High-End Design, World-Class Green

The only LEED Platinum home in California north of Monterey began as charred ruins from a 1991 Oakland Hills wildfire that destroyed 3,000 homes. A young builder believed the site would be perfect for the family home he had envisioned for years, so he purchased the property in the spring of 2006.

The reality of the builder’s vision is the spectacular home you see on these and the following pages. It is certified LEED Platinum and is GreenPoint-rated. Both impressive accomplishments, made even more so considering the home is 4,700-sq. ft. in size.

Surprisingly, the builder’s goal was not to create a LEED platinum home; it just evolved that way. Mike McDonald, president, McDonald Construction and Development in Oakland, Calif., says the plan was to incorporate as many green components as possible into the design of his family’s home. “We wanted a green roof; we wanted a rainwater and groundwater cistern; we wanted passive and active solar elements; we wanted an efficient building envelope, an efficient HVAC system, and we wanted to use nontoxic, sustainable materials in the process,” he explains.

As plans for the home began, the LEED for Homes program was in its pilot stage. McDonald thought it would be great to have a third party hold his team accountable for what it was doing. “We certainly didn’t think we would qualify for LEED Platinum,” he recalls. “In fact, we started out negative 11 points on a 100-point scale due to the size of the home (4,700 sq. ft.). However, we began to get excited about what level of LEED certification we could meet, and it became a game of sorts.”

Criticism of this green home’s size is rare. “From a ‘program’ perspective, the home is the appropriate size. And from the client’s perspective it’s appropriate, and that will always rule the day. Clients are going to want what they want and what they can afford. As a design and build community, we can take on the desire for larger homes as a challenge and look for innovative ways to make them more sustainable,” McDonald says.

As stated, the project began 11 LEED points in the hole, a deficit overcome with innovation such as: using recycled materials; beating California’s tough Title 24 energy efficiency requirements by 55 percent; creating educational opportunities throughout the project; using 99 percent drought-tolerant landscaping; creating a hardscape that was 90 percent permeable; capturing and reusing all ground and rainwater; and utilizing advance framing and construction waste-reduction techniques.

Local Excitement

The green nature of the project made it easier from the standpoint of limiting decisions on materials, but difficult from the standpoint of documentation of the green process and testing, McDonald says. “Ultimately, however, we created amazing partnerships with national material suppliers like Whirlpool, Western Red Cedar Lumber Association, and Lutron, plus dozens of local artisans and suppliers. They were attracted to it because the home was so sustainable, and we were trying for such a high certification level. Our partners found our excitement contagious.”

McDonald believes the local community is a huge part of sustainability. It’s important to support local businesses, buy locally and eat locally, he says. “Buying locally doesn’t just build strong community, it also cuts down on the massive carbon footprint created from producing and shipping product from all over the world. Local suppliers, whom we now consider friends, essentially have their own keys to the project and are constantly bringing clients and colleagues to view the project and talk about their contribution and how the project inspired them” he says.

Ultimately, green did not seriously affect the home’s cost. “We spent more on some of the active systems like solar PV and thermal solar, but in general green doesn’t cost much more, especially with thoughtful design.”
A list of the home’s sustainable features can be found by visiting rdbmagazine.com/margarido.

Steep Challenge

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.”

Good Design

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

The McDonald family home is many things; it is beautiful, it’s large but also cozy, and it’s perfect for parties. McDonald has always been a bit of a promotional whiz, and loves to create partnerships and excitement. “I had no idea it would turn into the show home that it did. It really came out of all the collaborative partnerships we created. Once partners invested in the success of the home, they wanted to be around it more and show it off. It happened organically,” McDonald says, referring to the many parties hosted at his home for more than 3,000 industry partners, colleagues and community leaders.

“Ultimately, I host these events to create inspiration and acknowledgement of what’s possible in high design, high sustainability in a collaborative approach to design/build,” he says. “For the most part they’re all connected to the built environment: members of the press, builders, architects, etc. It’s not about the house; it’s about the process of bringing like-minded people together, getting inspired. They walk away believing anything’s possible if you actually embrace collaboration and do what turns you on.”

