am an architect, so we were an unusual group to think about starting a mass production facility,” Matt recalls. “But we looked at the conditions in Maine, where mills were closing down and parts being shipped off to China—we’ve lost $1.6 billion of wood mill production here and everyone was hurting. So we went to Europe and educated ourselves. One company took an interest and gave us their operating model—a suite of softwood insulation products made from residuals in the lumber industry. The materials are cost competitive, and they’re vapor permeable, robust, not itchy to install, all while storing  carbon—it’s a great residential fit.”

With the science and business model nailed, and the apostles’ passion tapping funding sources, the newly renamed TimberHP by GO LAB company is, well, a go. Expected to be up and running this year, it will manufacture loose fill insulation, batts, and insulation boards from wood fiber with performance values of up to R-4 per inch—all made by former sawmill workers in a salvaged and refitted mill in Madison, Maine. 

The Water’s Edge

Passionate people often draw passion projects to them, and such was the case with “All-Wood.” The clients approached Matt because of his experience in Passive House construction, but they were open to multiple means of innovation—as long as it meant building a high-performance house that was also easy on the environment. “Our clients were very interested in sustainability, and demonstrating how innovation can happen and what it looks like. They were interested in alternative construction and wanted every detail thought through.”

Another siren song for sure, but there was a catch: “They were replacing an existing, non-conforming building. And it had to be rebuilt to the exact same footprint and volume,” says Matt. “They wanted something contemporary and clean, but we had a crazy shape to deal with. So we thought, let’s make it all wood and use cross-laminated timber (CLT) construction—let’s take CLT to the extreme for its ability to be precut and manufactured in these specific, crazy shapes and intersecting roof planes. That’s not typically how CLT is used.”

The high-design, high-end project was a sweet spot for experimentation not only for its peculiar shape requirements but also because of its compact size and program. The clients wanted a rural retreat focused on wellness and connection to nature, with just one primary bedroom and a study that could flex as a guest bedroom. They also requested a small garage and a cabana structure close to the water. The total square footage for all buildings is well under 2,000 square feet. “The design intent was for the house to be as open as possible when they are there,” Matt explains. 

The buildings are a sandwich of prefabricated, solid wood panels for the structural walls, ceilings, and the roofs. They’re left exposed on the interior with an oil finish. Because there are no wall cavities, utility runs are affixed to the CLT panels on the exterior-facing sides. Then comes the insulating boards, with cut-outs for the utilities. The final layer is an exterior façade system of Thermory cladding. All wood, all the time, indeed. The little compound is a collection of solid boxes, with high-tech, triple-glazed window systems from Europe that open wide to the water views. 

A portion of the project’s power comes from a Tesla roof system that benefits from the different exposures of roof planes. “It was the first Tesla roof system on the East Coast that was not for one of Elon Musk’s cronies,” Matt quips. “The panels allowed us to get to net-zero, including charging the car. When you aggregate multiple roof directions, there’s much more solar gain. A system of Tesla batteries in the garage store the power as back-up in lieu of a generator, because there are decibel constraints for the site.” 

Heat pumps handle the heating, cooling, and hot water, including the hydronic slab. Cooking in the Italian-made kitchen is induction. While obviously not a budget-pinched project, the owners were not mere hands-off check writers. “We had to work very hard to justify the products we used,” says Matt. “Everything was analyzed. And there were times when they said, we don’t want to spend that much. But, when there are constraints, and someone is saying no, you do improve design. It’s never a bad thing to have decisions challenged.”

When every aspect and detail of design and construction is considered, reconsidered, and even reinvented, it takes a top-notch builder to execute those decisions. And that was Chris Pierzga of Country Homes Construction. “Chris is so talented—an absolute perfectionist,” Matt recalls. “He never rushed, never jumped to a conclusion. We had a great time working with him.” 

Although the CLT panels were successfully modeled in advance, cut to order in Austria, and shipped to the site, there were hiccups in the larger process. “What I learned from this project today, is that’s an amazing opportunity for labor savings,” Matt concludes. “What wasn’t so efficient was applying insulation on-site. Pushing next-gen wood construction does spawn a whole bunch of different headaches. The simplicity of the result is visible, but how we achieved it through construction is very complicated. Still, we could see the possibility for so many other building types.”

Matt had an opportunity to spend the night in the cabana building about a year after completion of the project, and he remains pleased with the achievement of the firm’s prototype. “There’s an incredible quiet and solidity to this kind of construction, a sense of the massiveness of the material, but also a warmth and a Passive House-level of comfort—an absolute consistency of temperature.” 

Most important of all, the clients remain pleased, too. 

All-Wood, All the Time

Rural Connecticut

Architect: Matthew O’Malia, principal; Gunther Kragler; Michelle Bezik; Georgia Switzer, project architects, OPAL Architecture, Belfast, Maine

Builder: Christopher Pierzga, Country Homes Construction, Cornwall Bridge, Connecticut

Interior Designer: Stedila Design, New York, New York; OPAL

Landscape Architect: Ground, Somerville, Massachusetts

Structural Engineer: Thornton Tomasetti, New York, New York

Project size: 1,300 square feet, main house; 108 square feet, cabana; 328 square feet, garage

Site size: 0.93 acre

Construction Cost: Withheld

Photography: Trent Bell

Key Products

Cabinetry: Canova

Cladding: Thermory

Counters: Quartzite

Engineered Lumber: KLH

Entry Doors: UniLux; FSB

Faucets: MGS Taps, VOLA

Floor Tile: Artistic Tile

HVAC: SpacePak

Kitchen Appliances: Miele

Lighting: Viabizzuno 

Lighting Control/Window Shading Systems: Lutron

Roofing/Photovoltaics: Tesla 

Sinks: Blanco (kitchen); baths (Canova)

Toilets: Villeroy & Boch

Ventilation: Zehnder ERV

Washer/Dryer: Miele

Windows/Window Wall Systems: UniLux