After skiing accident, new eco-friendly home offers chance at independence

Posted Oct. 15, 2010, at 11 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 11:49 a.m.

Sept. 16 was a cloudy day in Presque Isle, and unseasonably cold, so Michael Chasse, 28, was bundled up in a ski hat, fleece jacket and warm boots. He looked out from the outer reaches of his backyard into the neat rows of squash, corn, potatoes and apple trees that Presque Isle High School students grow on their farm, which is adjacent to his property. Beyond that, hills roll on for miles, stretching eastward into Canada and westward into the vast Maine woods. Big Rock Mountain Ski Area looms in the distance, the site of many skiing adventures for Chasse and his family.

“It’s not a bad view,” said Chasse, smiling. “I think we might cut down some trees so we can see the farm and everything from the house.”

Behind Chasse was the foundation and mass of wires that will become parts of his new home. Since early August, contractors Jerry and Mike Michaud have been working on the house. Chasse has been there most days as well, learning every detail of the house’s construction. He has a mind suited to math and spatial relations and an engineering degree from the University of Maine. The house he’s building will become home for him and for his parents, Tom and Rhonda.

After taking in the view for another moment, Chasse hit the black joystick that controls the direction and speed on his electric wheelchair and motored back to the building site. He’s paralyzed from the shoulders down from an accident in 2007. He can use his biceps, better on the right side than the left, and has no problem ma-nipulating things like a computer mouse or the joystick that steers his chair. He can’t walk, however, or type with two hands on a keyboard.

For his parents, the new home is a new beginning, as they move out of the house just a quarter-mile down the road that they bought 30 years ago and into a more efficient home.

For Chasse, it means more independent living. All the doors will be big enough for his chair to fit through. All the lights, windows, blinds and doors will be automated. It will be warm enough throughout the house, since Chasse gets cold easily, but it will use passive solar energy. With the single-floor design, Chasse gets his own “wing” of the house, as do his parents.

“It’s definitely been a long road,” said Chasse. “I’m so ready to move in. I can’t wait. I’ve been needing this for years.”

There and back again

Michael Chasse was born in Presque Isle in 1982 in the shadow of Big Rock Mountain Ski Area in Mars Hill. The resort is just a few miles from his home, and his father was the head ski patroller for Big Rock. By his teens, Chasse was an excellent skier, hitting the slopes all over the Northeast.

“I’ve literally been skiing since I was 5 years old,” said Chasse. “I grew up on that mountain. I used to spend 80 to 100 days skiing each year.”

He graduated from Presque Isle High School in 2000 and headed for the University of Maine, where he studied electrical engineering. Though devoted to his studies, on the weekends he and his buddies packed up a car and headed out for Sugarloaf, slicing through the powder on Widowmaker and Ripsaw for hours on end.

“I had two things I wanted to do when I graduated,” said Chasse. “I was really good at math, so I knew I wanted to stay in engineering. But a big part of me wanted to move out West and be a ski bum.”

Chasse set out to find a way to combine his two loves: engineering and skiing. He sent letters to the top 30 ski mountains in the United States, telling who he was, his history in both skiing and engineering, and why he should be hired. Nothing came back. Chasse took a job in finance in Massachusetts. He lasted less than a year. It wasn’t what he wanted.

In fall 2005, he sent a letter to human resources at Doppelmayr, the Swiss-Austrian company whose American branch is based in Salt Like City, the largest manufacturer of chairlifts and cable cars in the world.

“I told them what my experience was, and that I would do whatever it takes to get a job with them,” said Chasse. “If I [had] to go back and get another degree, I would have done it.”

It wasn’t that difficult. By February 2006, Chasse’s letters reached the right eyes, and the company flew him out to Salt Lake City for an interview for a position as an electrical engineer. In March, he was hired, and he moved out West to take on his dream job.

“It’s paradise for skiing,” he said. “It was perfect. Most jobs, I think people just go to work to make money, and that’s it. I got to work with amazing people. I got to be outside. I made lifelong friends, and we did everything together. It was a dream.”

