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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.

"It was the only house in the neighborhood that sat that way. The entrance went down the driveway. You had to turn 180 degrees and come in from the back," Denton said. "It was one of the most odd entry-door features that I've ever seen."

The house now is light and airy, with a long covered porch that also adds to the cooling effect in summer. The roof is metal, and slopes downward in a "Dutch hip." Inside, the breezeway has been replaced with a 16-foot sliding glass door. Since the team was forced to work with an existing structure and couldn't site the house optimally, the glass wall faces north. But the thick glass keeps any cold air from seeping in.

O'Neill's house is snug, even on a frigid winter afternoon. Key to keeping the temperature to a comfortable 68 to 74 degrees at all times is a small energy recovery ventilator located above the pantry adjacent to the kitchen and facing the side driveway.

The system brings fresh air into the house and captures the warmth or coolness of the outgoing air before it exits. The whole unit is about the size of two microwave ovens.

On a typical tract house, the walls are about 3.5 inches thick, Denton said. The O'Neill house has walls that are 5.5 inches to 6.5 inches, with extra insulation everywhere and thicker studs in the new construction. The concrete slab foundation was warmed with a blanket of insulaton over which sits a reclaimed wood floor.

A recent report published in The New York Times said while there are some 25,000 certified passive structures in Europe, there are just 13 in the United States, with several dozen more in the planning or construction pipeline. Milburn and Denton said starting this year, all new residential construction in the European Union is required to be built for passive energy.

California building codes still require that homes be equipped with an active heating system. To meet the law, the design/construction team installed the smallest unit possible — 6,000 BTU's to heat a 2,200 square-foot house.

Milburn and Denton estimated that it cost about 15 percent more to retrofit the O'Neill house for passive energy than it would have cost to do the remodel with more conventional heating and cooling. But part of that, they said, was "the learning curve" and the fact that they were dealing with a retrofit rather than new construction.

"I know the next house we're able to put together, even if it is a retrofit, will be much less," Denton said, with costs dropping as more materials are available closer to home. As it was, they were able to source 70 percent in the U.S., he said.

O'Neill said she's been running the heater during the recent cold snap. But otherwise the house has dropped to 68 degrees at its coldest.

"It's an incredibly quiet house. I find it very calming," she said.

But beyond personal comfort, she now sees her one-time hovel as "an heirloom that I will pass down to the next generation."

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.