So green, it's (LEED) gold

A Seacoast couple’s energy-efficient home is certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council.




Charlie Ristagno is an avid gardener who grows flowering annuals and herbs in his conservatory, seen to the left, of his Rye Beach home. He works closely with landscape architect Terrence Parker, of Terra Firma Landscape Architecture in Portsmouth, to showcase the plants he grows and others in the front garden.

When Charlie and Marcia Ristagno decided to make their dream home a reality, they embraced the adventure. Inspired by cozy cottages they’d seen on trips through England’s Cotswolds region, the couple built their own version on a lot near the ocean in Rye Beach.

The Ristagnos’ home is 4,000 square feet; has two kitchens, two floors of living space and gardens containing plants grown in Charlie’s conservatory. And the house is so energy efficient that it received two designations: The first is LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Gold, a noteworthy certification from the U.S. Green Building Council that recognizes best practices. The second is an Energy Star HERS (Home Energy Rating System) score of 39 (meaning that the home is 71 percent more energy efficient than standard). Last year the Ristagnos spent only $1,500 in heating and cooling bills and less than $500 for electricity.

“Their home combines good design and energy efficiency,” says Jon Moody of Richard Moody & Sons Construction of Wells, Maine, the Ristagnos’ contractor and builder. “You don’t always see LEED homes as well-designed and built as this one.”

Charlie drove the effort for green certification. A retired scientist who’s also an avid gardener and cook, he was intrigued with the LEED and Energy Star programs. Homeowners earn points by meeting program requirements and pursuing credits on their own in categories such as materials and resources. The total number of points earned determines the level of LEED certification: certified, silver, gold or platinum.

“It made sense to me,” Charlie says. “I was fascinated with how to make the home energy efficient.” He attended seminars hosted by Energy Star, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) program, to learn the ins and outs of improving energy performance, and then enthusiastically shared his knowledge with the professionals working on his home.

“Charlie was willing to learn and research as much as possible about green building products and techniques,” Moody says. “He talked to other building professionals and toured Energy Star homes. It was fun to work with someone who wanted to do something different and do it right.”


The Ristagnos’ stone-fronted home combines energy efficiency with classical design, inspired by English cottage architecture.

Good design, high efficiency

Before construction began, Alison Keay—a consultant at Concord-based Resilient Buildings Group, Inc., a firm specializing in energy efficiency and LEED certification—hosted a design charrette with the Ristagnos’ design and construction team to review the details of LEED and establish “green goals” for the project. She visited the site regularly throughout construction to ensure all goals and requirements were met.

“Part of the focus during this project was energy reduction and water conservation,” Keay says, “but Charlie and Marcia didn’t have to compromise their home’s traditional design for the sake of energy efficiency or LEED certification.”

Built on a lot near the Ristagnos’ former home, the new house—made of red brick and stone—is sited and constructed to protect nearby wetlands and take advantage of ocean views. The home’s green features—such as the roof slates made from recycled rubber tires and water-permeable driveway—aren’t obvious. The landscape and water filtration systems move water away from the foundation. All water on the site flows into an underground filtration basin; the front garden sits over a cistern that slowly absorbs runoff from the roof. A rainwater garden—which contains native plants, such as summersweet and inkberry—naturally filters the water. A perimeter walk offers intimate views of the wetlands behind the house.

The Ristagnos have two kitchens. The sunny main kitchen features custom cabinetry by Crown Point Cabinetry in Claremont and white oak flooring by Carlisle
Wide Plank Floors in Stoddard.

Rigid foam insulation under the foundation; foam insulation in the attic and all exterior walls; and triple-paned windows on the front of the house help make the building air-tight and quiet. An energy recovery ventilation system with built-in HEPA filtration improves indoor air quality, a benefit for Marcia’s allergies. Radiant floor heating throughout the house provides an even blanket of warmth without the noise of a radiator or heating vents.

“Every single corner of the house is within 2 degrees of the thermostat,” says Kevin Hanlon, owner of Horizon
Residential Energy Services NH of Concord, who worked with the Ristagnos and Moody to project their cost savings on energy-efficiency.

“It’s virtually draft-free and very comfortable.”

All appliances are designated energy efficient by Energy Star, and the heating system, hot water and kitchen stoves run on propane. Most of the interior and all the exterior lighting fixtures—from Lighting by the Sea in Hampton Falls—use high-efficiency LEDs.

The living spaces, inside and out

The late Thane Pearson of Pearson Traditional Design in York, Maine, designed the home’s footprint; Bob Cook of AdaptDESIGN in Portsmouth designed the interior floor plan. Working closely with Marcia—“Charlie joked that he was in charge of the outside but the inside space was Marcia’s,” Cook says—Cook designed interior spaces to be experienced in different ways, depending on which entrance is used. The front entrance opens into the living room, with views into the kitchen and back yard; a short hall to the right leads to Marcia’s study, the garage and stairs (as well as an elevator) to the second floor.

The Ristagnos wanted two kitchens: one for entertaining guests with an island and dining area (dubbed Marcia’s), and a restaurant-quality kitchen with stainless-steel appliances for Charlie, who loves to cook.

Upstairs is a workout room, Charlie’s office and the master bedroom suite, which overlooks a pretty marsh. At the opposite end of the house is a media room and guest suite that opens to a rooftop deck—made of recycled materials—overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.


Made of recycled materials, the second-floor deck off the guest suite overlooks the Atlantic Ocean.

 The front garden showcases flowering annuals and herbs Charlie grows in his greenhouse, located just off the garage. Other plantings include roses, lavenders, blue star flowers, mums, dogwood and evergreens that offer color most of the year. “Charlie has an exceptional ecological sensitivity and love for plants,” says Terrence Parker of Terra Firma Landscape Architecture in Portsmouth. “We had a collaborative approach to planting that matches his skills with my sense of vegetative balance and rhythm.”

Successful teamwork

Everyone who worked on the Ristagnos’ home was enthusiastic about the project. “Every successful project comes down to people working together well,” Moody says. “This project really embodied that idea. Everyone had to communicate about the products and techniques we were using, understand what it meant to achieve LEED, and, most important, deliver a high-quality home that Charlie and Marcia would be happy with for years to come.”  


The upstairs guest suite features built-in cabinetry housing a small pantry, dry sink and refrigerator. Richard Moody & Sons Construction in Wells, Maine, built the cabinets, and the wallpaper is from Wicked Awesome Wallpaper & Paint in Hampton.


Charlie Ristagno’s conservatory, on the east side of the house, takes advantage of natural sunlight, as well as fluorescent lighting, to grow herbs and flowering annuals.


The team working on the Ristagno home included, from the left: Kevin Hanlon of Horizon Residential Energy Services NH in Concord; Holly Bowdoin and Art Feith of Pearson Traditional Design in York, Maine; Bob Cook of adaptDESIGN in Portsmouth; Alison Keay of Resilient Buildings Group, Inc. in Concord; Jon Moody of Richard Moody & Sons Construction in Wells, Maine; and Terrence Parker of Terra Firma Landscape Architecture in Portsmouth.
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