McDonald Construction & Development
Oakland, Calif.

Project Stats
Location: Oakland Hills, Calif.
Size: 4,700 sq. ft.

Folding doors: NanaWall
Permeable pavers: Pavestone
Windows/Doors: Aluma Therm
Architectural steel: Chris French Metal
Siding: Western Red Cedar
Rainwater tank: Jensen Precast
Decking: TimberTech
Weatherproofing: Dupont Tyvek

Appliances: Whirlpool, KitchenAid
Faucets: Hansgrohe
Sinks/Toilets: Toto
Bath hardware: Sonia
Ventilation: Fantech
Surfaces: Vetrazzo

Fireplaces: Spark Modern Fire
Closets: California Closets

Home Technology
Home control: Colorado vNet
Motorized shades: Lutron

Local Suppliers

  • Heath Ceramics -- heathceramics.com
  • Concreteworks -- concreteworks.com
  • Chris French Metal -- cfrenchmetal.com

Margarido House
The McDonald family home on Margarido Drive is also known, fittingly, as the Margarido House. More information can be found at margaridohouse.com.

In his own words; Mike McDonald’s favorite green features

  • How quiet the home is
  • The green rooftop garden
  • Beautiful, durable surfaces
  • No off-gassing of nasty materials
  • Recycled heath ceramic kiln trays reused as entry tile and wall skins
  • The natural light that fills all rooms allowing minimal use of artificial lighting
  • How comfortable the interior of the home feels on a cold windy day or a warm day
  • Low electric bill — more than 70 percent of electric needs offset with solar PV system

Complete list of Green/Sustainable features

  • Certified LEED-H Platinum by the U.S. Green Building Council.
  • Certified GreenPoint Rated with score of 210 by BuilditGreen.org
  • First dual rated LEED-H/GreenPoint Rated home in California
  • Passive cooling: takes advantage of prevailing bay winds
  • Passive geothermal: hillside bunker uses Earth’s constant temperature
  • Passive solar: operable and non-operable glazing uses south and west sun for heat and natural light
  • Active solar: 4 KW active solar PV system provides up to 80percent of electric needs
  • Active solar thermal: solar-assist hot water system supplies up to 80 percent of domestic hot water and in-floor radiant heat
  • Custom recycled aluminum and steel sun shade
  • 90 percent permeable site
  • 98 percent drought-tolerant landscape
  • Recycled 85 percent of construction waste
  • Maximum use of sustainable framing, engineered and recycled lumber and steel
  • 4,000 gallon rainwater and groundwater catchment cistern
  • All concrete contains recycled content of 25 percent to 35 percent flyash
  • Automatic window shading system
  • 1,000 sq. ft. planted intensive green roof and deck
  • Single-ply PVC cool roof by IB Roofing Systems
  • Solar-fed radiant hydronic in-floor heating
  • Durable polished, poured-in-place concrete flooring
  • Engineered American black walnut flooring
  • Locally made recycled-content concrete countertops
  • Locally made ceramic tiles
  • Low-flow toilets and plumbing fixtures
  • Energy Star appliances
  • Interior air quality management system
  • Smart lighting and automation system
  • Extensive use of florescent and LED lighting inside and out
  • 90 percent efficient natural gas fireplaces
  • Zero VOC paints and finishes
  • Maximum use of locally sourced and sustainable building products
  • Aggressive sustainability educational component: website, press/PR, events, learning landscape
  • Durable factory-stained Western Red Cedar Siding
  • Sure Cavity and Dupont Tyvek breathable air gap and vapor barrier
  • Thermally broken, locally made aluminum windows/doors with Solarban coating
  • Recycled Heath Ceramic kiln tray flooring and exterior cladding
  • D'Mand hot water recirculation system