Spotlight: Gaius Hennin and Shelter Institute

Gaius Hennin of Shelter Institute

Gaius Hennin

We reached out to Shelter Institute to find out more about this organization in Woolwich, Maine that offers classes, design-build, tools and even real estate. Gaius Hennin, President and Civil Engineer, took the time to respond to our questions.

Shelter Institute was founded in 1974 by Pat and Patsy Hennin. As Gaius describes it, “Fresh out of law school, Pat was working at a law firm in Portland, Maine and talked his way into building a passive solar home for one of the senior partners. The timing of the build coincided with the first major oil crisis and garnered a tremendous amount of attention-people were suddenly very concerned with energy efficiency. Pat received many requests to build passive solar homes as a result, but he and Patsy felt they could have a broader impact by teaching energy efficient building and they launched the Shelter Institute.” The goal of Shelter Institute was to teach people how to build smart, energy-efficient homes.

We asked how timber framing fit with the goals of Shelter Institute. Gaius told us, “The house that Pat built which launched the business was actually a repurposed timber frame barn which he took down and re-erected. Pat found the old structure to be robust, sustainable and easily adaptable to a new life. He felt it possessed a quality that was innately appealing to humans; today we call it biophilia. He felt that all homes should be rugged, durable, adaptable, sustainable and appealing to those that would occupy them; the timber frame elegantly accomplishes these goals.”

Shelter Institute Frame

Today, Shelter Institute has grown and adapted to changing building practices, but much of the family is still involved in its operation. As Gaius says, “Sadly, we lost Mom to cancer in 2006. Today, Pat (CEO) is still the intellectual leader of the business with boundless energy and a never-ending supply of new ideas. Blueberry is the vice-president and guru of PR, advertising, trade show organization and scheduling; she is the glue that holds us all together. Gaius is president, a civil/structural engineer who manages the timber framing side of the business and counts the beans. We all are responsible for teaching the building classes that we offer, though Pat is a truly gifted edutainer (perfect blend of education and entertainment)!” As well as the family there are a select group of talented builders, teachers and woodworkers who are involved in the teaching and other operations.

Today, along with instruction, Shelter Institute produces post and beam frames. We asked how that development of the business occurred. Gaius told us, “In the late 80’s, Pat and Patsy were confronted with the inconvenient truth of college tuition! Pat and his oldest son, Raoul (who now owns his own building company) started designing and building timber frames for graduates of the Shelter Institute Design Build class. It proved to be a popular way to help launch students into the building process. After we raised the frame (and sometimes ‘skinned’ it with SIPs), our students would take over and complete the construction.”

Shelter Institute Post

In addition to instruction and producing frames, Shelter Institute today also offers tools, design-build and even real estate services. As Gaius explains, “Pat and Patsy were always looking for ways to help their graduates (which today number in the thousands) succeed. To this end, the second business they started was “Woodbutcher Tools”, a tool buying co-op to make high quality tools that actually work, available at a reasonable cost. Today the tool store, called Shelter Tools, caters to timber framers, boat builders, carpenters, turners, louthiers, carvers and woodworkers of all stripes. Since many of our customers are timber framers, we started offering design services and stamped drawings. Finding exceptional properties for people to build on felt like a natural extension to our one-stop shopping goal!”

Although based in New England, Shelter Institute is proud of several far-flung projects they have completed. Gaius describes one in California that they are particularly proud of: “Turning 25, then 30, then 40 have certainly been proud moments for us. Last spring we raised a timber frame in the Santa Monica Hills of Malibu overlooking the Pacific Ocean-an absolutely stunning site. Building in California is a very different experience than building in New England, largely due to the permitting and regulatory processes, which dwarfed the seismic zone challenges! This build was the culmination of years of work and waiting, and we all felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment as we completed our final (shear wall) inspection and headed back to Maine.”

Shelter Institute Raising a Frame

Clayton Hennin raising a frame in the Dutch West Indies

Another far away project that was particularly challenging for Shelter Institute was a frame they erected in the Dutch West Indies. As Gaius told us, “Building a structure far from home is always challenging, even though pre-cut timber frames travel exceptionally well. In 2004 we raised a frame on an island in the Dutch West Indies called Saba. We loaded the timber frame, cedar sheathing, metal roof, appliances and utilities into a 40’ container at our shop in Woolwich. A month later Pat and Patsy met the container at the port on Saba and began transporting the house (via a Mazda Titan) 3 miles to the jobsite. Gaius (and 8 year old son Clayton) flew down to help raise the frame. Pat had a single come-a-long and carefully rigged each bent so Grandson Clayt could raise them, one click at a time.

There are many decisions and challenges to be faced when building a home, and a timber frame is no exception to that. Although heating and air (HVAC) is not offered as part of their timber frame packages, Gaius says that Shelter Institute is very focused on incorporation planning for good ventilation in their home designs. As he says, “Probably the biggest challenge we face in providing an airtight shell to our customers is getting them to appreciate the importance of ventilating properly. When it comes to choosing between a robust, efficient ventilation system and the latest, greatest countertops, we find ventilation usually loses. Even though we don’t sell or install HRV and ERV systems, we start the ventilation conversation at our very first meeting and continue it until the day we leave the jobsite. We talk about the ASHRAE 62.2 Ventilation Standard, mold, mildew, asthma, carcinogens, relative humidity and dew points (in a fun way, of course) and actually include a page in our contract highlighting the need for adequate ventilation. Sadly, a good ventilation system is not very sexy, but the alternative is downright ugly.”

Shelter Institute Home

Finally, we asked Gaius what he feels sets Shelter Institute apart from other timber frame companies. He replied: “There has been a tremendous resurgence in the popularity of timber framing and there are many, many excellent framers out there; it is difficult to set yourself apart today! We are a small, family owned business that works on one project at a time, with all of our joinery ultimately finished by hand. The engineer that performs bending moment calculations is the same guy that drives the truck to the site; the project manager that draws your home will be on site helping to construct it, as will the crew that cut the frame. There is a strong sense of stewardship with every one of our builds, and it shows in the relationships that we build with our customers. And some of us have really weird names; that helps set us apart too.”

To find out more about Shelter Institute’s classes, tools, frames or reals estate services, check out these links:

Check them out at www.shelterinstitute.com,

on facebook (Shelter Institute),

on Instagram (@shelterbuild),

on the Land Line (207-442-7938),

e-mail us at info@shelterinstitute.com 

or their favorite, in person at 873 US Route One in Woolwich, Maine.

1 thought on “Spotlight: Gaius Hennin and Shelter Institute”

  1. Deborah Caldwell Pendleton

    Nice. Thank you for this article. My daughter Kate and I took your three week class just twenty years ago when she was barely 13. She saw my admiration of an article in Down East magazine and insisted upon applying. She is probably still holding the record for being the youngest graduate – even younger than Blueberry was when she took it. Blueberry is a bit older than Kate, and was off at college when we were there, but Gaius was there. Patsy was there with all of us. The experience has influenced our lives forever, and I still stop in at the store. Such adventures.

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