Matt Coffey found a niche, designing affordable, efficient homes

Architect Matt Coffey, his wife, Christine Conley, their son, Rye, and daughter, Ada, on the front porch of their West Tisbury house. — Photo by Tony Omer

Architect Matt Coffey and his wife, Christine Conley, have not received a utility bill in over two years for their home on Eliakim’s Way in West Tisbury. Mr. Coffey did not design the house, but soon after his family moved in he quickly realized that he wanted to design similar houses.

The South Mountain Company (SMC), a West Tisbury construction and design business that has a history of building high-quality, energy-efficient custom homes, built the eight houses in the development. Each home is super insulated and has rows of solar panels.

Mr. Coffey now works at South Mountain where he is the point man for a house design project at South Mountain called the “M-Line.” It is an evolving basic house plan developed by South Mountain’s designers and architects that utilizes the latest in energy efficient, zero-energy-possible, sustainable designs for affordable housing. The M-Line was created using funds left to SMC in the estate of Madeline Heath, one of their first affordable housing clients in the 1980s.

Using the M-Line design as his starting point, Mr. Coffey recently designed and managed the construction of two affordable homes for the Island Housing Trust (IHT) on Harpoon Lane in West Tisbury.

Last year he used a similar design for an IHT house SMC built on land in Aquinnah. He is project manager for another house currently under construction by SMC in West Tisbury.

The cost of an M-Line house can vary considerably, depending on the features included. The construction cost of the Harpoon Lane houses was close to $260,000.

The houses feature three bedrooms, a super insulated foam shell, a heat exchange, fresh air system, an air source heat pump heating system and hot water heater, triple-glazed windows, an orientation and wiring that facilitates the addition of solar panels, and a full basement. The houses are designed to require a minimum of exterior maintenance.

SMC will give the M-Line plan free to affordable housing projects. Mr. Coffey said that Habitat MV is considering using the plan for its projects.

His design work is not confined to affordable housing, but he said that he utilizes concepts of affordability and sustainability in high-end projects as well. A recent barn project in West Tisbury includes enough solar panels to produce the electricity to make the property’s main house, guesthouse, and studio a zero net energy user.

Mr. Coffey spends some of his free time designing. He and two college friends entered The Add-on’13 Design Competition for Affordable Accessory Dwellings. They are one of six finalists out of 120. The small houses must be no larger than 800 square feet.

Recycling materials is not limited to his professional life. At home, he designed an outdoor shower and a low shed for his garbage cans made of old pieces of rusting corrugated tin he is pretty sure came from the Hot Tin Roof.

Early interest

Mr. Coffey, 35, has worked at South Mountain for over two years. Tall and athletic, he is relaxed seated at his workspace in his sunlit, second-floor home office, surrounded by windows with a close-up view of the woods outside. Moving between a large drawing and the computer on which he does most of his work, he is amused when asked to talk about his personal life.

He attributes the source of his interest in building, design, and sustainable architecture to two people, his father, Patrick Coffey, a conservationist and builder of high-end houses on Cape Cod, and Jeff Stein, an instructor at Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston.

Matt worked with his father through high school and much of college. “He has always been interested in nature,” Matt said. “He can name every tree and knows the call of every bird on the Cape and understands the geology of the area and how the natural systems work.”

Matt enrolled in the five-year architecture program at Wentworth where one class had a significant impact on his future. “I had an amazing teacher in college, Jeff Stein, who taught a small, lightly attended, non-required class in sustainability. It was the only little piece of sustainability that was part of the curriculum at that time,” he said. “It has influenced just about everything I do now.”

After receiving his degree in 2001 he was back at work with his father. “I was out on a site working on one of dad’s projects, fresh out of architecture school. The house was built on pilings, pier construction,” he said. “I thought this is a pretty cool way to build on a sloping site. I investigated the firm that drew the plans. Got an interview with them and they hired me.”

When building slowed in the early 2000s Mr. Coffey left the architectural firm for Lake Tahoe, California, where he taught snow boarding and met his future wife, Vineyarder Christine Conley in 2004. Mr. Coffey knew the Island well. His best friend from middle school was Eli Dubin, now an Island builder.

Matt was rehired by the Boston firm and given a job in their Vineyard Haven office. He and Christine married and had two children.

The Move

Even before the family moved in to their new home, his interests were leading him toward sustainable design.

In 2008, Mr. Coffey received a grant from the Martha’s Vineyard Vision Fellowship, a privately funded group that provides financial assistance for Islanders who want to study ways to help create a more sustainable Vineyard. He studied sustainable design and architecture at The Ecosa Institute in Arizona, and he attended short, one- and two-week seminars with The Glenn Murcutt Master Class in Australia and with the Biomimicry Guild in Costa Rica.

South Mountain architect Ryan Bushey was his fellowship mentor. Several years later he was working with Mr. Bushey.

“Matt is part of an ongoing effort at South Mountain to hire the next generation, to hire people with great potential,” said president John Abrams. “Matt is one of those who have enlivened and rejuvenated our design department.”

Out of the office

The Coffey-Conley family leads a busy life. Most days Matt Coffey rides his bike to the office. When he returns home, it’s his turn with the kids as Christine heads to the Y to workout. It is a change in his day that he enjoys as they pick blueberries and play with the dog in their small backyard surrounded by thickly wooded conservation land.

He is an avid mountain biker, hiker, snowboarder, surfer, distance swimmer, and runner. He has his sights set on the Vineyard triathlon in September.

“As an architect I am working on ways to maximize the relationship between the buildings and the land around them and to reduce the impact of buildings on the land,” he said. “When possible I try to include a restorative component to our designs when the land has been abused.”

As a father he said, “I want my kids to grow up to be good people with a solid understanding of the Vineyard.”