For a year, Chasse skied, mountain biked, fly-fished and climbed rocks to his heart’s content while working at his highly rewarding new job. He traveled around North America helping to install new ski lifts at major mountains such as Whistler in Vancouver, British Columbia, site of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and others in California and Vermont.

In March 2007, his family visited him. He and his sister, Julie, were skiing an easy slope at Deer Valley in Park City, Utah. He was heading back to base when he hit an irregularity in the snow and fell.

“It was just a little whoopsie,” he said. “Then I’m face down. It actually was a big crash. I laid there for a couple minutes until an older lady came by and asked me if I was OK. I said no, I wasn’t.”

Chasse knew something was seriously wrong.

“Ten minutes later the ski patroller is calling for a helicopter, and a doctor is there. I couldn’t move,” he said. “I get strapped into a stretcher. I was at the hospital, and there’s a bazillion nurses around me. I didn’t really realize how messed up I was until I saw someone move my arm. I saw it go by, and I didn’t even feel it.”

Our house in the middle of a field

By June 2007, after two months in the hospital and two more months of physical therapy, Chasse found himself living back with his parents in Presque Isle, adapting to life as a quadriplegic. He got used to his chair.

He got used to being back in his hometown. He got used to learning how to do things without his legs.

“All things considered, I’m pretty lucky that my injury occurred where it did,” he said. “If it had been my C4 vertebra instead of my C5, I wouldn’t be able to use my arms. I’ll fish again someday. I’m still outside a lot. Right now, I have no urge to ski.”

As the months grew colder, however, Chasse realized that his disability made it harder for him in the winter than he expected. He gets cold very easily. In January and February, he’s often confined to his bedroom, where the heat is turned up high enough for him to stay warm.

“That first winter with my disability was a very long one,” said Chasse. “I didn’t know what to do with myself. It was really boring. I close the door to my room. It’s my prison. I can spend 22 hours a day in there sometimes. At least I have my computer, though. It’s my sanity.”

In January 2009, Chasse moved to Orono to begin a master’s program in business at the University of Maine. Engineering is still a passion for him, but business seemed more realistic for his situation.

“I want to stay technical, but engineering doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense with my disability,” said Chasse, who hopes to finish his degree by 2012. “I can lead a business through communications skills.”

Living in an apartment and employing a full-time caretaker had drawbacks. For one, finding someone who was a good fit was tough. If the caretaker wasn’t around and Chasse needed help, he was out of luck.

At the end of 2009, Chasse moved home to Presque Isle. He needed to find a way to live that meant he could have help close by, but not require a caretaker — a way to regain some of the independence he lost. That was when the plan to build the house began.

“I love our old house,” said Chasse. “It’s definitely home. But, I mean, they obviously didn’t make houses for people like me in the 1920s, when they built it. It’s just time to go someplace different. Designing the new house means we can customize everything. Every single element.”

From the ground up

Over the winter of 2009-10, Michael and his family searched for land for sale in Presque Isle and drew up blueprints for their future house. They settled on a plot of land just a quarter-mile from their original home, abutting Presque Isle High School’s farm, with a stellar view of Big Rock Mountain.

To share his progress with others, he started a blog in July called Quadomated: The Building of a Smart Home for a Quadriplegic. The blog, viewable at, features updates several times weekly and lots of pictures, shot by Chasse himself.

In designing the house, Chasse had three major concerns. First, the house had to be on one level, eliminating the need for chairlifts and ramps. The turn radius between doors, walls and countertops had to accommodate Chasse’s wheelchair. The doors had to have flat sills, so his chair wouldn’t get blocked.

Second, the design had to allow both Chasse and his parents their own separate areas. That way, he retains the privacy and level of independence he craves, but someone always will be just a few rooms away in case he needs assistance. A large outdoor deck separates the two “wings” of the house, one side for Chasse, one side for Tom and Rhonda.

“I have my room, and I have my media room, which is my man cave,” said Chasse. “Then we have the huge, open floor plan for the living room and kitchen and family room, which will separate me from my mom and dad. I can get around and have my own space, but my parents will be on the other side of the house, doing their own thing. We come together in the middle.”

