e-House 2000 - Lab for Living

Anatomy of a Smart House

Connected, July, 2004

By Dan Daley

E-House Aims to Go From Off-The-Shelf To On-The-Market

Michael McDonough is flicking his fingernail on a piece of tubing, in lieu of the carpenter’s nail, driven at full force, that he says the flexible pipe will resist. “This stuff is going to last for eternity, so we might as well put it to good use,” he muses.

The Wirsbo PEX (polyethylene) tubing, along with a host of other construction materials—such as autoclaved aerated concrete, which weighs a fraction of the standard mix and is equally strong—and satellite-connected, Internet-based, home-management computers are among the array of components with which McDonough is building e-House, a showcase of what can be done with residential design, construction, and technology using materials and systems already available.

The “e” in e-House is purposely vague: It can stand for “ecology,” “environment,” or “electronic.” It’s near the hamlet of Stone Ridge, sited in a glen surrounded by pine and oak trees and ringed by fences of moss-covered shale and boulders dug out by the Dutch settlers of upstate New York’s Hudson Valley before the American Revolution. The foundation of the original 18th-century house on the property is clearly visible. E-House’s own footprint, 300 yards away, conforms to it. The structure’s approximately 2,200 square feet are fattened and faceted by geometric appendages that seem to float above the ground. Inside, the heating and cooling system owes as much to ancient Roman technology as to Bill Gates: A series of micropumps propel water in a sealed system through the PEX tubing, set into the poured concrete floor and through the joists. Outside, an insulated cistern acts like a huge Thermos bottle, holding warm and cold water, much of it rain collected through a series of drains. The two systems “kiss” at one point, exchanging not water but thermal energy. There is a backup in the form of an in-ground liquefied-petroleum system.

different views of e-House

The house is well-insulated, but allows for continuous air flow, which keeps the atmosphere fresh with minimal temperature deviation. Key to that is sealing the interior environment, yet still controlling moisture—i.e., allowing water vapor to pass—by maintaining a neutral interior pressure. The environmental impact, McDonough says, is significant: “Too tight traps pollutants.”

Light-catching windows and stovepiped architecture encourage a chimney effect that naturally draws fresh air into the house. The phenomenon is aided by parallel energy recovery (ERV) and heat recovery (HRV)systems made by Lifebreath. Using a flywheel system in bathroom exhausts, air can be exchanged in winter, when open windows are not desired, without any heat loss.

In fact, everything in the house is efficient enough to work on 2 kilowatts for three days. “If the system senses a power failure, it switches the house to an emergency fuel-cell battery pack, or photovoltaic UPS, then load-sheds or turns energy-inefficient appliances off so they do not draw down the reserve batteries,” McDonough says.

A view from the master-bedroom balcony and the passive-solar tower (the glass front also known as the light catcher)
Two scenes of workers installing custom-prefabricated walls on the passive-solar tower; an engineer inspects computer controlled ERV/HRV ducting.

What Caesar didn’t have, however, is a central computer, running a variety of SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) software, some of which McDonough selected and programmed, that acts as a sophisticated thermostat for the house. When it’s connected to the Internet via satellite, he will be able to monitor the house’s environmental status and activate any number of systems remotely. “I could turn on the dishwasher from Tokyo if I wanted to,” he says.

Resetting The Perspective

That, however, is exactly what he doesn’t want to do. McDonough—who studied art, architecture, and literature at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts, and University of Pennsylvania and who has designed structures ranging from private homes to corporate headquarters to the Lufthansa passenger lounge at the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York—is concerned that the notion of the connected home has taken on a somewhat frivolous connotation. “Today’s home-control systems are often based on a kind of novelty approach to home management,” he explains. “People find it cool to open the blinds with a remote control. OK, that’s fine, but . . . you end up with a handful of remotes and no real satisfaction or accomplishment. The e-House can do that—however, what it really does is open blinds to warm the kitchen with morning sun, and close blinds when the wind speed or outside ambient temperature results in a significant heat loss. It’s remote, automated, energy-conservation management. And it has a point.”

first floor
First Floor
second floor
Second Floor
workers install PEX tubing

McDonough, who can blithely quote Benjamin Franklin and the Firesign Theatre in the same sentence, is environmentally focused—even his Honda CR-V is a deep forest green. He delights in describing designs such as those for the roof and upper decks, which are superinsulated. They incorporate polyisocyanurate, cellulose, and other insulation materials (some made from recycled cuttings of Lee blue jeans). Their floors and walls feature waterproof oriented-strand board and cellular glass insulation; there’s a radiant snowmelt sandwich at the roof decks that includes molded insulation panels, uncoupling layers, and porcelain tile; and the roofs are replete with zinc-coated stainless-steel sheeting. As a result, the structure has an R factor of more than 65, McDonough estimates. But he’s hardly an ideologue. “Green building doesn’t have to be all brown rice,” he chirps.

