When you or I buy a house, we think about things like location, driveway, number of bathrooms and if the kitchen needs updating.
Doug Mcdonald considers solar orientation, air tightness, thermal bridging and ventilation.
Which is why he and his family live in a Westport home that is constantly 73 degrees, with spectacular air quality — but no air conditioner, furnace o4 central heating system. The Mcdonalds pay nothing for gas, oil or propane.
Oh, yeah: 20% of the heat is generated by the house’s appliances — and occupants.
In 2010 Doug — whose profession is real estate — was looking for land to build on. Google Maps shows available real estate — who knew? — so he drove around Westport, and found property on Roseville Road.
It was the 1930s home of Oscar Levant, the pianist, composer, author, comedian and actor. Designed by architect Barry Byrne — a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright — it was solid concrete.
It had also been vacant — and listed — for 3 years.
The simplified shape appealed to Doug. Walking through, he realized he had to remove only 2 walls to achieve a modern floor plan.
It was a perfect place to put into practice all the ideas he’d learned from the Passivhaus Institute. The German-based organization has developed rigorous standards for constructing “hyper-green” structures.
The Levant house faced south. It sat high on a hill. The concrete construction meant high “thermal mass” (material that absorbs heat from a heat source, then releases it slowly).
Doug created an “air balloon” inside. He made sure nothing on the building touched from the outside to the inside — including the windows. (A chimney, by contrast, is a classic thermal bridge. It touches the earth in the basement, runs through a house, then touches the sky. Doug blocked the chimney, using what he calls “nuclear grade” insulation: recycled glass infused with air.) The interior “absorbs” everything from the outside.
Panels on the roof drop heat energy into a solar tank in the basement. That provides all the hot water the Mcdonalds need — plus radiant floor heating.
“I use the sun like a reptile on a rock,” he says. “Right now, the house is sucking it up. Later tonight it will ooze through the building.”
Fresh oxygen is pushed through the house at all times. An energy recovery ventilator — Doug calls it a “magic box” — ensures that fresh air coming into the house exchanges its temperature and humidity with the air that’s leaving. Ceiling vent heads in every room ensure a constant 73 degree, 45% relative humidity environment.
The house is “incredibly cost effective,” Doug says. His electric bill is about $120 a month. At 4,000 square feet, it uses 90 percent less energy than a typical home.
Just as importantly, “our quality of life is incredible. Once you sleep in a passive house, you never want to go back. You wake up with the best sleep ever, because the air is incredibly oxygenated.”
Yet there aren’t too many passive houses around here. Or anywhere in the US, for that matter.
Right now, Doug says, there are 3 main advocates of passive housing: “very wealthy Europeans, Habitat for Humanity, and the military.”
“The less diesel fuel needed to air condition and heat troops, the better,” Doug explains.
But the stock of concrete houses available to convert to passive housing is minuscule, right?
“I could build a center-staircase Colonial to Passive House Institute standards,” he says. In fact, he’d like to.
“A passive house doesn’t have to look like a UFO,” Doug notes. “It can look like anything. There’s no big trick to this. It’s really simple — just done to an extreme level.”
However, he admits, “this is not a do-it-yourself project. You have to understand construction, and have zero tolerance for any mistakes. This is like building an F2 race car — not a go-kart.”
Earlier this month, the Connecticut Neighbor to Neighbor Energy Challenge and Westport’s Green Task Force sponsored 4 tours of the Mcdonalds’ home. Dozens of interested residents trooped through the house. They marveled at the “magic box,” admired the “air balloon,” and breathed the high-quality air.
And despite the constant opening and closing of doors, the temperature inside remained a very comfortable 73 degrees.