Architect Matt O’Malia had no idea that the students for whom his firm G•O Logic was designing and building a dorm-style passive house (the first in the U.S.) preferred to study on their beds rather than at a desk—or that some of them used a bucket and a plunger to do their laundry. Until he asked them. “It’s an environmental college and an environmental [themed] dorm,” he says, to the point that if his team’s first foray into sustainable campus housing was missing anything, it wasn’t client know-how.

The client, Unity College, sits less than an hour’s drive northeast of Augusta, Maine, and is known for its green bent. With one low-load house on campus already, the school was a likely candidate to win a grant to build an actual passive house for use as a teaching tool and as a 10-person student residence. The resulting 2,100-square-foot design replaced two existing 1970s ranch-style residences, and included a landscape plan for an area of campus where the school hopes to add two more similar structures.

The region’s climate makes it an ideal setting for Passive House design—cold, but with enough sunlight for a passive solar gain system to counteract heat loss. An exposed concrete slab on the first floor stores energy by day and radiates it back at night. The slab, along with a small air-source heat pump, a large solar-thermal domestic hot-water heating system, and a well-insulated and airtight envelope reduce energy consumption to near-zero.

Orchestrating communal and private spaces (weighted toward the latter) and large, tripled-glazed windows vital for passive solar gain required shrewd design. The result: an open staircase and second-story landing set in a two-story projection along the house’s south wall. This, says O’Malia, visually shields the open first-floor living and kitchen space from a busy area of campus while also preventing the private second-story rooms from turning into heat sinks.

That the house was built in three months to accommodate the academic year was a challenge, O’Malia says, but the administrators controlled the purse strings, which helped smooth the process.

“The owners, in this case, were not all caught up in it being their home,” explains G•O Logic’s Alan Gibson. “The process was really simple.”