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COMFORT ZONE | Smart Designs for Pleasure and Planet

Retrofit Green

By Meg McConahey

"It's a very peaceful house," Catherine O'Neill says. "I love the quietness."

"It would have been cheaper and easier to scrape off the old house and start again. But this project moves the idea forward."

When Catherine O'Neill's contractor first proposed remodeling her Sonoma, California, fixer into a hyperefficient "passive" house, she had one directive: "I don't live in ugly." A retired hedge fund trader, O'Neill pored over a book on passive construction, trying to learn about the technical aspects of keeping a house at a constant comfortable temperature using only airtight construction, insulation, and mechanical ventilation. The ideas impressed her, but the illustrations made her cringe. "Passive houses are boxy and sterile," she says. "They look like a 1960s dorm."

So architect Jarrod Denton and contractor Rick Milburn transformed O'Neill's dumpy 1960s ranch-style home into a modern farmhouse that evokes the "Steinbeck Country" of California's Central Coast, where she grew up. The home was recently singled out for design honors by the Redwood Empire chapter of the American Institute of Architects. O'Neill's self-described "jewel box" is also the first remodel in the United States that's been certified by the Passive House Institute.

It's much easier to build a passive house from the ground up than to retrofit an existing structure. A rectangular shape is ideal for energy efficiency, while O'Neill's 2,400-square-foot house wraps around an interior courtyard. O'Neill and her design team were determined to salvage as much of the original house and materials as possible, so they installed insulation between the foundation and the reclaimed white oak floors and turned concrete from a patio into outdoor walkways.

O'Neill sourced as many materials as she could close to home, but laments that she had to import 30 percent from overseas because those passive-home products aren't yet made in the United States. The triple-pane windows came from Germany, as did a 16-foot glass door that fills in an old breezeway. "They're heavier than normal windows," she says, "but beautiful works of art. Green doesn't have to look like a science experiment."

The thick walls keep the home hushed and cozy—and within the 68- to 74-degree-Fahrenheit range required for passive certification. O'Neill turned on her tiny heater just once a week this winter, but only because she "runs cold." Although the passive heating and cooling system costs 15 percent more than a conventional system, architect Denton believes it's worth it—and the price gap is closing. "By 2050, over 90 percent of the buildings that exist now will still be standing," he says. "If green designers focus only on new construction, we're missing a huge opportunity."

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