Contemporary Home’s Blueprint for Being Green

This 4,600-sq-foot home is the first custom home in northern California to earn a Platinum LEED rating.


Even the home entertainment system in this home is green, upgraded to an energy-saving Samsung 6000 series LCD backlit with LEDs (light emitting diodes). Motorized Lutron shades also descend from hiding spots in the ceiling. Credit: Mariko Reed

Mike McDonald is proud of his green home—and justifiably so. The stunning 4,600-square-foot Margarido House is the first custom home in northern California to achieve the highest “Platinum” rating in the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) green homes program, and it exceeds California’s energy-efficiency Title 24 requirements by 55 percent.

It has all the green amenities: 4.2 kilowatts of solar panels, a solar thermal system that provides domestic hot water and that for a radiant-floor heating system, and all kinds of green building materials. But what’s the one green technology McDonald likes best?

That would be a home control system that helps him and his family of four operate all the heating and ventilation equipment, plus an energy-saving LED (light-emitting diode) lighting system, motorized shades, as well as some energy-efficient audio/video components.

“I love how easy it is to control everything in the house, and to control every light in the house from a couple of different locations,” he says. “I can dial in the HVAC more easily than using standard programmable thermostats. And it’s really easy for my whole family to use.”

The Colorado vNet home control system features several touchpads and a couple of in-wall touchpanels. It operates over Category 5 network wiring, which made it simple to install and to maintain, says McDonald’s electrician and electronics installer, Jean-Paul “Dusty” Fisher of JPFisher Electric of Martinez, Calif.

“It can do about 95 percent of what larger systems do, but it’s more affordable and programmer-easy,” says Fisher. “It can control anything and make it simplified, and you don’t need special [bus] wiring for it.”

Along with the solar array and passive solar features, such as optimal siting of the house to increase solar gain for heat and light, the control system helps the McDonalds pay less than $70 a month on electricity bills.

Passive solar features are an important part of the design. For example, a striking metal awning mesh that supports a patio above blocks a great deal of light and heat from the high sun in the summer, precluding the need for cooling. Yet the position of the same awning allows that light and warmth to enter the house in the winter, when the sun is lower. When the glare gets to be a little too much, motorized Lutron shades automatically descend to block the light.

In addition, the house is built into a hill, so the back of it is below ground and effectively cooled by the earth. Fans positioned at the back wall help circulate the cool air, while exhaust fans expel warm, stale air. The fans are designed to be activated by the Colorado vNet system.

“My take is that the passive stuff makes a big difference in the energy efficiency of the home,” says McDonald. “When there is too much natural light, the technology kicks in with things like the motorized shades. The technology can make it more convenient to be green, and if it’s more convenient, it will be used more.”

McDonald estimates that the electronics systems in his home have probably helped shave another 20 percent from his electricity bill.

Light warms the space and reduces the need for electronic lighting, but later in the day when the glare is too much, Lutron shades descend to help filter the light. Credit: Mariko Reed

The Green Tech Rundown
Here are the green technology features that help Mike McDonald and his family enjoy an energy-efficient and healthy green lifestyle.
- The 4.2-kilowatt PV system is composed of 24 panels positioned on the roof and provides about 85 percent of the home’s electricity, according to Fisher. It’s tied to a Sunny Boy inverter that converts the DC power of the solar array to AC for use throughout the home.

- Two solar thermal panels heat domestic hot water to 140 degrees. The water is cooled for use in showers and sinks, and heated by a gas furnace for circulation in the in-floor radiant heating system.

- Under-cabinet Luminas LED lighting in the kitchen and bar area, as well as night lighting in kids’ bedrooms, help save electricity. Outdoor LED lights also illuminate pathways efficiently. About 35 5-watt MR16-type LEDs and 40 feet of under-cabinet and rail LED lighting save the McDonalds almost 1,000 watts of energy, when compared to incandescent lighting.

- Not only are the outdoor LEDs much more energy-efficient, they are dimmed to 14 percent, providing just enough light to see the pathways outside. The outdoor lights turn on 40 minutes before sunset and shut off before sunrise.

- Occupancy sensors in the bathrooms turn off lights after a set period of time if no motion is detected.

- The dimming modules of the Colorado vNet system can be located near the sources and placed in closets, so you don’t need long runs, says Fisher. That saves on wiring costs.

- Each touchscreen of the Colorado vNet Vibe whole-house audio system has a built-in energy-efficient Class-D amplifier to power the area’s speakers. Having in-room speakers connected to the touchscreen amplifiers rather than to a central rack also saves on wiring. Several iPod jacks throughout the home are tied to the Colorado vNet system too, which allows the McDonalds to call up and control their musical selections from a touchpad. There are seven audio zones in all, including the green roof/patio.

- How do you bring light into a bathroom that’s tucked into the back corner of house that’s built into a hillside? McDonald and his designers used a skylight with a two-story, 16-foot-deep light well that also sports two windows to help light a bath above. As a result, less electrical lighting was required.

- Saving water is paramount in California, so a rainwater collection system and two 2,000-gallon tanks provide all the water for exterior irrigation year-round. Water from a natural underground stream is also used for this purpose.

- In addition, a D’mand hot water circulation system replaces cold water in pipes with hot water at the press of a button, so the McDonalds don’t have to run the water and wait for it to get warm.

- A whole-house ceiling fan in the center of the home was designed to turn on whenever the temperature in the house reached 85 degrees, but it never has come on, thanks to the passive cooling features and an air intake/exhaust system.

- The electronics in the Margarido House are a work in progress. Fisher is adding a 7.1-channel home theater system, likely starring an energy-efficient Samsung LED-backlit LCD TV. McDonald is also looking to add an energy monitoring system so that he can view the home’s electricity consumption and savings, as well as the household’s water and the gas consumption.

Green and Musical
The Colorado vNet system helps the Margarido House be energy efficient, but it also helps it be entertaining, thanks to the vNet’s Vibe whole-house audio system.
The Vibe Audio System, like Colorado vNet’s lighting system, operates using a distributed-processing architecture: all data and audio processing is done within each individual component, using no central processor. The system operates over IP (Internet Protocol) via Category 5e Ethernet wiring. The components simply plug into a network router or switch, and the audio signal is transported over the Cat 5e cabling.

Each 7-inch widescreen color in-wall touchscreen also acts as an amplifier with connected inputs for CD players, iPods, AM/FM or satellite radio tuners. Users can stream multiple independent programs to different rooms simultaneously, enable a PARTY mode and display metadata and full color cover art with the touch of a finger.

Vibe media servers can be put in a rack or individual room, and tabletop or in-wall Vibe iPod docks can be placed around the house and connected to the touchscreens for easy whole-house iPod music listening.

As of press time, Colorado vNet was being purchased by whole-house music company Russound.

The Margarido House’s striking metal awnings are both form and function. They help block hot summer sun to reduce cooling needs and allow in some light, as well as low rays in the winter. Credit: Mariko Reed

A bath is bathed in natural light, thanks in part to a two-story skylight that brings rays to this and a bathroom below. There’s also no waiting for hot water, thanks to a water-saving hot water recirculation system. Credit: Mariko Reed


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