Living ultra eco
Cathy O'Neill and her perfectly passive house (From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA)
A deep freestanding tub with a Fortuny silk lamp dangling ripely above it.
She lives in the first certified "Passive House" in California, but there's nothing inert about Cathy O'Neill. Having made it big as a buy-side institutional trader and hedge fund manager in what was mostly a man's world, she's smart, quick and competitive. So when she retrofitted her 1960s mid-century-modern ranch house, it was bound to be aggressively efficient.
"I was going to do it and I wanted it to be the first," she says about deciding to take on the passive design challenge. Environmental correctness was a given, so why not go ultra eco? Her passive house on Sonoma's east side is not just the first in California-it's the first retrofitted one in the whole United States.
A building standard developed in Germany in the 1990s, Passivhaus designation requires that a structure use almost zero energy for heating and cooling. Achieved with an airtight, super-insulated exterior ten times beyond what building codes require, the interior air quality is monitored with a ventilation system that moves heat and cleans air. A complicated computer spreadsheet system tracks the rigorous requirements. All that left-brained precision appealed to O'Neill. She wasn't interested in giving "green" lip service; she was determined to build an uncompromised environmental masterpiece.
O'Neill selected Rick Milburn, owner of Solar Knights Construction, to spearhead the project. The two already knew and respected each other. Milburn introduced her to the Passive House concept, and together they chose Jarrod Denton (Lail Design Group) as architect. Both Milburn and Denton traveled to Germany to study, training for certification as official Passive House consultants.
O'Neill's house wears a sealed metal solar-reflective roof. A lovely front porch protects against the summer's hot sun. The light green front door is inviting but hefty, with two inches of vacuum-packed insulation sandwiched between one-inch wood panels. All of the windows are triple-paned, including the 16-foot sliding glass doors that open from the kitchen onto the home's central courtyard. The fireplace burns ethanol and requires no chimney. Ten solar panels placed unobtrusively above the kitchen help mitigate the use of electricity, and three solar hot water panels supplement the on-demand hot water heater. Even though last December was especially chilly, O'Neill's PG&E bill for the month was a whopping $4.76.
Cutting-edge as it is, the home also speaks of O'Neill's softer side: the woman who carefully steams milk for the coffee she makes in a French press; the romantic who's spent ten Junes in the Irish countryside, serving midday tea to her friends as they harvest the hay crop. Though she's single and urbane, she believes she would have been "perfectly happy" as a farmer's wife.
O'Neill has lived in New York and San Francisco but was raised in Salinas, the second oldest of twelve. Growing up in Steinbeck country, surrounded by lettuce fields, O'Neill always admired the farmhouses that dot the landscape there. She wanted her new place to capture that sensibility, but be modern and replete with convenience. A casual, charming home where her extended family and friends could gather, where they would feel welcomed and relaxed. A house where Max, her beloved Tibetan terrier, could reign with four-pawed impunity.
When O'Neill bought the house four years ago it was two squat structures connected by a breezeway. Though the retrofitted home was constructed on that original footprint, there's little else harking back to its origins. The breezeway became a narrow kitchen adjoining the two wings, creating a U-shaped, 2,400-square-foot home. The concrete slab foundation was covered with thick, rigid insulation, topped with plywood and finished with reclaimed wide-plank white oak, resulting in a warm, stunning base for the home.
The heart of O'Neill's house is the ample living and dining room, furnished with upholstered chairs rather than the usual sofas. The palette is soft and inviting: warm whites, muted grays, simple beiges. The custom-made dining table seats eight, with leaves that expand its capacity to eighteen for gatherings. To the left of the entrance is the piano niche, where the baby grand O'Neill admits to playing "very badly" holds a Richard McDonald sculpture. The sculpture, titled "Dance the Dream," was a gift from O'Neill's mother. "That's my wish for you," she told her daughter on the day it was given.
The front wing holds a guest room and bath, as well as O'Neill's home office. Further on is a laundry room so chic as to make stain removal a joy. The Asko stacked stainless steel washer and dryer hide an integral ironing board that pulls out, visible only when needed. True to the home's mission, the condensing dryer does not technically dry, but rather extracts water from clothes without heat, eliminating the need for an exterior vent. A shelf on the opposite wall is lit by a flexible strip of LED lights.
The back wing houses the master bedroom suite and a large den. An adjoining bath boasts a deep freestanding tub, with a Fortuny silk lamp dangling ripely above it. Both bedrooms and the kitchen have doorways to the large courtyard, maximizing indoor/outdoor living.
Landscape design is by Jennifer Chandler (Chandler & Chandler) and emphasizes drought-resistant native plantings and permeable gravel surfaces. The exception is the smallish rear yard, which O'Neill christened "The Girly Garden." Not yet willing to give up on tulips and veggies, she had a very sophisticated rain reclamation system installed, affording ample hydration for the much-loved, but thirsty, plantings.
In the interest of sustainability, a Meyer lemon tree and a decades-old rosebush were saved from the old garden and replanted. A large, shady pistache tree in the front of the house was moved several feet to make way for the new porch. The bench boards atop the planting beds are reclaimed redwood, dating from 1890.
The focal point of the courtyard is undoubtedly what is best described as a living table. A large, round stainless steel base filled with 1,200 pounds of poured concrete supports the huge surface, across which a narrow trough is fashioned. Water courses through the trough, cascading off the edge into a black rock basin. Live plants thrive in the tabletop water. O'Neill calls it "the table where the river runs through it," and considers it the biggest splurge of the house. It had to be installed with a large crane.
After moving into her new home last September, O'Neill invited her building team and all of her neighbors to a catered gathering to celebrate its completion. As her guests mingled, she glanced out to the courtyard table, which had been more of a headache to create than she imagined. A 2-year-old girl was dancing about, trailing her hands through the water. "Seeing her enjoy it so much I thought, 'It was worth it.'" Later, when guests were gone and cleanup was ending, a young woman with the catering team asked if she could see the rest of the house. Awestruck by the home's beauty, she told O'Neill she couldn't believe she had done it all by herself. Taken aback, but not one to miss an opportunity to encourage, O'Neill told the girl, "You can accomplish anything you want." In its debut soiree, the positive energy in this good-for-the-earth home was already touching lives.
"I'm giving myself two or three years before I begin another project," O'Neill says now. "The next thing I do, I don't have to make money." Whatever that next thing, Cathy O'Neill will continue to "dance the dream," and-lucky girl-she'll do it from her fabulous über-green home. In lovely Sonoma
From the Spring 2011 issue of SONOMA
Living Ultra Eco