Construction began in fall of 2006 and the home was completed in June 2008. The city wanted to see a project that did not impact neighbors’ views and that met current code. McDonald’s brother Tim, of architectural firm Plumbob in Philadelphia, sunk his brother’s home into the hillside, which protected neighbors’ views, takes advantage of passive geothermal design and meets planning codes with respect to setbacks, heights and driveway approach. “I think ultimately that the neighbors and the city were inspired by what we were up to — our ideas for creating a highly designed home with high levels of sustainability,” he says.
The steep slope presented the initial challenge, but carving the home into the hillside was the blessing that really made the project sing, McDonald insists. “We looked at a variety of solutions including parking under the structure, parking in a bunkered garage at the street and then hoofing up 60 stairs. We ultimately settled on a hybrid of many solutions, carving the site and burying most of the first story into the hillside. This allowed elegant massing from the street’s perspective, took advantage of passive geothermal cooling and heating, did not impact neighbors’ views, and allowed for a nice and easy upslope driveway and parking pad at the first-floor level.”
McDonald is quick to point out that good design contributed to the overall success of the project. For example, a home with an open floor plan and multiple indoor and outdoor spaces connected with disappearing doors like the NanaWall system in this house, can “live larger” than a bigger home that does not have these indoor and outdoor areas, he says. In addition, plenty of natural light can create a much larger-living home than one with smaller, low-light spaces, he explains.
The vision of a modern, sustainable family home had been in McDonald’s head for several years while he searched for the right lot. “When I found the lot, the design began to take place. I called in a number of friends and designers to assist with initial ideas. My good friend and architect Chris Parlette, for example, was instrumental in helping site the house. My brother Tim stepped in and quickly created a schematic design that was dead on. Ian Read, myself and our site superintendent took Plumbob’s vision and with their dedicated assistance, created the home,” he recalls.
The home is an almost exact duplicate of McDonald’s original vision. Plumbob provided a macro set of plans detailed just enough for permitting. From that point, details were developed in a collaborative design/build manner. It is the design/build process that provided solutions to design challenges along the way.
Many changes in the home’s details were managed on-site through design/build, so as construction proceeded it sometimes was challenging to stay on the critical path, McDonald notes. Design/build facilitated such changes as the redesign of all windows and doors based on prevailing winds discovered during construction, and all finish carpentry details being developed toward the end of the project.
Opportunities like using Heath Ceramic recycled kiln trays for flooring and skins presented themselves, and the team was not married to a prior solution. “Artisans and vendors were encouraged, or more accurately, required to actively provide input into their parts of the project. Chris French Metal, for example, totally re-created all the railing, stair and architectural steel details; Concreteworks had latitude with countertops and other concrete surfaces; Wonderland Gardens had quite a blank slate with which to create the landscaping and green roof. I assert that for this reason the project is far more interesting than if it had been predesigned on paper,” McDonald says.
Sharing the success