MOUNT DESERT — Bill Hanley and Heli Mesiniemi will be happy to design a house for you, but if you ask them to do your laundry they will politely decline.
The married couple, whose practice is WMH Architects, renovated the former Mount Desert Dry Cleaners building on Neighborhood Road in Northeast Harbor and moved their office there this summer.
Even though the building had stood empty for 12 years, “We’ve had a couple of people bring in their dry cleaning,” Hanley said. “That’s the humorous side of it.”
The more serious side was the reclamation process that preceded the renovation of the small, one-story cinderblock building that dates back to 1951.
About 10 years ago, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducted an inventory of all current and former dry cleaning facilities in the state to see if they posed environmental risks.
“They were concerned about dry cleaning solvents migrating through the ground, and they were especially concerned about the proximity to places like schools and day care centers,” Hanley said. “This property was red flagged because we have a day care center [Mount Desert Nursery School] right across the street.”
To remove that red flag, Hanley and Mesiniemi participated in the DEP’s Voluntary Response Action Program (VRAP). Established by the Legislature in 1993, the program allows property owners to avoid DEP enforcement action by voluntarily cleaning up sites that might be contaminated. The cleanup and redevelopment of properties is done with the DEP’s guidance to ensure that it meets state standards.
“The state wants to make sure there is zero risk to any child-related activity,” Mesiniemi said.
An environmental study of the WMH Architects property included indoor air quality tests, soil tests and water tests.
“We found there were some issues in the sub-slab at the property, with vapor from dry cleaning solvent in the soils,” said Nick Hodgkins, an oil and hazardous materials specialist with the Maine VRAP.
“The big concern was, do we have vapors going off site and impacting anything? We didn’t. The next question was, do we potentially have vapors onsite that could be coming up through the slab and impacting folks in that building?”
Before the previous owner could sell the property, they were required to install a ventilation system beneath the cement slab to discharge into the air any dry cleaning solvent vapors in the soil.
“Then we augmented that, putting in a whole-building ventilation system, essentially a life-breath system that is continually exchanging the air inside,” Hanley said.
“We also put in perimeter drainage with a crushed stone strip all the way around the building to increase the breathability and efficiency of the under-slab system.”
Inside the building, the new owners installed a six-inch radiant heat slab on top of the original slab and sealed it to further prevent any traces of contaminants from coming up from the soil.
“They included a number of things that would vent out the air and any dry cleaning solvent in so it wouldn’t get into the breathing space,” Hodgkins said.
“They did an incredibly robust job, I heard from the previous project manager, of getting this vapor collection system together. So, we feel pretty good about it and the work they did.
“This was a pretty easy project for us because they wanted to take on the problems and address them,” Hodgkins said of the architects. “We were really happy to be working with them.”
Mesiniemi said the feeling was mutual.
“It wasn’t that painful,” she said of working with the VRAP and complying with its standards. “You just have to understand that they’re not punishing you, but just looking out for the good of all of us.”
Among the other improvements the architects made to the building was constructing new walls inside the original cinderblock walls and filling the space in between with foam insulation.
Hanley called the reclamation and renovation project “a textbook example of what the VRAP program tries to achieve.”
“I hope this is an example of responsible building development, meaning you don’t have to go in and just tear something down. You can work with what was here.”
Recalling the people who have tried to drop off their dry cleaning at the architects’ office, Hanley said, “People for many, many generations have identified with this building.”