Tag Archives: Doug McDonald

Wall Street Journal Knows Where We Live

From the ultra-modern to the very old, today’s Wall Street Journal is all over Westport and Weston.

A feature story on homes with the latest high-end amenity — “freshly circulated, highly scrubed air” — highlights Doug Mcdonald’s “passive house.”

The paper reports:

In suburban areas, a handful of high-end developers of single-family homes are promoting their project’s indoor-air quality. In tony Westport, Conn., a 5,800-square-foot Colonial-style house that will soon list for $2.8 million was built using “passive house” building methods that minimize energy usage with a mathematically precise, airtight building technique, and the strategic placement of high-performance windows to take advantage of daylight and shade.

Doug Mcdonald's passive house, off Roseville Road. It was formerly owned by Oscar Levant. (Photo/Claudio Papapietro for Wall Street Journal)

Doug Mcdonald lives in this passive house, off Roseville Road. Before retrofitting, it was owned by Oscar Levant. Doug has built another passive house in Colonial style,  which is currently on the market. (Photo/Claudio Papapietro for Wall Street Journal)

Inside, the air will be filtered through a two air-exchangers, says Douglas Mcdonald, the founder of the Pure House, the company that built the home. Pollen-free fresh air will circulate into living and sleeping spaces; other air will be removed from kitchens and bathrooms, where odors tend to accumulate the most.

“The air quality is amazing,” says Mr. Mcdonald. Paint, flooring and cabinetry will be made from chemical-free materials to eliminate what Mr. Mcdonald describes as harmful off-gassing. He estimates that the speculatively built home, slated to be completed in September, is priced about 10% higher than a traditionally built house.

(I should note that the WSJ is 2 years too late to this passive house party. “06880” reported on it in March 2012.)

Meanwhile, a few pages away, the paper gives a shout-out to a very different home.

Jose Feliciano lives in — and loves — a 1730 Weston landmark. The internationally renowned, Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter.guitarist (“Feliz Navidad,” “Light My Fire”) is as passionate about his historic, lovely home — a former tavern –as Mcdonald is about his engineering marvel.

Jose Feliciano and his wife Susan in their very comfortable kitchen. (Photo/Dorothy Hong for Wall Street Journal)

Jose Feliciano and his wife Susan in their very comfortable kitchen. (Photo/Dorothy Hong for Wall Street Journal)

Feliciano describes his 5-acre property, including a gazebo and barn that’s now a recording studio:

People who don’t know me assume I move around our house gingerly. But being blind doesn’t mean I can’t see. I have a photographic memory and know exactly where everything is. The house is an old, soulful place that creaks and reminds me of my aunt’s home in the Bronx that I used to visit as a boy. It has character.

Our floors creak beautifully … because they’re made of different types of wood. The floors upstairs are pine while downstairs the dining-room floor is pear, the working kitchen is oak and the floor in the kitchen’s dining area is cherry.

Upstairs, the pine floorboards are original to the house, and many are as wide as 20 inches. Back in the 1700s, it was illegal for colonists to take down trees larger than 12 inches in diameter. They were considered property of the king, who needed large trees for ship masts since much of England’s forests were exhausted. Royal surveyors would mark large trees to keep them off-limits, but colonists took them down anyway in protest and used them for upstairs floors, where they’d be out of sight.

Jose Feliciano in his home recording studio. He has a new album out this summer. (Photo/Dorothy Hong for Wall Street Journal)

Jose Feliciano in his home recording studio. He has a new album out this summer. (Photo/Dorothy Hong for Wall Street Journal)

Our house has four working fireplace. My favorite is in the kitchen. When we make fires there in the cold months, I sit in the rocking chair Susan gave me when we were first dating and listen to the wood burning. I hear the sap sizzling and the logs snapping. It makes me imagine how hard life must have been hundreds of years ago. I also like playing guitar and composing in front of the fire, which warms my soul.

Last fall, we had to take down an old maple tree that was near the power lines, so now we have eight cords of wood. I love feeling the seasons change. In the spring, I smell the greenery and hear things coming alive, like the songbirds and sparrows. The Saugatuck River is just 50-feet wide here and cuts through our backyard, so I can hear the river’s motion and cascading waterfall from our bedroom. The water attracts river otters, deer and wild turkeys to our land. Summer has its own vibrant sounds.

I also love hearing my neighbors going about their lives. Our house is private and remote, but we’re not isolated. We wouldn’t want that. When you isolate yourself too much, you lose your compassion for others. I don’t ever want that to happen to us.

Westport and Weston are filled with intriguing homes. Some were built yesterday; others have stood for centuries. Unwittingly today, the Wall Street Journal has shown the world those 2 extremes.

(Hat tip to John Karrel)

3,800 Square Feet, No Furnace — It’s The Toastiest Home In Town

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.

The house Doug Mcdonald bought -- formerly owned by Oscar Levant.

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.

Doug Mcdonald in his living room. Note that the windows do not touch the inside of his home.

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 what?

“The less diesel fuel needed to air condition and heat troops, the better,” Doug explains.

Doug Mcdonald's home, after retrofitting into a passive house.

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.