A crane lifts a precision computer-cut panel onto the passive solar tower; workers install the PEX tubing and sensors that will provide radiant in-floor heating and cooling.

“Every time you start your car the computer is constantly adjusting and monitoring engine. It can also do that for a house.”

—Michael McDonough

McDonough cites as influences such radical designers as Robert Smithson and Alice Aycock, as well as his venture into Manhattan’s SoHo district in the 1970s before Prada and boutique galleries crowded out the area’s artsy pioneers (he still lives there in a loft with his wife and 6-month-old daughter). He sees Emersonian parallels in creating e-House as an achievable goal for any residence. Precise costs are difficult to pin down because some materials and systems are part of ongoing research and certain materials, such as the autoclaved aerated concrete, aren’t stocked by the local Home Depot, but McDonough estimates costs are running within $150 to $250 per square foot, which he says is comparable with custom-home costs in the area.

Commercial Component

However, e-House is also a business model, designed to showcase materials and techniques as well as specific products. “The thrust of e-House is to provide an appropriate demonstration model for sustainable building, including open space conservation, green building materials, and high technology within an aesthetic derived from nature,” says McDonough. “And I encourage all project participants to use the building as a platform for R&D and especially for new ways of thinking about their products within the context of a truly integrated design.”

Some of those products won’t undergo much of a metamorphosis in e-House, such as the small and mid-sized portable Sony flat-panel and Canon-Toshiba SED television screens he plans to seed the house with. Even the central computer controlling the house’s climate and monitoring functions will do so partially through the standard copper house wiring and the Lightolier Compose PLC lighting control system, with CAT-5 cable used sparingly and then only to establish an eLAN to create WiFi spots in the house.

roof deck
Roof deck

But his decision not to provide for any kind of dedicated entertainment center in the house reflects not only a lifestyle decision but a philosophical statement that goes to the core of McDonough’s contention that entertainment technologies have in a very real sense short-circuited the evolution of the connected house. “Most smart-home systems emphasize entertainment and convenience, but they can distract from larger, more valuable goals,” he comments. “Consumers will spend lots of money on [entertainment systems], often to their later disappointment, because the systems are too complicated to use or maintain or upgrade. Do you know how many VCRs are still constantly flashing twelve o’clock? If you invest in technology to gain efficiency rather than convenience, it’ll earn its keep in the long run.”

As for the computer’s role in all this, McDonough suggests that the model already exists. “It’s what happens every time you start your car,” he says. “The computer is constantly adjusting and monitoring engine performance, and it lets you know when you need to intervene. It can also do that for a house.”

e-House can act as a marketing platform for what McDonough says are a surprisingly diverse and substantial number of green and energy-efficient house products which are all too often orphaned or abandoned in favor of conventional products and materials simply because of consumer and corporate momentum. “Every year, California burns 200 million tons of rice straw,” an agricultural byproduct, he says. “Meanwhile, there are companies that make doors out of rice straw. I’m hoping that e-House will help companies get assertive about promoting their green products. Each of the e-House technologies we’re using are cost competitive with less green, less well-performing, less well thought-out systems, especially when you consider labor and short- to medium-range operating and maintenance costs. The U.S. Green Building Council has done extensive modeling on sustainable technologies and they can demonstrate the economic viability of the green model.”

Steel plates protext PEX tubing at walls and doorways

e-House’s foundation was laid in 2000. It encountered various delays, not the least of which was the September 11 attacks, extreme weather, as well as the time it took to researching hundreds of products and craftsmen such as applying the unique glacial stone, native to Ulster County, that will comprise the exterior’s mosaic sheath. The end, however, is in sight – “The bank says December,” McDonough jokes. But as long as it took to build, he considers every moment worthwhile if it can begin to change how people view the marriage of shelter, ecology and technology.

“Polls show that seventy percent of Americans favor environmentally responsible policies,” McDonough says. “But fewer than six percent of buildings in the U.S. can be described as environmentally friendly. There’s a disconnect there. Entertainment systems are great but they tend to narrow people’s focus on what a house can be and do. There’s a much bigger picture. That’s what I’m after.”