With it, Barnhart, an architect by training, faced a challenge: He wanted to create something state-of-the-art that would stand the test of time and that also availed itself of Energy Star technology and a modern construction and design interpretation.
"When someone thinks of Cape May, they think of Victoriana. This house is at Cape May Point, which is much more eclectic, with a rich tapestry of modest shotgun shacks to post-World War II modernism and the full gamut in between. So our particular municipality," he said, "doesn't have a historic overlay that's prescriptive."
The thinking behind the house was a "21st-century reinterpretation of a Queen Anne" design, with a modified-turrets-and-lighthouse motif, but also environment-friendly features.
As a vacation rental, the house can accommodate eight guests. For eventual year-round use in retirement, it has a Belvedere tower that offers a 360-degree view and windows that act as a passive cooling "chimney."
Sustainable features include a vegetative roof, rainwater harvesting for a habitat garden drip-irrigation system, a pervious "stepping stone" driveway, and mature trees.
The $1,500 cost of getting a home Energy Star-certified is reasonable, Barnhart said, particularly when a homeowner is paying for an independent, third-party certification that does not include installing Energy Star-certified appliances and lighting and an on-demand water heater.
Yet Barnhart went one step beyond. He also designed and constructed this house to much-stricter Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design specifications, though in the end decided not to pay the extra $10,000 for LEED certification.
The couple also did not opt for super-insulation. "We looked at full foam insulation for the entire house, because it's so high-performance. But the cost for an entirely foamed house was $28,000, versus the hybrid approach we took, which cost about one-third of that," he said.
Hybrid foam installation meant layering 21/2 inches of the foam first, then adding the traditional fiberglass insulation. "The magic of the 21/2 inches is the dew point," Barnhart explained. "Moisture won't condense inside your walls."
Once the exterior was done, the interior became the focus.
"No one wants to be immobile, but there is potential that we will have to live on the first floor," he said. "So I tried to make it as gracious as possible. The first-floor bathroom has a Scandinavian-style shower - that means the entire bathroom is tiled with no thresholds, and you just draw the curtain. . . . I also put a window in the shower area. You can still feel the breeze and the summer warmth."
Said Downey: "It's fun and easy without a sterile look."
Vacationers are typically renting here with extended family, Barnhart said, and in many cases, there's at least one elderly person in the group. "We wanted them to know from the get-go that they can bring aging parents and have them in the mix."
There are, however, no wheelchair ramps - the town permits them only for primary residences, Barnhart said. "So you have to have people assist them coming and going. But once inside, they have full mobility."
Why a green roof on the second floor? "What clinched it was the second-floor bedroom in the middle would have a garden outside the window. I was first thinking it would be green roof for the entire house," he said, "but we scaled back."
Their local contractor, MAW Builders Inc., recommended the drip-irrigation system. All the plant beds are watered that way.
Downey hopes to teach her son, Guy Bayan, 10, that "Cape May Point is a migratory place for butterflies and birds. We want to make sure rainwater is supporting plant life and not runoff, since the house is between a freshwater lake and the ocean, different ecosystems that need to be protected."
Would LEED certification help boost the house's resale value?
"I don't think the residential market has a consumer demand [for LEED] that would make any difference in sale price," Barnhart said.
Will they be paid back in terms of energy savings?
"I'm sure we will be," he said. "It's the most comfortable house I've ever been in. . . . That's all the proof I need."