Our Visit to a Passive House
Today, we’re eager to share about a Passive House (Passivehaus in German) located in Westport, CT. It’s among the most energy efficient homes in the world and is a product of real estate developer Doug McDonald’s vision, committed work, and love of his family and the earth.
When Doug first told us about his home over a cup of tea at Arogya, we were captivated and couldn’t wait to visit.
Doug’s home, which is a 3,800 square foot concrete structure originally built in the mid-1930s for actor, musician, and author Oscar Levant by Frank Lloyd Wright protégé Barry Byrnes, is one of roughly 25,000 structures worldwide that meets the Passive House Institute’s high performance structure criteria. While the majority of these buildings are in Europe, the idea is starting to catch on in the United States, thanks to people like Doug. In brief, a Passive House must allow space heating and cooling related energy savings of up to 90% per square foot compared with typical building stock and over 75% compared to average new builds. Despite the fact that Doug’s house has no boiler and therefore burns no oil or propane, it’s been a comfortable 72-76 degrees Fahrenheit inside all winter, even with the windows open! In the summer, it’s cool and breezy, without the use of central air conditioning.
Ok, you’re probably wondering, how is this possible?
The answer is through the implementation of these 5 things:
1) The correct amount of moisture wicking thermal insulation.
2) The use and installation of high performance windows. As you can see from the photos, Doug’s house uses triple-paned windows and doors.
3) A system for ventilation heat recovery. Doug has a “heat exchanger machine” that slowly moves air through the house and recaptures and filters exhaust air. This machine uses the same amount of electricity as a light bulb.
4) Making sure the house is airtight.
5) Eliminating thermal bridges, which are the junctions in a structure where insulation is not continuous and, as a result, heat is lost. Some examples are windows or doors, as well as chimneys.
Ok, so how is heat generated in a Passive House?
Primarily from the sun, or what’s referred to as “solar gain”. When Doug first saw the Barry Byrnes house, he knew it was a great candidate for being converted into a Passive House as it was high on a hill and had plenty of south facing windows to soak up sunlight during the winter months. The sun’s energy is also collected by solar thermal panels on the roof to heat Doug and his family’s water. The secondary heat source in a Passive House comes from warmth generated by its inhabitants and electrical equipment, such as household appliances and even light bulbs. And, as no fuel is burned, the air inside Doug’s house feels exceptionally clean and fresh. It also had a nice touch of humidity, something we were craving after this long winter.
In addition to the progressive engineering that makes his home a Passive House, Doug takes other steps for a greener, healthier existence. He’s adamant about using as few chemicals as possible in and around the living space. They filter their tap water with a reverse osmosis water filtration system, an increasingly popular, effective, and affordable form of water purification technology. They also collect rainwater outside in what’s called the “Cowboy Pool”, which is used for swimming.
During our visit, we were inspired by Doug’s passion and by what’s possible in terms of energy efficient, high performance, yet affordable structures. Before leaving, we asked Doug to give us 3 words to describe his home. His response was, “Comfort, comfort, and comfort.” When we make decisions that are comfortable and sustainable for the earth, they are also more comfortable and sustainable for us. From the food we choose to eat to the decision to consume fewer natural resources, all nourish the earth and us. Visiting Doug’s Passive House has transformed how we look at our own homes and seek out steps we can take to be more eco-aware and, as a result, comfortable and healthy. We’ll be sharing some in the new future!
For more information on Passive House, visit the following resources:
- Passive House Institute’s Site
- An Article by Tree Hugger on Doug’s Home
- New York Times Article on Doug