It began on a cross-country flight a couple of years ago. Rooting around in her carry-on, stockbroker and hedge fund trader Cathy O'Neill with dismay found herself with only one book in her briefcase — a dry, technical tome on "passive houses" that her contractor had given her to peruse.
It wasn't exactly a light read to make time fly.
But as long as she was a captive audience, O'Neill, who had just bought an extreme fixer-upper in Sonoma, made the best of it. She enlisted a team of fellow first-class passengers, including an engineer, to help her understand the principles of this ultra-energy-efficient design that is becoming the residential construction standard in parts of Europe.
"At the end of four hours I asked to take a vote and I asked them if they would retrofit a house to this standard," O'Neill, now retired, recalls. "Three said they didn't believe it could be done. ... But the guy next to me said, &‘You know, it may not be able to be done but it sure would be interesting to try.'"
That one vote of confidence convinced her. O'Neill gave green contractor Rick Milburn of Solar Knights Construction, Inc., in Napa, the go-ahead to undertake what would become California's first "passive house" certified by the Passive House Institute U.S., in Urbana, Ill. Working with energy efficiency expert Graham Irwin of Marin, Milburn updated the rundown 1960s ranch house into the first certified passive retrofit in North America. It has been selected as an energy-savings prototype house by the U.S. Department of Energy's Building America Program.
A passive house is a virtually airtight building that minimizes air losses and energy demand by combining extra-thick walls, tight joints and additional insulation with triple-glazed windows and an energy recovery ventillation system that eliminates the need for any "active" heating and cooling system except on the hottest and coldest days of the year. Passive energy buildings use a minimum of 70 percent less energy than homes equipped with active heating and cooling systems, with the potential for even 80 to 90 percent savings. And that is without costly solar panels and solar thermal heating systems.
Essentially, the heat/energy recovery ventilator helps keep energy that has already been generated inside rather than venting it out.
And proving that ultra-green can also be ultra-stylish, the architect on the house, Jarrod Denton of the Lail Design Group in St. Helena, was recently honored by the Redwood Empire chapter of the American Institute of Architects in their in the bi-annual design awards. The O'Neill Passive House was cited for Energy Efficiency in the "Small Project" category. Only 10 residential and commercial designs — both built and unbuilt — were singled out for awards during ceremonies in November.
One of the jurors noted of the O'Neill house that beyond its "green ambitions" the home "makes small and deft moves to turn a neighborhood eyesore into an elegant little house and a positive contribution to its place."
"For three to four years I called it a hovel," said O'Neill. "Now I call it a jewel box."
The house remains on its original footprint and foundation. It was essentially two wings connected by an open breezeway that led through an interior courtyard. The rear yard oddly faced the street, behind a six-foot hedge.