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  • Writer's pictureD. Maurice Kreis

Architecture: Alnoba is Triple E (Energy Efficiency + Excellence)

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

Interesting contemporary architecture can be mighty hard to find in New Hampshire.

Yes, the Granite State is home to one of the most breathtaking interiors of the past 50 years (the atrium of Louis Kahn's library at Phillips Exeter Academy). Yes, we have Dartmouth College to count on for edgy architectural gestures (like commissioning a fabulous art museum project from Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, desecrating the Hood's 1980s postmodernist Charles Moore building in the process -- the biggest disregard for pre-existing conditions since the passage of the Affordable Care Act). There are even two splendid Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the same Manchester neighborhood, both available for tours in non-pandemic times.

But those exceptions prove this dismal rule: When it comes to New Hampshire buildings, architects rarely if ever swing for the fences. Even the usually reliable basis for architectural innovation -- luxury waterfront homes, be they on Lake Sunapee, Squam Lake, or even the Atlantic Ocean -- tend in New Hampshire to be historicist and thus oblivious to the urgent need to create today what will be landmarked tomorrow.

Thus my delight in accidentally discovering Alnoba, just a few miles north of the Massachusetts border in the Hillsborough County town of Kensington.

Credit the eternal human urge to clean out one's inbox from time to time. Alnoba is a retreat center that has been open and available since 2016, but I've never been there. Back in July, Alnoba was declared the big winner in the 2020 edition of the annual awards program of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Institute of Architects (AIANH). Though I ignored the news release when it arrived, now that the pleasant summer weather has deserted us I have more time for cool things to catch my eye. And catch my eye Alnoba did.

Timber framing is a "thing" here in northern New England and it's not unusual for high-end architectural projects to adopt it for aesthetic purposes, sometimes but not always using those timbers in a structurally honest fashion. Alnoba uses timber framing the way it was meant to be used -- to create wide-open spaces of the sort that are great not just for barns but for classes and gatherings. More importantly, the client did not insist nor did the architects opt to make timber framing an excuse for historicism or regional kitsch.

Instead, what we have here is the visually and spatially compelling results of individual building technologies put to their highest and best use -- so the reclaimed timber framing is of a piece with vast, triple-glazed windows that wrap around corners, a study set of steel beems that support part of the building with a patio beneath, gable-ends of glass that is behind slatted wood screening.

Those gables appear to be Alnoba's most distinctive visual feature, at least from the photos. Alas, I have not had the pleasure of visiting this building in person yet. According to the web site of the architects, the slatted screening "admits filtered daylight, recalling patterns of sunlight through the cracks in barn siding."

I buy it!

Since I have quoted them, this is probably the right time to credit the project to the architecture firm OPAL, based in the coastal Maine town of Belfast. That, for the benefit of the Maine-based, Vermont-born college student in my family, is in Waldo County. She's taking a course in Frank Lloyd Wright this semester and would, no doubt, see what Alnoba owes to Wright's spatial sensibilities. Unlike her, I am always alert to the spirit of Louis Kahn (who, after all, outranks Wright in the pantheon of 20th Century American architects) and there is plenty of that here in the honest and therefore compelling use of wood, stone, steel, and timber. Kahn, of course, bragged of talking to his materials, asking them what they wanted to be, and heeding the instructions.

Alnoba introduced me to the work of OPAL, which is led by architects Matthew O'Malia and Riley Pratt. OPAL's claim to fame is its commitment to the Passive House concept; as noted on the firm's web site it designed Maine's first certified Passive House residence, the first Passive House-certified residence hall (at Maine's Unity College) and the first Passive House certified laboratory, at the University of Chicago. "Passive House" certification means compliance with a set of rigorous energy efficiency standards.

OPAL likewise garnered Passive House certification for Alnoba -- quite a feat given that the client required a firehouse fully six feet tall. Talk about an energy sink! I won't even pretend to understand how they did it.

One crucial element, obviously, was a client that had the moxie to insist on such a feature and the commitment to a building with lots of invisible features that make it a high-performance, air-sealed, mega-insulated landmark of the indoor environment. Here, too, I must confess to no previous knowledge of the organization -- but I was delighted to read up on the Lewis Family, the senior members of which are Harriet and Alan Lewis. I gather they grew wealthy enough to be philanthropists via real estate and the travel industry. Judged by the company they keep, the Lewis Family is worth keeping an eye on; they are big supporters of the Conservation Law Foundation, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, and, among others.

Altogether, I'd say Alnoba is the worthiest recipient of an award for architectural excellence in New Hampshire in years. In a better world, that would make the both OPAL, Alnoba, and the Lewis Family as famous as Dean Kamen, Ben Cherington, Ken Burns, the late Earl Tupper (inventor of Tupperware) or any number of other famous Granite Staters. Visual and aesthetic illiteracy is a scourge around here.

That makes stamping it out another worthy project for Alnoba to consider.

[N.B. I believe the lovely images above are the work of Maine photographer Trent Bell. They are taken from the Alnoba and/or OPAL web sites and used, on a fair-use noncommercial basis, without permission. That said, I will gladly remove them upon request from the copyright owners.]

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