From the outside, it looks like a hangar — a half-moon with roofing from one rounded side to the next and an end cap filled with large windows and a garage door.

On the inside, Thom Labrie sees the future.

The Greene businessman and inventor has been working in secret on this building’s design for several years, helped along by Maine Technology Institute grants.

It’s deceptively simple, using three basic components over and over to build 2,000 square feet or 20,000. He’s been concerned there’s a risk in that simplicity: of the idea being stolen, of people gawking but not buying or of people not taking the long view, where he thinks his design “shines.”

Labrie is finally ready to come out with it — and ready for homeowners to give up their four straight walls.

He’s been hosting invitation-only open houses at the first prototype in West Gardiner to quietly attract developers, real estate agents and bankers.

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Upon pulling up, “they’ll stand here and they’ll look at it and you can tell they’re not sure,” he said. “When they come inside, you watch them: All of a sudden, they look around and they light up. One of the most common statements that we’ve heard time and time again is, ‘I could live in this.'”

Labrie, the former owner of Auburn Machinery and current head of Auburn Enterprises, is also president of Shelter +7.

He describes the housing industry in need of “some serious disruptive innovation” and most traditional homes as antiquated, “like taking a 1948 flathead engine Ford, installing fuel injection, adding a digital dashboard, incorporating a high-tech sound system, putting on a sunroof and designer wheels and then promoting it as a 2015-caliber vehicle.”

His design relies on industrial-looking shoes or braces that anchor into a foundation, thick, arched laminated wood beams, and identical 4- by 8-foot structurally insulated panels. Each panel is two OSB boards with 5 inches of closed-cell, high-density foam sandwiched between, then molded into an arch.

The shoes hold the beams in place and the panels lie on top of the beams. He stacks 13 up and over for a single-story bungalow and 17 up and over for enough height inside to build a second story.

“In reality, this is what I call a 21st-century post and beam, because, that’s what it is,” Labrie said. “It’s one monolithic piece of Styrofoam from the ground up, over, back down again. With a freestanding building like this, the advantage is you can do anything inside; there’s no limitations, there’s no load-bearing walls so you can divvy it up, lay it out any way you want to.”

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Interior walls can be finished with Sheetrock; it will bend to the curve easily, according to Labrie. Plumbing and wiring run inside the building, not in the foam walls. That’s part of his issue with traditional homes: Labrie maintains that exterior wall studs act as a “thermal bridge” for hot and cold air, ditto with the holes drilled for electricity and pipes.

He isn’t a fan of many windows for the same reason: “The more holes you have in the building, the more heat loss.”

Labrie said he’s built to most current national and environmentally green building codes. He believes the design will excel over the long term, with lower maintenance costs because there’s less outside surface area compared to a traditional home and it uses less energy.

Bob Bower constructed the first prototype next to his other companies, Bower Construction and Spray Foam of Maine. He’s Labrie’s exclusive dealer for the state and created the company Archtype Structures to market these new homes.

Bower estimates a 17-panel home will use 250 to 300 gallons of oil a year for heat and hot water.

“This building is at least 50 percent more energy efficient than today’s building standards — it’s probably more than that, but we want to be conservative,” he said, adding, that for now, estimates are based on computer modeling. “Until we get a few of these buildings in, I can’t honestly stand here and tell you this is what it’s going to do, because how can I prove it?”

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Selling it

Labrie sees a market for professional offices, commercial properties and homes, specifically targeting baby boomers and 20-somethings.

“We think the millennials are going to respond very, very strongly,” he said. “They tend to ask more questions and they tend to be more forward-thinking down the road, and green plays a big part of that.”

Once the foundation is in, what Labrie’s calling the Ultra-High Performance Building Shell System (the exterior), can fit on the back of one flatbed to travel to a building site and be assembled in a week. He believes that ease and speed also opens up potential use in disaster situations. 

“Aerodynamically, it can perform very, very well in high-wind zones,” he said. “We can have people under cover in less than a week and it’s permanent. You’re not putting them into those trailers that are all going to end up in landfills.”

As for the cost, Labrie is estimating a finished single-story, 13-panel home with 1,460 square feet of usable space starts at $190,000 and the two-story, 17-panel with 3,042 square feet of usable space at $273,000, plus land.

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Bower, who has more than 40 years of experience in construction and energy-efficient homes, said they’ve stayed quiet so far, basically, to avoid looky-loos.

“What we don’t want to be is overburdened with a bunch of tire-kickers,” he said,  or field inquiries from people who just want to figure out what it is that you’re doing. There’s a tremendous amount of those people out there that just want to suck the life right out of you. Or take your concept and go run with it someplace else.”

But that’s the rub. They’d also like sales to start proving the concept.

“It takes somebody who’s really, really sold, who says, ‘I’ll believe it and I’ll put my money down and I’ll own it for a long time,'” Labrie said. “We’re at that guinea pig stage where we’ve got to find the person. The funny thing is, we’ve got a group of different people who are all very interested; they just don’t want to be the first.” 

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