BANGOR, Maine — On Fern Street in Bangor, in the modest block between Garland Street and Mount Hope Avenue, there’s a bright new addition to the housing stock. On the site of a former commercial laundry and dry cleaning plant, three custom designed, super energy-efficient houses have been built in the past two years, with room for three more.

These homes are different from the others on Fern Street. Their exterior walls are 16 inches thick and filled with rockwool and cellulose. The windows are triple-glazed and seal as tightly as a refrigerator door. Banks of solar cells cover the south-facing slopes of the roofs. The landscaping trends toward edible permaculture, boasting raised vegetable beds, native fruit trees and berry bushes instead of grassy lawns and flowering shrubs.

This is Bangor EcoHomes, a small but ambitious sustainable-living project developed by husband-and-wife team Bob and Suzanne Kelly, owners of House Revivers and Kelly Realty Management. The couple, longtime members of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Bangor and active with the Peace and Justice Center of Eastern Maine, has renovated and remodeled dozens of intown properties over the past 20 years — including many historic buildings. They currently manage about 65 apartments, offices and commercial spaces.

Now, with their 30-year-old son, David Kelly, as a consultant and designer, they’ve entered the single-family home market, aiming to attract like-minded buyers to their ambitious new mini-development.

“We’re calling it a green pocket neighborhood,” Suzanne Kelly said. “It’s open to people of all ages, but it’s ideal for elders in many ways.”

Bangor EcoHomes is a bit like the intentional community model of co-housing, she explained, but without the commitment to bylaws, committee work and planned group activities. Also, unlike many co-housing projects, the Fern Street project is not in a rural setting but in an established neighborhood.

The project offers many advantages that appeal to older Mainers, Kelly said, including its energy efficiency, a spirit of shared values and a livable, walkable intown vibe.

Plus, she said, “We like the idea that we’re improving the neighborhood.”

“We’re drawing from history, re-using what we can, fitting into the existing community and trying to make it better,” Kelly said. “We’ve never done anything like this before.”

A ‘bad site’ reclaimed

Built in 1912, the New Franklin Laundry dominated the Fern Street neighborhood for decades, doing a brisk commercial business with local hospitals, restaurants and other high-volume laundry and dry-cleaning customers.

“At the time it was built, it was at the edge of the city,” said Bangor planning officer David Gould. “The residences grew up around it.”

After the plant closed in 2002, the building sat vacant and derelict in the midst of the residential neighborhood while the owners searched for a buyer. The property included the old brick laundry and the acre-and-a-half it sat upon, which had been badly contaminated with toxic chemicals from the cleaning business.

“It was a bad site,” Gould said.

But Bob Kelly worked with the owners to obtain federal funding for the cleanup, which included scraping off and carting away truckloads of contaminated topsoil and aerating the remainder on site until the contamination was no longer detectable. When Kelly purchased the site in 2007, his idea was to rehab the still-standing laundry building into six condominium units. The real estate crisis of 2008 changed that plan.

“No bank would lend money then on a project like that,” Kelly said. “And in the meanwhile, the building was starting to fall down.”

So instead, he razed the structure, cleared off the site and got city approval to establish six house lots, each about 6,800 square feet.

Then, the Kellys enlisted the help of their son, who had been studying sustainable communities and energy-efficient construction at Yestermorrow, a design and building school in Vermont.

“The challenge here was to do a lot of balancing between the individual space and sovereignty people want in their private homes while still maintaining a sense of community,” David Kelly said.

In addition, he said, the project was committed to sustainable construction practices, including the use of local materials whenever possible, the re-use of materials left from the demolition of the old laundry building and the restoration of the land’s vanished topsoil to support a permaculture landscape.

“All the original topsoil was removed with the cleanup,” he said. “This whole site was like a gravel parking lot.”

Now, applications of organic matter such as leaves and bark chips have already begun to decompose into soil, supporting early plantings of fruit trees, blueberry bushes, cranberry vines and other native edibles.

Cost versus value

For retired physician Miriam Devlin, 84, the permaculture landscaping and gardening opportunities of the project were a big draw.

Plus, she said, “the opportunity to have a solar-run house was too good to miss.”

She and her housemate, artist Nancy Earle, helped design the home, working with David Kelly to achieve a one-story 1,225-square-foot floor plan that suits their needs. They moved in last January.

Devlin admitted that they still miss the rural environment of their previous home in Orland. But the project’s commitment to sustainable living, along with being close to shopping, medical services and like-minded neighbors, promises to mitigate those losses, she said.

Next door, Mike Grondin, 62, and his partner, Kyle Tardy, 53, said they knew about the Kellys’ project from the beginning, when it was envisioned as condominiums in the rehabbed laundry building. Their interest didn’t flag when the project changed to a mini-neighborhood of separate houses.

“I was really ready to move into town,” Grondin, who previously lived in Eddington, said. “I was intrigued by the design and construction of these homes — the heat pumps and solar panels, the use of reclaimed lumber and local materials — the whole thing.”

Plus, Grondin said, as he ages, he values being closer to medical services. In the future, he said, “When I call 911, I want them here in two minutes, not 20 minutes.”

Bob and Suzanne Kelly live in the third house on the site, a two-story, 1,600-square-foot home they love.

Three lots remain to be sold, at an asking price of $40,000 each. While there’s no requirement that David Kelly design the new homes, the family feels confident that buyers will be drawn to the project’s ideals as well as to its location. The cost of building these energy-efficient homes runs about 10 percent higher than standard construction, they say, but that expense is offset by much lower costs for heating, cooling and electricity.

Suzanne Kelly said the activity around Bangor EcoHomes is having a positive effect on the rest of the neighborhood, spurring a small flurry of home improvement and home beautification projects.

“I think it’s true what they say, that a rising tide floats all boats,” she said.

Bangor planning officer Gould agrees.

“The neighborhoods that go into decline are the ones where homeowners aren’t invested in their properties,” he said. “What makes a neighborhood work is when people are concerned with the long-term value of their homes.”

On Fern Street, he said, the Kellys’ project is generating the kind of interest that attracts new homeowners and preserves and protects the value of family neighborhoods.

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.