Tom Wolfe, American author and journalist, writing about New York as a city of change in 2001 shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attack, named Michael McDonough as one of only three New York architects doing work worthy of being described as being ‘on the cutting edge’. He was referring to McDonough’s then recently conceived e-House, a high-performance, website-controlled building tucked deep into the Hudson Valley woods in Stone Ridge, New York, which has been in construction since the beginning of the new millennium.
A leading protagonist in the field of sustainable architecture and design, McDonough is also a renowned thought-leader in energy efficiency and green-building technology, serving in post-9/11 urban-planning think tanks for Lower Manhattan. He is closely involved as a consultant in regional development, green agriculture and green schools. He is in demand around the world as a lecturer on architecture, green technologies, design and art, and developed the first line of contract bamboo furniture. As an educator, he co-founded the International Bamboo Design Research Initiative at Rhode Island School of Design. He also holds a patent for Eco-Stuff! – recycled-newspaper children’s furniture – and has developed the first line of bamboo-engineered structural lumber, as well as recently developing an ultra-low-energy geothermal dehumidification and cooling system. As if this wasn’t enough, he is also a writer, editor and columnist.
The e-House, (the ‘e’, McDonough explains, can stand for anything you want it to, but ‘efficiency’, ‘exciting’, ‘ecological’, ‘experimental’, ‘energy’, ‘environmental’ and ‘extraordinary’ all immediately spring to mind), a combined live–work space, is, in McDonough’s words, ‘the best of the best’ in high-performance technology from all over the world, all under one space. The building, which began as a blog and which is still under construction, challenges conventional green-building thinking by advocating new ways of living with technology and nature. So not ‘e’ for ‘entertainment’, then. While the notion of a house you can email or telephone shortly before arriving home in order to regulate the temperature control or turn on the dishwasher does have a certain appeal, McDonough’s idea is that the technologies help the homeowner to become aware of the energy-efficiency of their house, emphasising emerging lifestyles for distance computer control and e-commuting. ‘Many technology companies are not in touch with what is actually useful to the homeowner,’ he says. ‘The main function of the computer controls is to do what people cannot easily do, that is, constantly monitor energy consumption, calculate electrical loads and provide emergency back-up.’
The e-House incorporates both high- and low-end technology from around the world, and attempts to bridge ‘the cultural lag where green-building technology is concerned’. Although McDonough confides that the e-House has ‘ended up being more like a laboratory than a house’, it is unquestionably designed with style and comfort in mind. The zero-emissions kitchen, voted ‘one of the coolest rooms in the world’ by Wired magazine, contains a dishwasher that senses how dirty the pots and pans are, a fireplace with an exhaust that sucks out smoke but not warmth, and autoclaved aerated concrete that provides ten times the insulation of the standard mix used for walls (which is also completely recyclable and naturally termite- and fire-resistant). Hydronic radiant technology circulates water through tubing embedded in a thin layer of concrete, sandwiched between wood panels and topped with bamboo flooring. In winter, a super-efficient propane-fired boiler heats the water and the house. In summer, a 15,000-gallon underground geothermal reservoir cools the water and the house. ‘Our initial calculations had the house being heated on energy that was roughly equivalent to one or two stove burners,’ says McDonough. A massive saving on energy bills and some healthy freedom from reliance on energy suppliers! Another plus is that every technology utilised by the e-House is available now, every technology is pluggable and unpluggable, the building won’t need significant maintenance for 50 years, and even costs the same as other custom-designed homes.
The truly radical, innovative aspect of the e-House is that the sustainable technologies within it are organised around the surrounding natural environment. In this fashion, the building is itself a response to nature as generator of architectural form. Designed to be ‘like a walk in the woods’, the e-House experience, says McDonough, ‘begins at the ground and ends at the sky’. Floors of sustainable bamboo, white walls and large rectangular windows frame sky and trees in each room. No room in the house has more than two right angles, while there are several small-scale rooms which he calls ‘small concentrations of activity, or knots’. These include the ‘Kyoto Room’, a lavatory with walls of richly scented and waterproof Port Orford cedar as well as a heated soapstone floor. Moving on, from the vantage point of the wide upstairs hallway, trees outside can be seen moving in the wind, a visual effect McDonough likens to ‘ever-changing Jackson Pollock paintings’. The journey through the house continues upwards, culminating in the approach on wide steps to a simply stunning recreational roof. These steps, leading to a magnificent view from where the Catskill Mountains and Ashokan Reservoir can be glimpsed, are inspired by the extraordinary roof stair of Casa Malaparte, a mid-20th-century house on Capri considered by many architects to be the most beautiful house in the world, and the subject of McDonough’s first book.
Which brings us back to where we began, to the writer Tom Wolfe who, on visiting the location, remarked: ‘Well, it took Thomas Jefferson forty years to do Monticello.’ ‘I don’t know if he was being generous or ironic, but he got me thinking,’ muses McDonough. ‘There are parallels. Both buildings began as open-ended projects, living laboratories exploring ideas about architecture, art and agriculture. I’ve become comfortable with that comparison.’