GREENE — Details are sparse, and almost sound like a riddle — it’s not underground, it does have a roof, there are no load-bearing walls, foam is somehow involved — but out of that mishmash of clues, Thom Labrie hopes he’s designed a house of the future.

He said his invention has been driven by the challenge of tackling the high mortgage, maintenance and electricity costs that plague many homeowners today.

He’s not ready to reveal all just yet, but Labrie says it’s safe to assume he’s left traditional square- and rectangle-shaped homes behind and that it won’t be for everyone.

“I believe 1 percent of the market is going to look at us and say, ‘Tell us about it,'” Labrie said.

Labrie won a $25,000 grant last week from the Maine Technology Institute to further research into his High Performance Building Shell System. Construction on his first prototype starts this month.

Labrie is a longtime local businessman and inventor, the former owner of Auburn Machinery, and head of Auburn Enterprises. For this new venture, he’s created another company, Shelter +?. The seven is a reference to his product’s seven touted qualities, including affordability, a perpetually flexible floor plan and a smaller environmental footprint.


“People shouldn’t be paying anywhere near what they’re paying for what they’re getting these days,” he said. “They’re stuck in a box. For the next 20-30 years, they’re stuck.”

He received the first MTI seed grant for the project, $12,500, back in 2007 for early concept development. He put it on ice as the housing market and the economy soured in 2008 and restarted a year ago.

Labrie found a project partner in a Maine contractor, whom he declined to name, but said has 40 years of experience and familiarity with the foam business.

“Foam is a big part of this concept,” Labrie said.

He recalled the contractor’s reaction at their first meeting.

“In 90 seconds, he said, ‘I’m in.’ His comment was, ‘It’s obvious. Why hasn’t someone done this before?'” Labrie said.


The 40-by-40 foot prototype is set to act as a showroom, a business office and as a manufacturing facility for the shelter’s proprietary components. Labrie said he’s being cagey about specifics, such as what it looks like, in order to avoid giving competition a head start.

MTI got a full look at the concept before awarding the grant.

A few more hints from Labrie: It can be built on either a slab or foundation; it can have windows (although the fewer the better, due to heat loss); it can have a second floor or loft; it’ll have a 50-year roof and 50-year exterior skin; there’s no construction equipment required for assembly; and it’s not teeny tiny.

“These guys that live in little boxes … it’s cute, but that’s no way to live,” he said.

Thirty years ago, Labrie built his own underground home into a hillside overlooking the Androscoggin River, in part to lower energy costs and have a more sustainable building. It’s faced with stone and surrounded by blooming gardens.

While he’s eyeing the residential, light-commercial and office-space markets with the new project, he also sees potential uses for the shelters after a disaster. They’re intended to be quick, rugged and permanent, with the exterior of a 40-by-30 foot building (about 1,200 livable square feet) taking an experienced crew of four people three days to build. The interior would then be finished to suit.


“We could literally set up a satellite manufacturing operation and be pumping buildings out,” Labrie said.

The prototype will also be used to determine costs and hard numbers for long-term maintenance and energy savings. Right now, the goal is to have lower costs than traditional construction.

Labrie hopes to open commercial sales by spring and plans what he calls a “strategic” open house this fall to sell mortgage lenders on the concept. If they won’t loan, people can’t buy.

“The housing industry is figuratively and literally stuck in a box,” Labrie said. “They’re probably waiting for somebody to let them out; a big part of what we’re doing is opening a door.”

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.