Pure is the New Green
Doug McDonald’s Pure House thinking brings a fresh dimension to building green.
When Doug McDonald first saw the Westport house—the former country home of Oscar Levant, a famous American composer, comedian and author of the mid-20th century—he remembers that the real estate ads never mentioned the structure. Most developers would have seen the place as a teardown, but McDonald saw an opportunity.
“The property was being sold as a lot,” says McDonald, who saw potential in the 1934 Barry Byrne design. Byrne, an apprentice to Frank Lloyd Wright in his Prairie School era, had built Levant’s house of solid poured concrete. The very plain, unadorned and cubist structure was decades ahead of the modernist heyday in the 1950s and 60s, but underappreciated in a neighborhood of New England gables and shingles. It had also been neglected.
Already experienced in reviving old buildings for modern use, McDonald bought it, and proceeded to transform the house into what’s called a passive house—the current ultimate standard in energy-efficient and green design.
Doug’s gut renewal of the house—where he and his family now live--was a ground-up demonstration of the technology, made possible by the home’s original (and excellent) southern orientation for the use of solar energy. He superinsulated the entire building envelope, closed off the chimneys to make it airtight, and installed supremely efficient, German-made windows within the original openings. The windows were set on the same vertical plane as the insulation, with airtight seaming, providing no opportunities for room-temperature interior air to leak to the outside, or too-cold or too-hot air to find its way in. The house has no boiler or furnace, but an exchanger on the second floor keeps the home’s interior air continuously circulating and conditioned, at a near-constant temperature of 73o F.
“It works much like a thermos,” notes Doug, “the living space is warm in winter, and cool in summer.” Pointing out the interior features—bamboo flooring, natural clay plaster walls, efficient and non-polluting appliances—he adds, “and there are no toxins in the finishes. It’s all natural.”
Now that his place is finished—it was probably the first example of a home renovated to passive standards in the US—Doug has larger plans for an adaptation of the passive house that exceeds current US standards and adheres to a multitude of passive house criteria.
He calls it the Pure House.
Having found another site in town with a similar orientation to the sun, Doug’s next step will be to take the technology mainstream, with a new home he is building from scratch. Like more conventional Connecticut houses, it will have traditional, Colonial lines. It will also have the square footage most buyers in our area are looking for, with dimensions in excess of 5,000 square feet. But the added benefits of Pure House are in keeping with a 21stcentury consciousness—saving up to 70% of the annual energy costs of a conventional house, and featuring none of the toxins that are part of many conventional building materials. As it rises in Westport, we’ll go back for a look at McDonald’s plan to make Pure House the new green.