The third concern? Building the house as ecofriendly as possible. Huge picture windows dominate the south side of the building, allowing passive solar heat to warm the house, with a backup heating system. The walls are thicker than in most houses: Two 2-by-4-inch walls are separated by 4 inches of space filled with eco-friendly cellulose instead of conventional 2-by-6-inch walls insulated with foam.

“I definitely wanted to keep the place as ‘green’ as possible,” said Chasse. “Not everything is perfect, but we’re using as many green materials as possible. The fact that it’s so well insulated will save us a lot of money and will cut back on our energy usage a lot.”

Welcome to the machine

With the shape of the house in order, Chasse, ever the self-proclaimed tech-geek, began researching automation technology so he could lock or unlock a door, open or close a window, turn on the television, turn lights on and off, control the thermostat, pull the window blinds up and down, and anything else a person with limited use of his arms and no use of his legs would have a hard time doing. That’s a lot of things.

He spent a long time vetting what he wanted to purchase, posting on forums online dedicated to both spinal cord injuries and automation technology. The cost for such technology is high: tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of software and hardware.

“There’s a really great community behind this kind of thing,” he said. “There’s still a lot of things to be figured out with this technology, so what we’re doing in this house has the potential to help a lot of other people that are in my position.”

In May, he received a grant from Alpha One, a Maine-based Center for Independent Living that helps people with disabilities. With that money, he purchased the main automation control system — a HAI Omnipro II controller, which appealed to Chasse for its compatibility with third-party systems and relatively seamless integration with iPhone and Android applications. Rarely is Chasse without his phone, which eventually will be one of the ways in which he controls the automation in the house once it’s finished. The other way will be with his voice recognition software, Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which is up to 99 percent accurate in understanding what Chasse says into a microphone.

Ground was broken on the house on Aug. 2 of this year. As of this week, the roof trusses have been installed, the roof sheeting has been applied, and the walls are taking shape. In September, Chasse made another big purchase, buying additional controllers, a card reader to allow access into the house, door locking technology, racks to hold equipment, thermostat controllers, automated temperature and humidity sensors and automated light switches.

He also bought two extremely fast 300 GB Velociraptor hard drives to double the speed with which programs load on his computer. Chasse has a small but thriving Web design business, which he devotes his time to when he’s not overseeing the construction of his house.

“Technology is my friend,” he said. “It’s always been my friend, but now it’s really, really my friend.”

Moving out and moving in

The dream at first was to be eating Thanksgiving dinner in the house. Now, Christmas dinner seems more likely. Or perhaps they’ll have their first night at home sometime in January, enjoying their cozy new digs while a snowstorm rages outside. Regardless, Chasse seems to be enjoying the building process almost as much as he will enjoy the finished product.

“It’s been very fun and rewarding so far,” he said. “Before I got hurt, I was in this highly technical environment. For the last 2½ years, I haven’t had anything to do with that. Managing a project like this gets me thinking about that again. It’s not really challenging so much as it is rewarding.”

Staying in Presque Isle has a few drawbacks. For someone who gets cold easily, Chasse picked a cold place to live. In order to finish his MBA, he’ll have to commute or take classes online. But Aroostook County is home, and the built-in networks of friends and family you can’t put a price on.

“I’ve got hundreds of people watching my back,” said Chasse. “If my wheelchair runs out of battery life on the side of the road, they are there to help me. Presque Isle is a pretty close-knit community.”

Skiing, engineering, being outside and programming are all things that matter to Chasse. He has learned a lot of things in the years before and after his accident, especially the value of the relationships you keep throughout your life.

“All the things we do are a conduit to more relationships,” said Chasse. “Sharing a day skiing or fishing or doing anything is just building a bond with people. So in that way, I don’t miss skiing too much. It’s all about the people you’re with, and they’re all still with me. I’m pretty lucky to have that.”

For information on Michael Chasse’s smart home, visit

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