Building homes for the full spectrum of Orcas Island

Michael Newton

After finishing architecture school, Matthew Maher had a desire to build simple, sturdy, self-contained units. That is the foundation of his new Orcas business, Stem.

“I kind of look at building in this very centered mindset,” he says. “I’ve had the experience of architecture school, and I’ve had the experience of being out in the field, so it allows me to design details that are appropriate, strong, and often times economical to execute.”

Maher started the business in October with three other seasoned carpenters: Matt Nelson, Kevin Sterling, and Michael Newton.

Their building philosophy is based on what Maher calls “podular.” It uses some of the same principles as modular structures – movable, affordable, and customizable – but implements fine craftmanship and attention to detail. Stem also offers general contracting and design services.

This winter they constructed their first two buildings, which are available now. Stem is holding an open house on March 21 from 12 to 4 p.m. at its 5230 Orcas Road location, next to the Old Trout Inn. The public is invited to check out the Sauna/Bath, the Forest Cube, and the Thoreauvian.

The Sauna/Bath has fragrant cedar planks, tile floors, and the option of an indoor or outdoor shower. The Forest Cube is considered a “mobile outbuilding office.” It is wired for phone and internet but could also be a small art studio, a yoga space, or a meditation retreat. The price tag on the sauna is $20,000 and the Forest Cube is $16,950.

A third unit, the Thoreauvian, is just about done. It’s a self-contained cabin, complete with wood stove, kitchenette, and sleeping loft. Customers can purchase the Thoreauvian as finished as they want.

“We can stop at any point in the construction if someone wants to finish or customize the interior themselves,” Nelson said.

It runs around the same price as the sauna, depending on the desired level of completion. All three buildings are 120 sq. ft. Stem offers financing for all of its units.

While their products are affordable, Maher says he wants to “serve the full spectrum of the Orcas community.” Stem is working on plans for a garbage and recycling shed, a composting station, high end retreat buildings, and family-sized units.

“We want to build inspiring spaces for all people,” Maher said. “I want people to understand that our business is aimed at everybody. We do have an affordable housing issue on this island. We are basically presenting one way to help that problem out.”

“If your space is inspiring,” Nelson added, “you are going to be driven to want to do more, pursue your dreams, be more creative and that’s just going to snowball and ripple out. We’re hoping we can get folks in our demographic interested because they’re affordable, but also these structures could just as easily appeal to somebody who already does have a house. Somebody who’s already got a house could be well interested in the sauna.”

Maher, 29, grew up in a small rural community in New Hampshire, about the size of Orcas.

“I was raised in the Lakes region of New Hampshire,” he says. “Squam Lakes was basically my stomping grounds when I was a child. The economy is very similar to how it is here. It’s a building economy.”

Maher first learned about construction from his father, who was a contractor. He built his first house at 17 with his dad’s help.

“I can remember being 10 years old and finishing off decks or something, just the simplest aspects of it,” Maher said. “When I would go there after school – my mother was at work, so I’d go to where he was – and he’d say ‘you might as well make a couple of bucks while you’re here.’”

Maher says the name Stem is a metaphor for how they view their business and design strategies.

“A plant has roots and branches, and the stem acts as a conduit for the other parts of the plant. It transfers nutrients from the ground as well as sunlight and sugars from the leaves down to the roots. It feeds both sides. It’s a structure for your life.”

For more information about Stem, call 622-6303, or stop by. Just look for the hexagonal, red sign out front that says “Stem.”

Al Bentley contributed to this story.