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Publication Date: 2015-04-20

House Tours

Life Inside: A Passive House in Carroll Gardens

Laura Mackall and Robert Manley took the plunge in building a passive house in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.

Laura Mackall and Robert Manley did not set out to build a passive house when they embarked upon the renovation of their 1860s townhouse in Carroll Gardens. The building required a near gut renovation, so when they inquired for bids, Laura on a whim included a contractor with experience in passive construction. Surprisingly, the bids came back with a relatively small difference in cost. They decided to take the plunge.

Laura’s father, Louis Mackall, a Connecticut-based architect who trained at the Yale School of Architecture (he was also part of the Prickly Mountain group in Vermont in the 1960s), took on the design, his second Brooklyn townhouse project and his first passive one. Louis embraced the passive-house concept in masterminding and building out his vision. In many cases, the strict requirements of passive architecture—such as the mandatory 8 inches of insulation on all outside walls; triple-paned glass in all window openings; and insertions of in-take and out-take vents for the air-exchange system—lent themselves to Louis’ unique aesthetic. Gowanus-based contractor Build with Prospect, led by Jeremy Shannon, AIA, executed all functional aspects of the construction.

A passive house lives entirely within itself, retaining heat and cool air as needed and relying on the plethora of energy sources within a modern-day home—the refrigerator, lights, oven, stove, computers—to generate heat in the winter. The perimeter of the house acts like a thick skin, sealing in this self-generated energy. With extra insulation and airtight openings, a passive home does not need a gas or oil heating system. Fresh air is brought in through an energy recovery ventilator, or ERV, which requires very little energy to operate. The ERV pulls in fresh air while pushing out the old, converting the new air to the same temperature as it exchanges them. While the ERV keeps the air fresh, there is also a Mitsubishi system in place that runs on electricity to heat and cool the house—if needed.

“We didn’t turn the heat on all winter,” Laura admits incredulously, since New York experienced record-low temperatures in February. “It hovered right around 70. Our biggest fear going into [a passive build] was, are we going to freeze in winter? And we did not. Of course, the idea wasn’t to not turn our heat on, but to not have to use it as much.” They ended up not needing it anyway.

Because the perimeter walls have to be unusually thick in order to contain the insulation, certain design decisions and adjustments had to be made. For one, a thicker wall creates thicker windowsills. When Laura took her father to see a passive house in Park Slope, he thought the window trims looked too jail-like. Louis’ solution was to chamfer the windowsills so that they radiate out from the panes at a 45-degree angle.

“Passive construction requires deep walls,” Louis explains. “In Laura and Robert’s house, the total exterior wall thickness was 21 inches. By angling the interior window trims, we eliminated the ‘tunnel’ effect, and greatly increased the amount of light coming in to each room.” The angled trims offered a surface on which to add traditional detail as well as lighting. Louis designed the paneling on the sills to incorporate inset LED strips that make the windows glitter at night.

“My dad’s style tends toward the traditional,” says Laura. At the same time, the windows and other elements of the design are pure inventions. “When we saw the house, it had a lot of original detail, which is why we wanted it. So it was this push-pull between wanting it to still feel old and the function.” Louis designed the moldings throughout based on what he was seeing in the house already—the original detailing and feel of the interior—to communicate the period. The ceiling decoration is original, with parts of it replicated in the parlor and in the entry hall by Absolute Plastering in Brooklyn.

The curved line is one of Louis’ favorite design motifs and it reappears throughout the house. “I like curves because they are more interesting than straight lines. Now, with CNC technology and computers, making curves is simple,” he explains.

“[My dad] talks about the circle,” adds Laura. “He says, ‘You look at a circle and you just get happy.’ He’s very passionate about it. I grew up with a lot of circles.”

The slight bend at the top of the cabinetry in the kitchen carries the motif, giving the room a nautical feel (Louis is a born-again rower). Laura and Robert decided to balance painted and raw wood in the kitchen, since in their previous home they found that painted wood chipped with use. They selected quartzite countertops for a light but not-too-precious surface. As with the parlor window trims, Louis incorporated lighting into the kitchen woodwork, installing lights in the uppermost cabinets to give off a glow. Where the dining room fireplace used to be, he placed the oven and inserted the original marble mantelpiece above the stove. Cabinetmaker James Schriber built out the room.

Beyond the kitchen, a spacious, sunbathed dining room stretches the full width of the house. Laura and Robert wanted natural light, and sourced the largest open-glass doors possible in a passive house. The glass wall allows southern light to illuminate the entire parlor floor and, since it is triple paned and air-sealed, the light even provides heat in the wintertime. They were also happy to find an old dogwood tree planted in the backyard, which will shade the back of the house during the summer months.

“I feel row houses are so well designed for the passive model, because the sides are already insulated,” says Laura. “The back of our house faces south so in the winter the sun heats up the dining room. Then in the summer there will be leaves on the trees so the room will be shaded. We may also do an awning at some point.”

Read the full article on the Design Brooklyn blog.

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